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On Faddism, Guru-ism and Junk Research

June 23, 1997

One of today's most influential educational philosophers, University of Virginia English professor E.D. Hirsch Jr. is known for his appeals for "cultural literacy." The author of "The Schools We Need & Why We Don't Have Them" addressed the California Board of Education on how to evaluate educational research.

California requires education policy to be research-based. The enormous problem is that it is almost impossible to make educational policy that is not based on research.

I don't know a single failed policy--from the naturalistic teaching of reading, to the open classroom, to the teaching of abstract set-theory in third-grade math--that hasn't been research-based. Experts have advocated almost every conceivable practice short of inflicting permanent bodily harm. So we need to discriminate between reliable and unreliable research.

At the core of each discipline there develops a consensus of the learned that is highly dependable. It is close enough to being right that you can bet your life and your children's lives on that core. But out at the edge, on the frontier of the discipline, there is a lot of disagreement. And we can't tell for sure which theory is right.

When lawmakers say education policy should be based on research, the spirit of the law implies reliable, consensus research. Any other interpretation would mean unwarranted experimentation on our own children.

If this distinction between core and non-core research is understood, the days of faddism, guru-ism, partisanship and experimentation may be numbered.

Take reading. We want all our children to read well. Mainstream research has been saying for some years that a naturalistic approach cannot achieve that goal for all children. But the core research has not been heeded out of adherence to the ideology of "constructivism," which is a supposedly scientific foundation for such teaching methods as inquiry learning, discovery learning and hands-on learning.

This is reminiscent of what happened to biology in the Soviet Union under Lysenkoism. Lysenko was the bureaucrat-scientist who controlled biological research and declined to fund any that didn't conform to the ideology that nurture can transform nature. Under Lysenko, the dominance of ideology over disinterested research not only retarded Soviet biology, it caused mass starvation. Over the door of every board of education should be posted: "Remember Lysenko."

Over the past decades, educational Lysenkoism has created a conflict between the conclusions promulgated widely in education and those of mainstream psychology. Of several such conflicts, I shall discuss two: math and early education.

I hardly need to restate the math debate. The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics stresses conceptual understanding over mindless drill and practice, while the dissident group stresses the need for drill and practice leading to mastery.

What are distinguished scientists in the psychology of math education likely to tell you? You will get strong agreement on the following: Varied practice that makes basic math second nature is necessary for developing higher-order problem-solving skills.

This brings me to the most fateful conflict of all, since it touches on the ability of our educational system to provide genuine equality of educational opportunity. There is a national body called the National Assn. for the Education of Young Children. It withholds approval from schools and preschools that fail to follow "Developmentally Appropriate Practice."

The association considers it developmentally inappropriate for a whole class to listen to a teacher or for children to learn academic topics deemed too challenging, too advanced, or too . . . inappropriate. I have heard NAEYC experts state that the Eiffel Tower is developmentally inappropriate, and also James Monroe, though not James Madison.

What does consensus mainstream science say? Any scientist who has kept up with this field would tell you that there is no foundation . . . for withholding challenging content from young children. These researchers would encourage you to create challenging, content-rich academic programs.

The intention of the doctrine of Developmentally Appropriate Practice is to ensure caring treatment for young children. Yet, the ultimate effect is to cause social harm. It leaves advantaged children (who get knowledge at home) with boring pablum, and it condemns disadvantaged children to a permanent educational handicap that grows worse over time.

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