Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Not just for my teacher friends

I used to know a lot of smart people – until the election heated up, anyway. Now I get emails and see posts on Facebook about candidates with obviously questionable "facts." I'm not talking about the stuff that is clearly just meant to be funny. I'm talking about the stuff that makes outrageous claims and distorts what was actually said. It ought to be obvious that candidates will say things that fudge the truth (or worse) just because they're desperate to win. That doesn't mean we have to be fools about it! If something sounds too crazy to be true, it's probably not true. But forwarding it without checking first only annoys your friends and can cause them to unfriend you.

Phew! I just had to get that off my chest.

But speaking of how to know what is true, I recently read When Can You Trust the Experts: How to Tell Good Science from Bad in Education by Daniel T. Willingham. The book is specifically aimed at educators (teachers and administrators, but parents, too) who might be considering "educational software, games, workbooks or other programs" which claim to be "based on the latest research." While some of these products may be based on actual research, many are not. But how can you tell? Willingham discusses the history of science and the role it plays in persuading us and appealing to our biases (especially the "confirmation bias" where we look for "evidence" that supports what we already believe and discard what doesn't support it). Ultimately he outlines and explains four steps:
  • Strip it and Flip it. Strip the claim down to its essentials and promises: "If I do X, then there is a Y percent chance that Z will happen."
  • Trace it. Should you take statements by "authorities" at face value?
  • Analyze it. What evidence is offered? Is there any scientific evidence (from reliable studies) that support or refute the claims?
  • Should you do it? And how will you measure results, or when do you call it quits?
It's a rather straightforward process that can weed out a lot of programs and help you find (and understand) the kind of research for making better-informed decisions. And while it's geared more toward eduation professionals it's also written plainly enough that parents can use the same processes. I picked it up hoping it could apply to other areas where science is touted, like the breathless claims about climate change, for instance. Such issues are certainly beyond the scope of this book, but I think Willingham's method is a good place to start and can be applied in more areas than just education. But the main idea is to get people thinking for themselves and not be misled by emotional appeals or psuedo-science.

But when it comes to politics – GOOD LUCK! (I received this book from Amazon Vine.)

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