Monday, July 23, 2012

"Why Smart People Believe Dumb Things"


Daniel T. Willingham is not just another pretty face. Robert Marzano, on the other hand, looks like he spends more time on a single eyebrow that Willingham does on his whole head, but to be fair to Marzano, he has a lot more hair to contend with.

I have read both men far more than most teachers (and administrators have), but for different reasons. Dr. Willingham (PhD, Cognitive Psychology, Harvard) and Marzano (PhD, Curriculum and Instruction, University of Washington) are both smart and credentialed, but only one's career depends on peer-reviewed, open research not sponsored by the very same folks paying for his study. Guess which one?

I've talked about Marzano's magic make-up before, but today I'd rather talk about someone who plugs truth.

Dr. Willingham's work will matter long after Marzano's carnival rides on back to Kansas. (Hey, if any souls in Kansas read this, I'll change his destination.) Willingham is not just a scientist, he's a scientist who writes books in a down to earth style that even (*ahem*) we education folk can grasp. (Hey, if you want to see his sciency stuff, go read one of his hundred or so articles in rags like Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience.)

He's not as popular as he might be among the ednoscenti--he has diligently shown that Dr. Howard Gardner's (another man with magnificent eyebrows) "theory" of multiple intelligences has little evidence to support it--but his work will last long after he's dead, one of the habits of truths.

Willingham has just released a new book When Can You Trust the Experts?: How to Tell Good Science from Bad in Education --I can't plug it yet because I have not yet read it (though I will). I can push the first chapter "Why Smart People Believe Dumb Things" though--it's free and well worth reading.

I used to be a doc--we were trained in exactly this kind of thing, early and often, and yet we still fell into traps. That why drug companies gave away schwag. Turns out even physicians are human.

But just because we're human doesn't mean we need to be stupid. No matter how bushy the eyebrows.

One of the most frustrating facets of my ed career has been the herd-like acceptance of any "research" that makes us feel good.
When I screw up, fellow teachers, please speak up. Publicly. Loudly. So we can all learn.


Sue VanHattum said...

What has he written that's been useful to you?

(I was at a conference where he was the main speaker. He was boring. I got his book for free. Skimmed it, found a few good ideas, which I don't remember now. Maybe I was biased against the book, because I resented sitting there, bored.)

doyle said...

Dear Sue,

That gets to the heart of the matter--Willingham is a researcher,not a presenter. While we as teachers need to be entertaining to be truly effective, we should not use that as a standard for the research we use to modify our classroom behaviors.

It's great when someone can do both (Feynman, for example); but that's a rare breed.

Susan Eckert said...

I love Daniel Willingham's work. I discovered him while I was in grad school and was being force-fed the Howard Gardner gospel. I was skeptical, Googled it and found him.

He is not flashy but I find that to be a good thing. I read his book Why Don't Students Like School as required reading in my education program (thank you, Doug Larkin) and I was hooked.

(In fact, I remember trying to tell a couple of very smart veteran teachers about the book...)

His research has been the most useful to me in the classroom--he makes the findings from cognitive science, which are sometimes hard to comprehend to the layperson, accessible. And I have always admired him for cautioning teachers against believing all the brain-based professional development presented to us.

He doesn't pooh pooh (or is it poo poo?) factual knowledge, though, and thinks it's quite important for creative thinking. Wondering what you think of that, Michael?

doyle said...

Dear Susan,

Are you asking what I think about "poo pooing" factual knowledge? Or about Willingham in general.

(And if the former, tell me what you mean by "factual knowledge.")

Susan Eckert said...

I think I know what you think about Willingham, Michael. It seems like you might like him.

He has a whole chapter on "factual knowledge" in his book. I did a quick search and found this blog post, which summarizes it.

It just seems like a question to really ponder in the biology classroom--and one I thought you might have some thoughts on--is what do students need to know to be creative, critical thinkers like we all want them to be? You often hear that students can just google stuff, why have them memorize anything, there is too much vocabulary in biology, etc. Just something I think about a lot.

doyle said...

