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James M. Kauffman: On being right for the wrong reasons

James Kauffman
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By James M. Kauffman

We freethinkers have a common interest in thinking anything within the boundaries of Enlightenment thought. 

Our freethinking knows limits and does not include things like schizophrenic rambling, “alternative facts” and irrational assertions. A basic assumption is that we do not think something is true because a presumed authority says it or writes it. This applies to people who exist as well as to deities who don’t, to textbooks and treatises as well as all writs called holy or god-inspired. And if someone speaks or writes something for which there is scientific evidence in the Enlightenment tradition, we don’t refuse to believe it because their reasons for believing it are wrong. 

In short, we trust empirical evidence, and we do not believe speculation or ideology should carry the day. As a Lifetime Member of FFRF, I embrace these basic principles of freethought.

Sorting through scientific evidence is hard, and it is made harder by ambiguities, qualifications, contingencies and mixtures of truth and falsehood. This is especially the case for some areas of science and for particularly complex problems. An old saw is “teaching isn’t rocket science.” Actually, teaching is more complicated. In much of the physical sciences, variables are fewer, measured with greater precision, and more easily and precisely controlled. In the social sciences, including education, measurement is more difficult, controversial and imprecise (i.e., prone to error). Therefore, drawing conclusions about cause and effect is harder, replication is more difficult, and conclusions are more open to suspicion, argumentation and dismissal as irrelevant.

The Religious Right has tried to co-opt education, and many of its tenets are outrageous and in need of forceful rejection. Among its most malodorous features are its homophobic, anti-Darwinian, anti-mental health and social-emotional learning, book bans, topic prohibitions, and anti-mask and anti-vaccination sentiments and proclamations. 

In a recent issue of Scientific American (November 2022), Camilla Griffiths and Nicky Sullivan explain how telling teachers not to discuss racism and bias actually works to increase those social blights. In the same issue, historian of science Naomi Oreskes mentions how scientists may downplay evidence of global warming, likely at least in part a response to conservative (especially religious conservative) opinion that it is not as bad as it seems.

Nevertheless, the Religious Right’s embrace of certain educational principles is, I think, right — but for the wrong reasons. Teaching phonological awareness is based on science, even if some people like it for religious or political reasons that are wrong. God has nothing to do with learning to read. Phonics and phonological awareness have no legitimate relationship to politics. Even if people on the religious or political right — or those with any other religious or political slant — try to explain away scientific evidence or bend education to their will, we need to agree with them when they are correct, even if they are so for wrong reasons. But, alternatives to phonics in reading instruction, whether “whole language” or another alternative, have all been shown to be a “bill of goods” that has been very successfully sold to many educators.

Direct instruction, teacher-controlled learning, sound-symbol correspondence, and many aspects of effective, direct and explicit instruction have nothing to do with deities or politics and everything to do with empirical evidence. Vaccination against Covid-19 and other diseases and wearing masks to deter the spread of them are not important because of any religious or political belief, but because of scientific evidence. Neither are they open to explanation by “alternative facts.” We could say the same for reading instruction.

The current concern for the Religious Right’s embrace of some aspects of education likely has the unfortunate effect of delegitimizing effective instructional techniques. It gives those opposed to effective instruction aid and comfort in pushing alternative instruction such as “whole language” reading, “balanced literacy,” “student-centered” education, and “discovery learning.” 

Yet, science suggests these are most effective for the greatest number of students: direct instruction and use of phonics in teaching reading, direct and explicit instruction in other academic areas and in behavior, teacher direction and control.

Just as people can be right for wrong reasons, they can be wrong for reasons that aren’t quite right — hold onto ideas that are essentially ascientific or even anti-scientific because they ignore reliable scientific data. Sometimes, science tells us what we do not want to hear.

Furthermore, especially in education and other social sciences, “that depends” is particularly important. For example, who are we talking about (i.e., students of what age and with what learning-related characteristics)? What is being taught (e.g., reading, math, physics, personal preferences)?

In education, perhaps as much or moreso as in other endeavors, veracity or truth is contingent, not always the same. As I have often told my students about educational methods or instructional techniques, nothing always works, but everything appears to have worked at least once. Teachers must find what usually works for teaching particular skills to groups of comparatively homogeneous

Students. (Yes, homogeneous vs. heterogeneous grouping is a hotly debated issue in education, and homogeneous and heterogeneous are not dichotomous variables — on/off, yes/no, 1/0).

Science, logic and experience suggest that the more heterogeneous the group of students in what they know and need to learn, the harder the task of teaching.

People can be “tricked” in a variety of ways, and sorting out what science tells us versus our own biases and beliefs is difficult. One “trick” is changing terminology or labeling, which often convinces people to believe something that is not quite true. Perhaps the most familiar example of this is calling creationism “intelligent design.” Although a judge was able to see the deceitfulness of this sleight of hand (or sleight of terminology), many people were not able to or did not want to see or admit it. 

In reading, the term “balanced instruction” is a euphemism for whole language. This fools some people into believing that “balanced” means they’re getting the best of both worlds, just as “intelligent design” means there was an intelligence behind nature and that evolution is a misnomer.

Another trick is to assert something that is partly but now wholly true. For example, one might say that “the teacher’s job is to transmit objective facts and students are expected to absorb them.” It’s impossible to say this is completely true or completely false. In fact, we might assume that only an unthinking person would say either. Yet, this kind of statement is often used to bash the idea of teacher-controlled instruction and tout the effectiveness of “active learning” as if, somehow, direct, explicit instruction does not involve students’ activity.

Teaching expertly is not a “seat-of-the-pants” activity. As much as surgery or orthodontia or airplane-flying or plumbing or the work of building structures, teaching has its basics. Like all complex activities or tasks, it needs its checklists (see Atul Gawande’s 2009 book, The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right). 

It is not surprising that teachers need scripts to guide them in their early work, and it is a given that as they become more artful in teaching, they will vary the script as necessary. But, like the surgeon who strictly follows others’ successful procedures (and for understandable reasons), teachers learn to judge when innovations and exceptions are warranted. For good reasons, we do not want pilots of the planes on which we fly to just be creative, to disregard the routines, checklists, ground control, and other basics they’ve been taught — essentially to go off script. In routine flight and in emergencies, we want them to follow the script. We want builders, electricians, and plumbers to follow the code.

A popular complaint meant to pooh-pooh behaviorism is that children are not animals, that we must not teach them as we teach pets. Once again, that assertion is partly true, and therefore particularly hard to dismiss. It is the kind of idea economist Paul Krugman has called a zombie, an idea that should have died long ago because of the evidence that it is false, but refuses to die because people want to believe it regardless of evidence. Yes, we do want our students to commit some things to memory, and some drill is to thrill not to kill, and humans, like all other animals (yes, science does put humans of all ages in the animal kingdom) do respond to rewards.

Rewards include not just material things like royalties, salaries, bonuses, objects and food, but immaterial things like success, praise and attention.

Poor science, lack of evidence, misinterpretation and misrepresentation, half-truths, misleading statements — all these and more are reasons for dismay. It is hard not to want to kill the messenger when science fails to support our beliefs. The Religious Right has honed that skill, of killing the messenger, with the help of its ministers. Unshakeable belief in a deity demands it.

Some nonbelievers in a deity or right-wing politics nevertheless indulge it.

Lifetime Member James M. Kauffman is professor emeritus of education at the University of Virginia and is co-author of numerous books about education.