Sunday, December 22, 2019

So Many False Prophets

In the field of education, facts are not required for some people to become superstars.  Come up with some novel belief, or repackage an old one, and if it sounds good, off you go on the lecture circuit to make your millions!  It may sound odd, but the education field places probably the least emphasis on scientific data analysis and more emphasis on emotion and excitement than any other field.  Look, whole language!  (Who cares if study after study after study shows that phonics if far and away the best learning method.)  Look, self-esteem!  (Show me the good that has produced, better to try self-control.)  Look, peer mediation!  (Results?  We don't need no stinking results.)  If it sounds good, too many of us in education will fly to it like a moth to a flame, evidence (or lack thereof) be damned.

In math, one of the prophets is Jo Boaler.  She has Stanford attached to her name, so in education that gives her immediate cachet--whether or not her methods are of value.  She talks about "mindsets", she isn't a fan of memorization and recall, she appeals to people who weren't necessarily successful in math at school.

Intelligent but lesser known voices--including that of the author of California's (awesome) 1997 math standards--are arrayed against her, but her star appeal has so far won out over reason.  Here's another voice that doesn't take Boaler's gospel at face value, reviewing her recent book:
Perhaps it’s true that you can’t judge a book by its cover—but the bright splashes of color on the cover of Limitless Mind certainly suggest that this book will be full of positive messages. And it is. Jo Boaler, a professor of mathematics education at Stanford, devotes a chapter to each of six “learning keys.” Each key is a variation on the overall theme of the book, which sets out to make the case that intelligence is not a fixed entity, and that most everyone has the potential to learn most anything. In parts, this volume reads like a self-help book for developing positive self-beliefs and unleashing one’s previously unknown intellectual powers. It contains touching anecdotes and examples of how to apply the keys to achieving a “limitless mind,” with particular attention to math. However, while the book’s content is a mile wide, its substance is little more than an inch deep...

Unfortunately, Boaler’s review of the empirical literature on efforts to change mindsets uses outdated studies and overstates the effects of the interventions. Some of the early studies on this subject did indeed suggest that mindset interventions among students had large transfer effects on their academic learning, but subsequent work with larger, more representative samples of students has shown that these effects are, at best, modest—and possibly, nonexistent. A recent study with more than 12,000 U.S. 9th graders showed that, following less than an hour of computerized mindset intervention, lower-achieving students raised their grade point averages by 0.1 points in subjects such as math, science, and English—representing a small but significant transfer effect. In contrast, a randomized controlled trial conducted by the United Kingdom’s Education Endowment Foundation found almost no evidence for a positive effect of a mindset intervention targeted at both students and their teachers. In sum, the evidence from these large-scale trials is mixed, and the positive effects reported are smaller than those conveyed in some of the earlier work on mindset intervention that Boaler cites in her book. The newest research does not support the book’s strong claims about mindset.

Ironically, despite reviews and blog posts pointing out Boaler’s clear errors of interpretation and inference in her previous writings, she adopts a fixed mindset when it comes to scientific evidence, continuing her past tendency to play fast and loose with these findings and to ignore those that run counter to her narrative.
Read the whole thing.

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