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Education ignores research contradicting its preferred ideology
January 25, 2012
WINNIPEG, MB, Jan. 25, 2012/ Troy Media/ - University of Manitoba president David Barnard thinks it’s time to reduce the total number of faculties at his institution. Under his plan, more than one-third of them could be gone within the next five years.
If Barnard is serious about finding faculties that would benefit from amalgamation, he need look no further than the faculty of education. In fact, the same holds true for other universities. Greater exposure to experts from other fields is just the thing education professors need in order to break out from their insular world filled with faulty notions about teaching and learning.
Education professors live in alternate universe
The professional chasm between mathematicians and math education professors is an example. While many people assume that these two groups work closely together in designing provincial curricula and writing approved textbooks, the reality is quite different. Despite vigorous protests from mathematicians, math education professors regularly promote teaching methods that make it harder for students to acquire the math skills they need.
Instead of making sure students memorize their math facts and learn standard math algorithms, math education professors tell prospective teachers to let students invent their own ways of solving math problems. While math education professors claim they have research evidence to back up their position, an examination of this research finds that it suffers from fatal design flaws such as small sample sizes, lack of proper control groups, and flawed research methodologies.
Mathematicians Anna Stokke and Robert Craigen grew so frustrated with the obvious lack of math skills among students graduating from high school that they decided to fight back. In 2011 they started the Western Initiative for Strengthening Education in Math and set up a website (wisemath.org) that thoroughly debunks the faulty research produced by math education professors. However, the self-imposed isolation of faculties of education from other university faculties makes it easy for math education professors to completely ignore their colleagues who actually teach university level math.
A similar professional gulf exists with other fields. For example, students in education faculties take courses in educational psychology where they learn about Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences. Essentially, multiple intelligences theory rejects the traditional emphasis on a general intelligence factor (g) and proposes instead that human intelligence can be divided into eight separate categories. These include: linguistic, logico-mathematical, spatial, musical, bodily-kinesthetic, interpersonal, intrapersonal, and naturalist.
Thus, while someone may demonstrate limited mathematical or verbal skills, they may have a high musical intelligence or possess naturalist intelligence that helps them accurately classify different types of flora and fauna. Advocates of this theory believe it is wrong to place too much emphasis on any one intelligence, especially when it leads to the exclusion of other intelligences.
Gardner’s multiple intelligences theory is accepted as gospel within faculties of education. Education professors have penned many books and articles about how to apply multiple intelligences theory in the classroom. For example, to help students master their grammar, Thomas Armstrong recommends strategies such as getting students to form punctuation marks with their bodies (bodily-kinesthetic intelligence), giving each punctuation mark a distinctive sound (musical intelligence) and assigning an animal to each punctuation mark (naturalist intelligence).
However, multiple intelligences theory is not widely accepted among psychologists outside of education faculties. Daniel Willingham, a cognitive psychologist at the University of Virginia, notes that Gardner’s theory lacks empirical support. In fact, all it really does is reclassify talents and abilities as intelligences. As a result, most psychologists view multiple intelligences as an interesting, but misguided, theory. Once again, the gap between education faculties and other faculties looms large.
Education faculties too ideological
Even when we look at the field of education itself, education faculties regularly espouse theories that fly in the face of their own educational research. Examples include the adoption of the whole language theory for teaching reading, a de-emphasis on direct instruction, and disciplinary techniques that fail to maintain order in the classroom. It should come as little surprise that John Hattie, an education professor in New Zealand who has reviewed hundreds of research studies about teaching and learning, describes education as an immature profession that often ignores research contradicting its preferred ideology.
It’s time for universities to break education faculties out of their self-imposed isolation. Merging them with other faculties, as David Barnard of the University of Manitoba has proposed, could go a long way to bringing down their ideological walls.
Michael Zwaagstra is a research fellow with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy (www.fcpp.org) and a Manitoba high school teacher. He is co-author of the book, What’s Wrong With Our Schools and How We Can Fix Them.
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