When education makes problems worse

Insert controversy of choice in the blank:

For people who mistrust ___, learning the facts may make the problem worse.

That’s the tagline from “Vaccine Myth-Busting Can Backfire“, which highlights these findings:

A new study published earlier this week in the journal Vaccine found that when it comes to vaccination, a subject rife with myths and misperceptions, knowing the facts may not really be all that effective in winning over anti-vaxxers—and, in some cases, may even do more harm than good.

The study found that when people concerned about side effects of the flu shot learned that it couldn’t cause the flu, they actually became less willing to get it.

It’s a variant on the classic phenomenon of

the “backfire effect,” or the idea that when presented with information that contradicts their closely-held beliefs, people will become more convinced, not less, that they’re in the right.

What’s simultaneously interesting and more troubling about this finding is that people did change their knowledge, but that still didn’t translate into the corresponding action:

Though the vaccine studies have yielded results subtly different from the “backfire effect”—people were willing to accept new information as true, even when it had no effect on what they did in the end—Nyhan believes that the same sort of mental gymnastics is likely at work across both areas: reactance, the psychological phenomenon in which persuading people to accept certain idea can push them in the opposite direction.

It raises the ethical question of how educators should “first, do no harm” when teaching, if their efforts may backfire. It also highlights how crucial it is for instruction to account for learners’ identities, values, and motivations in order to be meaningfully effective.

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Out-of-school factors connect with in-school success

Per “Strong neighborhoods, parenting can bridge ‘achievement gap‘”:

“when youth in urban environments have supportive parents and feel safe in their neighborhoods, they are positive about their future and believe they can be successful in school,” says lead author Henrika McCoy, assistant professor at UIC’s Jane Addams College of Social Work.

The statements with the strongest correlation with academic achievement were: “I can be successful” (indicating future aspirations); “I can talk with parents about bad things” (positive parental relationships); and “I can be safe within a few blocks from home” (safe neighborhood environment).

Henrika McCoy, Elizabeth A. Bowen. Hope in the Social Environment: Factors Affecting Future Aspirations and School Self-Efficacy for Youth in Urban Environments. Child and Adolescent Social Work Journal, 2014; DOI: 10.1007/s10560-014-0343-7

Don’t Just Acknowledge Bias, Demand Its Reduction

From Adam Grant and Sheryl Sandberg’s “When Talking About Bias Backfires“:

The assumption is that when people realize that biases are widespread, they will be more likely to overcome them. But new research suggests that if we’re not careful, making people aware of bias can backfire, leading them to discriminate more rather than less.

The key is to conclude the acknowledgment of the problem with clear disapproval of it, such as:

“Please don’t remove the petrified wood from the park.”

“A vast majority of people try to overcome their stereotypic preconceptions.”

“I don’t ever want to see this happen again.”

Social cues can be powerful; use them well.

Reducing Implicit Bias

Chris Mooney summarizes important research on measuring and reducing implicit bias:

The single best intervention involved putting people into scenarios and mindsets in which a black person became their ally (or even saved their life) while white people were depicted as the bad guys. In this intervention, participants “read an evocative story told in second-person narrative in which a White man assaults the participant and a Black man rescues the participant.” In other words, study subjects are induced to feel as if they have been personally helped or even saved by someone from a different race. Then they took the IAT—and showed 48 percent less bias than a control group. (Note: The groups in these various studies were roughly three-fourths white; no participants were black.)

Other variations on this idea were successful too: making nonblack people think about black role models, or imagine themselves playing on a dodgeball team with black teammates against a team of white people (who proceed to cheat). In other words, it appears that our tribal instincts can actually be co-opted to decrease prejudice, if we are made to see those of other races as part of our team.

There’s also “epistemic unfreezing”, in which “subjects [were] pushed to compare and contrast the two cultures, presumably leading to a more nuanced perspective on their similarities and differences”, with these results:

This experimental manipulation has been found to increase creativity. But surprisingly, it also had a big effect on reducing anti-black prejudice. In one study, Tadmor et al. found that white research subjects who had heard the multicultural presentation (but not the American-only or Chinese-only presentation) were less likely than members of the other study groups to endorse stereotypes about African Americans. That was true even though the subjects had learned about Chinese and American cultures, not African American culture.

Learning about differences through structured comparisons can help reconcile differences.

Flipped instruction and self-regulated learning

From Robert Talbert’s “Flipped learning skepticism: Can students really learn on their own?“:

[Students’] primary experience is with pedagogy that emphasizes dependence. They are brainwashed through years of instructor-centered pedagogy that they are helpless when it comes to learning. But the fact remains that as human beings, they retain the capacity to learn and to regulate their learning. It’s just difficult and takes time and patience.

I’ve long believed that the most important quality which a good teacher must possess is the belief that all students can learn. I’ve also come to believe that self-directed learning is a valuable skill which must be explicitly nurtured and sustained from early childhood education on. As Talbert notes, we all start with it, but it can fade quickly in discouraging environments.