Dear Susan,

"Background knowledge" and "information" both fall under "factual knowledge"--Willingham makes the critical distinction, many of us do not.

Trying to impose a framework of modern biology with all its vocab and internal logic on a child who has no idea a seed is alive is like trying to cut bologna with a stick.

Luann Lee said...

Interestingly, when Marzano addressed our staff last year on opening day, he made a statement at the beginning about testing not being important. I snapped this photo (after of course having my phone turned on against his directive - i the those things as a challenge) from the bottom of his slide handout: 08.22.08.jpg .

doyle said...

Dear Luann,

Good catch!

John T. Spencer said...

My hair is fading fast and my eyebrows are not well-manicured. Oh, and I'm simply not photogenic.

There goes my shot at the edu-rockstar status.

This post makes me want to read his stuff. I'm a skeptic and yet I still fall into those traps that you describe.

Anonymous said...

That was a nice read from the guy without the beautifully coiffed hair.
Interestingly, this introductory chapter does not address how your opinion changes when you try something yourself. To those who genuinely think that half their students learn by watching a video, I suggest they do that. But when they find that the kids don't learn that way, teachers have to be willing to stop and do something else, not just carry on because "everyone says so." Teachers' own evidence has to count for something - doesn't it?
(Hands on work may or may not be better than lecture, but at least it's more entertaining, and the odd explosion, spill, or edible substance does seem to create a memory in the minds of most kids and teachers, whereas the videos are completely interchangeable.)
Yeah, I want to be Feynman, too. And maybe we're more like that than we think - read his essay on how he came to do the o-ring demo in the Challenger investigation, and was just awed that none of the high and mighty would even listen to his words.

Dina said...

I dove into a later book of Marzano's big time when it came out, which was written several years later and which I would recommend over the one you bookmark here. It was awhile ago, but I don't recall that there were any wild statistical claims in it.

Also saw Marzano present. I too, love Daniel Willingham, and my sample set for Marzano interactions is n=1. Nonetheless, he did not strike me as disingenuous. He mentioned some self-reflective research which impressed me, actually, as it implicated weakness in his own teaching. He also was one of the only presenters who used implemented good pedagogical methods directly into his talk.

For what it's worth. :)

doyle said...

Dear John,

Too late--you're already in that category. You're mistake was coming in as a teacher, not as a snake oil salesperson.

Dear Dina,

Marzano says some wonderful things, pushes for good pedagogy, and has condemned how his earlier stuff is being used. He's good.

I read your series as you went through Marzano's Nine, and enjoyed it.

Here are the Marzano issues as I see them:

1) His statistical claims are magnified by processes he uses in Chapter 5 of this article (starts on page 76. I get why this is done, and it can be useful in research studies. It's disingenuous in books designed for the general ed crowd.

2) He needs to open up his research to true peer review. His current "research" comes from Marzano Labs.

3) He needs to stop accepting money to research the efficacy of the product made by the folks giving him the money.

Yes, he says his "research" is being misused now in teacher evals, and he should not be blamed for that. Yes, "his" Nine are wonderful, but Francis Parker said as much over a hundred years ago.

He has no need to be disingenuous anymore (though the Promethean IWB study should stick in anyone's craw)--he's amassed a fortune. If he's as serious about change in ed as he is change in his pocket, he should consider charging less than $30 for his paperback handbooks.

I don't doubt he's a wonderful guy who believes in his work, who presents well, and who may have helped admins improve classroom instruction. He's also huge in self-promotion ("Marzano Research Laboratory") who has practiced what would be considered shady research in my prior field--but maybe I expect too much from education experts.

Anna Maria said...

I found Willingham's short videos on this site to be quite interesting and not boring at all.

doyle said...

Dear Anna Maria,

Thanks for the link!

Karen Amador said...

I ordered the book you mentioned. Thanks for the info. Looks very interesting!