kitchen table math, the sequel: educators aren't doctors

Wednesday, February 28, 2007

educators aren't doctors

From Doug Carnine:

Education could benefit from examining the history of some other professions. Medicine, pharmacology, accounting, actuarial sciences, and seafaring have all evolved into mature professions. According to Theodore M. Porter, a history professor at the University of California at Los Angeles, an immature profession is characterized by expertise based on the subjective judgments of the individual professional, trust based on personal contact rather than quantification, and autonomy allowed by expertise and trust, which staves off standardized procedures based on research findings that use control groups. 23

A mature profession, by contrast, is characterized by a shift from judgments of individual experts to judgments constrained by quantified data that can be inspected by a broad audience, less emphasis on personal trust and more on objectivity, and a greater role for standardized measures and procedures informed by scientific investigations that use control groups.

For the most part, education has yet to attain a mature state. Education experts routinely make decisions in subjective fashion, eschewing quantitative measures and ignoring research findings. The influence of these experts affects all the players
in the education world.

Below is a description that could very well describe the field of education:
It is hard to conceive of a less scientific enterprise among human endeavors. Virtually anything that could be thought up for treatment was tried out at one time or another, and, once tried, lasted decades or even centuries before being given up. It was, in retrospect, the most frivolous and irresponsible kind of human experimentation, based on nothing but trial and error, and usually resulting in precisely that sequence.24

Yet this quote does not describe American education today. Rather, it was written about premodern medicine by the late Dr. Lewis Thomas (1979), former president of the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. Medicine has matured. Education has not. The excerpt continues:

Bleeding, purging, cupping, the administration of infusions of every known plant, solutions of every known metal, most of these based on the weirdest imaginings about the cause of disease, concocted out of nothing but thin air—this was the heritage of medicine up until a little over a century ago. It is astounding that the profession survived so long, and got away with so much with so little outcry. Almost everyone seems to have been taken in.25

Education has not yet developed into a mature profession. What might cause it to? Based on the experience of other fields, it seems likely that intense and sustained outside pressure will be needed. Dogma does not destroy itself, nor does an immature profession drive out dogma.

The metamorphosis is often triggered by a catalyst, such as pressure from groups that are adversely affected by the poor quality of service provided by a profession. The public’s revulsion at the Titanic’s sinking, for example, served as catalyst for the metamorphosis of seafaring. In the early 1900s, sea captains could sail pretty much where they pleased, and safety was not a priority. The 1913 International Convention for Safety of Life at Sea, convened after the sinking of the Titanic, quickly made rules that are still models for good practice in seafaring.

The metamorphosis of medicine took more than a century. As the historian Theodore Porter explains:

In its pre-metamorphosis stage, medicine was practiced by members of an elite who refused . . . to place the superior claims of character and breeding on an equal footing with those of scientific merit. . . . These gentlemen practitioners opposed specialization, and even resisted the use of instruments. The stethoscope was acceptable, because is was audible only to them, but devices that could be read out in numbers or, still worse, left a written trace, were a threat to the intimate knowledge of the attending physician.26

External pressure on medicine came from life insurance companies that demanded quantitative measures of the health of applicants and from workers who did not trust “company doctors.” The Food and Drug Administration, founded in 1938 as part of the New Deal, initially accepted both opinions from clinical specialists and findings from experimental research when determining whether drugs did more good than harm. However, the Thalidomide disaster led to the Kefauver Bill of 1962, which required drugs thereafter to be proven to be effective and safe before they could be prescribed, with little attention paid to the opinions of clinical specialists. (Medical interventions and intervention devices, such as coronary stents, are subject to similar reviews of safety and efficacy.)

The catalyst that transformed accounting in the United States was the Great Depression. To restore investor confidence, the government promulgated reporting rules to guard against fraud, creating the Securities and Exchange Commission. In general, it appears that a profession is not apt to mature without external pressure and the attendant conflict. Metamorphosis begins when the profession determines that this is its likeliest path to survival, respect, and prosperity. Porter writes that the American Institute of Accountants established its own standards to fend off an imminent bureaucratic intervention.27 External pressures had become so great that outsiders threatened to take over and control the profession via legislation and regulation. There are signs today that this is beginning to happen in education.

The best way for a profession to ensure its continued autonomy is to adopt methods that ensure the safety and efficacy of its practices. The profession can thereby deter extensive meddling by outsiders. The public trusts quantified data because procedures for coming up with numbers reduce subjective decision-making. Standardized procedures also are more open to public inspection and legal review.

Why Education Experts Resist Effective Practices (And What It Would Take to Make Education More Like Medicine)
Douglas Carnine

Ted Porter was a colleague of Ed's; his book is revered. I may have to order it. (He is also the editor of the Cambridge History of Social Sciences.)

spaced repetition

an immature profession is characterized by:
  • expertise based on the subjective judgments of the individual professional
  • trust based on personal contact rather than quantification
  • autonomy allowed by expertise and trust, which staves off standardized procedures based on research findings that use control groups

so how does the NCTM feel about research?

The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics—
  • Believes that, to improve the teaching and learning of mathematics, the complexity of schools and school systems requires the use of a variety of research methods.
  • Supports significantly increased funding for research about student mathematics learning, curriculum materials, and effective classroom practices.
a variety of research methods....