 

Pink as cultural construction

I’m glad to see the increasing mainstream media attention to the pink phenomenon‘s past and possible future:

Via Susan Stamberg’s “Girls Are Taught To ‘Think Pink,’ But That Wasn’t Always So“, at NPR:

Before Gatsby, a 1918 trade catalog for children’s clothing recommended blue for girls. The reasoning at the time was that it’s a “much more delicate and dainty tone,” Finamore says. Pink was recommended for boys “because it’s a stronger and more passionate color, and because it’s actually derived from red.”

Via Jeanne Maglety’s “When Did Girls Start Wearing Pink?“, in Smithsonian Magazine:

In 1927, Time magazine printed a chart showing sex-appropriate colors for girls and boys according to leading U.S. stores. In Boston, Filene’s told parents to dress boys in pink. So did Best & Co. in New York City, Halle’s in Cleveland and Marshall Field in Chicago.

Today’s color dictate wasn’t established until the 1940s, as a result of Americans’ preferences as interpreted by manufacturers and retailers.

Via Cordelia Fine’s “Biology doesn’t justify gender divide for toys“, in the New Scientist:

Some have “expressed concern that the ‘pinkification’ of toys for girls was adding to gender inequality in careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.”

“But the detrimental effects of this kind of marketing, though clearly only one factor in a mix of many influences on the young, may run broader and deeper. It polarises children into stereotypes. It’s not just that vehicles, weapons and construction sets are presented as ‘for boys’, while toys of domesticity and beautification are ‘for girls’. Toys for boys facilitate competition, control, agency and dominance; those for girls promote cooperation and nurturance. These gender stereotypes, acquired in childhood, underlie a host of well-documented biases against women in traditionally masculine domains and roles, and hinder men from sharing more in the responsibilities and rewards of domestic life.”

Let’s hope that society can use this awareness to help everyone focus on actions over appearances.

Inequitable discipline

Racial minorities and students with disabilities are disproportionately suspended from school, as per “National report highlights racial disparities in suspensions”:

  • African American boys receive harsher penalties than white students for the same offense
  • African American girls, Latino students (at middle and high school levels), Native American students and students with disabilities are also overrepresented in suspensions
  • there is “emerging evidence” of disproportionate disciplinary practices involving English learners and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students

The effectiveness and appropriateness of suspension as a disciplinary tool is also suspect:

  • Suspensions are most often used for conduct that is not a threat to safety.
  • disparities are most pronounced for subjective offenses, such as insubordination or defiance

Further troubling is the consequence of receiving suspensions:

  • Suspensions can lead to lower academic achievement, higher dropout rates and a higher likelihood that students will be arrested and incarcerated

Especially in light of more effective alternatives both for preventing and responding to discipline issues:

  • Positive relationships among students, teachers and parents are more important than neighborhood crime and poverty at predicting school safety.
  • interventions that improve the quality of academic instruction contribute to lower suspension rates
  • schools with more diverse faculty and student bodies have fewer disciplinary issues
  • The growing use of restorative justice in schools may help in these efforts because it increases opportunities for positive contact between races and helps teachers and administrators see students as individuals rather than members of a particular race

We need to work to understand differences, not shut them out.

Good practice for better learning

Some choice nuggets from “How to Learn Better at Any Age” by writer Peter Brown and cognitive psychologists Henry Roediger and Mark McDaniel:

Retrieval practice — recalling facts or concepts from memory — is a more effective learning strategy than review by rereading.

[Interleaved practice] produces longer-lasting learning and enables more versatile application of it in later settings.

Trying to solve a problem before being taught the solution leads to better learning, even when errors are made in the attempt.

You learn better [by] drawing on all of your aptitudes and resourcefulness, than when you limit instruction or experience to the style you find most amenable.

Better yet, write your own summary.

 

 

MOOC measurement problems reveal systemic evaluation challenges

Sadly, it’s not particularly surprising that it took a proclamation by researchers from prominent institutions (Harvard and MIT) to get the media’s attention to what should have been obvious all along. That they don’t have alternative metrics handy highlights the difficulties of assessment in the absence of high-quality data both inside and outside the system. Inside the system, designers of online courses are still figuring out how to assess knowledge and learning quickly and effectively. Outside the system, would-be analysts lack information on how students (graduates and drop-outs alike) make use of what they learned– or not. Measuring long-term retention and far transfer will continue to pose a problem for evaluating educational experiences as they become more modularized and unbundled, unless systems emerge for integrating outcome data across experiences and over time. In economic terms, it exemplifies the need to internalize the externalities to the system.

Not all uses of data are equal

Gil Press worries that “big data enthusiasts may encourage (probably unintentionally) a new misguided belief, that ‘putting data in front of the teacher’ is in and of itself a solution [to what ails education today].”

As an advocate for the better use of educational data and learning analytics to serve teachers, I worry about careless endorsements and applications of “big data” that overlook these concerns:

1. Available data are not always the most important data.
2. Data should motivate providing support, not merely accountability.
3. Teachers are neither scientists nor laypeople in their use of data. They rely on data constantly, but need representations that they can interpret and turn into action readily.

Assessment specialists have long noted the many uses of assessment data; all educational data should be weighed as carefully, even more so when implemented at a large scale which magnifies the influence of errors.