The Reflective Educator

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Why people often do not accept the research

Via the @BCAMT email list-serve:

"[T]here is an interesting (and disturbing) literature on situations in which information does not change prior biases or decisions. The word I have seen is ‘motivated reasoning’.

Interestingly, I ran into a problem of ‘motivated reasoning’ with a class of future teachers. The question is: when would research about the teaching and learning of mathematics change their classroom practices. A common response to articles, given some practice in critiquing research, was:\

– if I agree with the conclusion, the article was reliable;
– if I disagree with the conclusion, then here are x reasons why the article was not reliable and I should not change my practices!" 

Dr. Walter Whiteley

Dr. Whiteley works with pre-service teachers, and would like me to point out that they are still in the middle of articulating their own personal theories of how learning and education work, thus they lack experience in schools from the other side of the desk. It is therefore possible that this is an issue isolated to pre-service teachers.

On the other hand, I have seen people vehemently defending a position that has no merit simply because they are unwilling (or unable) to see that the evidence is mounted against them. I have also noticed many times that months later, this person has changed their perspective, sometimes claiming that the opposite to what they had previously believed was their belief the whole time, so maybe that argument influences their thinking later, and they are more willing to change on their own.

It takes enormous strength of will to remind ourselves of our cognitive biases, and act against our instinct to defend our mistakes. I can’t say I’ve succeeded at this all that much. Does anyone?


Intuition and research

There are a number of things which have been discovered over the years through research which are not entirely intuitive. In fact, many of the results that have been discovered are down-right odd.


  • If you pay people to perform simple, routine tasks, in general the more you pay the person, the better they perform. Oddly enough, if those tasks require even a bit of cognitive effort, extra pay reduces performance. What!? How does this apply to education? Well, first it seems that it would drive a nail into the coffin that we should give teachers merit pay (as opposed to just paying all teachers more) for improved student performance. It also suggests that other rewards, which are commonly used in education, may have the opposite of the intended effect; they may reduce performance.
  • If you tell children how to play with a toy, they are less likely to perform irrelevant actions with that toy; but they are also less likely to do anything novel with it, or discover anything beyond what you told them about the toy. One would think that if one knew how to use a toy effectively, you’d have a base of knowledge necessary to expand upon and to make new discoveries. It turns out; sometimes even a little bit of knowledge is too much.
  • In a pivotal study done in the 1980s, researcher Jean Lave sought to find out how successfully people applied math in their everyday lives. Her surprising answer is that people actually use mathematics reasonably reliably, at nearly 98% accuracy in the supermarket, for example. What is somewhat shocking is that when the very same people were given a pencil and paper test on the very same skills they had successfully solved in the supermarket, the percentage they got right dropped to 59%. The conclusion Jean Lave had was that the subjects were using strategies in the supermarket that they had developed themselves, but fell back into the strategies they had learned in school for the test.
  • What do you think would happen if you didn’t teach arithmetic at all to students? In a highly unethical study done in the 1930s, a group of students was given no arithmetic instruction at all until 6th grade. Instead, the students spent this time discussing things that came up in their lives, and some practice in measuring and counting. In 6th grade, the students were taught arithmetic. At the end of the 6th grade, this group of students (who came from the poorest parts of the district) exceeded their peers from the other schools in solving story problems, and had caught up in arithmetic. In other words, not teaching math for 5 years (and spending this time reasoning through discussion instead) improved their mathematical reasoning skills.
  • A longer work week does not necessarily lead to more productive employees. In fact, most often it reduces overall employee productivity. 40 hours a week seems about optimal (for maximizing productivity, if not morale). What are the implications of this research on education? Should we be looking at less time in school (or at least doing "work" like activities for students) rather than more?


What these studies show is that our intuitive sense of what may be true is often not true, or at least can be shown to be not true under certain circumstances. We must then shy away from relying entirely on our intution, especially when examining large-scale educational practices. We must do a better job in education in funding and supporting effective research in our schools. We also need to be less reactionary when it comes to approaches that don’t fit into our personal perspective on how certain things should be taught, and focus more on dialogue and research to satisfy our reactions.