Flaws in Education Research

I totally flaked on my intention to blog the “Learning and the Brain” conference last weekend.

They cram so much into the day, that I’d lose the chance at taking notes and processing some of the information if I simply reported on what was happening (which was the form many of the microblogs from the conference were taking). People were tweeting under the hashtag #lb30, but it wasn’t commentary, just factual reporting. No thinking, just recording. 

That bothers me. I go to those things to learn something new, but for about half of it, I felt like I was simply at a pep-rally for reforming education. Look, I’m there already. I know that cognitive neuroscience and our understanding of the brain and memory have opened up new avenues for re-examining the structures and practices of education. I need the practical thinking now. I don’t need to be convinced by Tony Wagner (I’ve now seen him make the same pitch three times). Everyone is saying the same thing, and they’re probably right (or at least they’re trendy). 

Here’s what I need: 

I need the support to create my own laboratory classrooms. I want to use what I’m learning about the brain and memory, and I want to carefully test the effectiveness of new practices in the learning environments I design. 

One of the problems I have with education research is that people too often make causal links when there is only correlation. Then they hold those links up as the new holy grail of learning, as the evidence for changing the way we do things. Yes. It’s evidence, but there’s another part to the story. 

I just heard bits from an interesting interview of Richard Feynman. He talks about how the world is made up of simple laws which we can understand, and which we can understand completely. When we isolate variables (which is what scientists try to do to create experimental conditions), we can understand the mechanisms which make something work and we can use those to predict outcomes (in itself it’s amazing that we can do this). 

However in reality, nothing is in isolation. There are so many variables unaccounted for that influence initial conditions, experimental conditions, outcomes. 

For example, in education, we can use knowledge of memory and learning and the brain to inform our practice, but we can’t say that the methods we develop from that knowledge represent the only correct practices. It depends on the population, it depends on the background of the students and the teacher, it depends on the institution, it depends on the genetic predispositions of both student and teacher, it depends on socio-economic-status, and even more importantly, it depends on cultural-historical context. The purporters of using research seem to be saying that all this new knowledge is pointing at one way we should teach students (sure - I’m oversimplifying a very nuanced argument) but it’s all based on knowledge we’ve arrived at through research we’ve done within the cultural-historical framework we’re currently living within. No education research is done in a vacuum. Researchers try best to control for the factors they can, but they’ll never be fully successful at isolating a process and examining it if they’re performing their experiments in real world conditions. And I question whether they should even try to isolate the experimental factors, because the point of the research is to improve education and education only takes place in environments when all those uncontrollable factors play a part in influencing outcomes. If the same research were done in a different cultural environment, there’s the possibility for changed results. So no matter how hard we try to find causal linkage in the realm of education research, those “truths” represent an illusion at best. 

I’m all for improving the system we have, but I will not accept that the science is telling us the truth about how people learn. All it can ever tell us is how people learn in the environments in which we do the research. I guess it ensures that education researchers will always have jobs, since as we change the system, they’ll have to do the research again and again to examine how the stability of their “truths” is maintained. 

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