Over the summer I finally got around to reading Steven Pinker's The Better Angels of Our Nature. In case you don't know about it, Pinker makes the argument that violence of all forms has declined – between states, domestic, national and criminal. It's a lengthy book, but he goes through the arguments very carefully and brings a range of research together to make a compelling case.
What he does very well is take accepted arguments or facts and challenge them – for instance that the 20th century was the most violent one in history. He demonstrates how these are often based on a combination of a rose-tinted view about the past (we were all happy farmers) and a misreading of data.
I was often struck when reading it how lazy people are – and not just journalists or lay perceptions, but academics also. Certain beliefs become an accepted starting point, and when you really examine these you often come to some surprising, counter-intuitive findings.
In education and education technology I think this is also true. Many claims appeal to our "common sense" or widely held beliefs about how society is today, without really backing this up. For example, the raft of 'technology is destroying society' type books or beliefs often only draw on indirect data at best, but usually rely on anecdote. Take Sherry Turkle's argument that we're losing the art of conversation and becoming more isolated. What is this really based on? There is evidence that families are spending more time together, yet you would be hard pushed to find anyone who had this as a starting point in an argument.
Or take the argument that education is broken (which I've moaned about before). This often starts from the 'fact' that truancy is at an all time high, therefore schooling isn't working, therefore we need to do something radical. I haven't analysed truancy rates in sufficient detail (in fact there doesn't seem to be much meta-analysis of truancy rates), but I know the manner in which they are recorded varies considerably. One must also ask the following questions:
- Is any change now a statistical one, or within the realms of normal variation?
- Are historical comparisons valid (ie are they comparing the same measures)?
- Can an increase in truancy rates be accounted for by an increase in population or targeted school attendance (eg if you are working harder to make sure certain groups are registered in school in the first place, will you get more truancy)?
- Is it an increase in more pupils being truant, or the same number of truancy pupils being truant for longer? (eg this article suggests7% of pupils account for one third of all truancy numbers).
And so on – I'm not suggesting truancy isn't an issue, but merely making the point that we adopt lazy interpretations in education, and then make quite sweeping demands for change based on them.
And, naturally, I can't resist one more digital natives swipe on all this. The whole digital natives argument was dogged by this failure to make any real historical comparison and instead rely on anecdote and over interpretation.
Because ed tech is often dealing with new things, it is easy to do this. And I definitely don't advocate doing nothing until you have all the data 20 years from now when you can declare 'yes, the internet will be significant.' It's perfectly okay to have hunches, intuition, to draw from experience and to have a working hypothesis. But equally, because this stuff is all new, we should be forceful in making sure claims are really founded in evidence.
So here's an activity you can do with students, or just for the fun of it: Take a claim or widely held belief in educational technology and examine the precepts that underlie it. How solid are these? Are any of them subject to the kind of Pinker analysis and review?
For now, I would just heed caution to any argument that is based on something that is 'obvious to everyone'.