In this paper, we consider The Teaching Principle outlined in The Principles and Standards for School Mathematics (NCTM, 2000) and the importance of teacher learning and continuous development in mathematics learning and pedagogy. We pose the question, “How might a professional development experience that invites teachers to become ‘autonomous learners’ (NCTM, 2000, p. 5) be organized?” In responding to that question, we begin, as narrative researchers, by sharing a story of collaboration in planning a summer institute about mathematics for K – 3rd grade teachers. We then unpack this story of the planning and implementation of the institute thinking about the tenets of constructivism, as outlined by Brooks and Grennon Brooks (1999), and about how these tenets contribute to the development of autonomous teacher learners.

Narrative researchers!

That's the ticket.

More money for narrative research.

Write your congressman today.

Ask him to support increased funding for research about student mathematics learning, curriculum materials, and effective classroom practices requiring the use of a variety of research methods.

update: No idea whether this book is useful:

Up Close and Personal: The Teaching and Learning of Narrative Research (sample chapter)

Narrative research, Vygotsky, etc.

A respectful critique


23 Theodore M. Porter, Trust in Numbers: The Pursuit of Objectivity in Science and Public Life (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1996).

24 Lewis Thomas, “Medical Lessons from History,” in The Medusa and the Snail: More Notes of a Biology
Watcher (New York: Viking Press, 1979), 159.

25 Ibid, 159-160.

26 Porter, 202.

27 Ibid, 93.


Independent George said...

I know it's become an overused comparison, but this reminds me an awful lot of Moneyball.

Independent George said...

Actually, scratch that. It's exactly like Moneyball.

The only difference is that in MLB, once word got out that sabremetrics actually worked, everybody started to adopt it.

Catherine Johnson said...


Which part reminds you of Moneyball??

(I read Moneyball - loved it! Just finished Blind Side.)

Barry Garelick said...

The textbook "Educational Psychology" by Jeanne Ellis Ormrod, 5th ed. (which I'm supposed to be reading for my ed school course "Human Development and Learning", but, here I am, folks) says this about research in the very first chapter:

"Conduct your own research. The research literature on learning, motivation, development, and instructional pracice grows by leaps and bounds every year. Nevertheless, teachers sometimes encoutner problems in the classroom that existing research findings don't address. In such circumstances we have an alternative: We can conduct our own resarch. When we conduct systematic studies of issues and problems in our own schools, with the goal of seeking more effective interventions in the lives of our students, we are conduction action research .

"Action research is becoming an increasingly popular endeavor among teachers, educational administators, and other educational professionals. It takes a variety of forms; for example, it might invovle assesing the effectiveness of a new teaching technique, gathering information about students' opinions on a schoolwide issue, or conducting an in-depth case study of a particular student. ... Many colleges and universities now offer courses in action research. You can also find inexpensive paperback books on teh topic (e.g., Mills, 2003; Stringer, 2004)"

I couldn't make this stuff up if I tried. But I will offer anyone $5 to read the above quoted passage aloud without laughing, spitting, sputtering, or vomiting.

Independent George said...

Catherine - specifically, the description of an 'immature profession':

* expertise based on the subjective judgments of the individual professional

* trust based on personal contact rather than quantification

* autonomy allowed by expertise and trust, which staves off standardized procedures based on research findings that use control groups

More broadly, though, it's the hostility to empirical research, the overemphasis on intangibles, the casual derision of outsider opinion, and the generally romanticized view of the subject matter.

BTW, I loved The Blind Side - it's easily my favorite book of 2006.

Catherine Johnson said...

Independent George

Oh, right -- that's what I thought.

Blind Side is incredible.


I'm hoping to get around to posting some passages.

Catherine Johnson said...

but, here I am, folks

oh gosh me, too

i'm supposed to be reading about operant conditioning for stereotypies in captive animals

Catherine Johnson said...

I read one page, then I had to come downstairs for a glass of water.

Catherine Johnson said...

Great, great stuff, Barry.

Action research.


It's always worse than you think.

Catherine Johnson said...

One of my MAJOR goals is somehow to induce our administration and school board to get some real statisticians working with them on data warehousing.

We've got at least 3 professional statisticians here, one of whom does medical research.

Administration has shown no interest in talking to them thus far.

Catherine Johnson said...

What does the book say about the ethics of action research?

Barry Garelick said...

What does the book say about the ethics of action research?

Well, I've been too busy playing with KTM II to have gotten that far into what passes as a textbook for an equally ludicrous course, but I'm fairly certain that the passage I quoted is the only mention of it in the entire book.

Tex said...

So, the upshot is that fuzzy research leads to fuzzy math.


On the bright side, at least we’re not fighting against “bleeding, purging, cupping”. At least not in the literal sense.

Catherine Johnson said...

the upshot is that fuzzy research leads to fuzzy math

it's always worse than you think!

rightwingprof said...

So it's narrative research now! Here's not-so-generous critique.

Catherine Johnson said...

ahem, rightwingprof

I will have you know that naive belief in a "gold standard" for research is RIGHT WING THINKING