“It’s Not Scientific!”

“It’s not scientific,” yelled one of my students earlier this week when we were discussing whether a shadow of a groundhog in Pennsylvania could predict an early spring. I inquired further and asked what would be more scientific. Some mentioned using weather data would be more scientific. Some questioned whether the weather in Pennsylvania could even do anything in Seattle.

Then one of my students said, “You would have to pull a groundhog out hundreds of times and see if your data was just by chance or if it really matched.” I think she might have a career as a statistician some day.

That made me think about our own biases as teachers. Often we think we know what works. I’ve taught for 18 years, so when I approach a lesson a certain way, how do I know there isn’t a better way to do it? Can I randomly assign half my class to be taught the lesson one way, and the other half a different way? Can I then repeat this? Can a peer try it too? And what about the sample? We all know that each class is unique. So, even if I could do this every year, 18 years where I taught one class each year, wouldn’t yield enough reliable data. I believe experience does help us make wiser choices about how our profession, but as my students told me, “It’s not scientific!”

That’s why it’s important that we have organizations who are committed to being more scientific. I’ve heard many say that they could have told you student test scores aren’t enough to evaluate teachers, and millions didn’t have to be spent. Often our gut feelings are right, but unless it’s tested, reviewed, and analyzed, it’s not science.

Research in education can be tricky as some studies contradict each other, some are poorly executed, and while organizations may be able to take larger sample sizes, I want to emphasize that each child is unique. There may be a ‘best practice’ but a good teacher should know a few alternate practices or try new ones when they encounter a ‘best practice’ that doesn’t seem to be working. Any kind of research in human behavior is complicated.

The context for learning keeps changing (as it always has), perhaps at a much accelerated rate, but if second graders can begin to discuss whether or not Groundhog Day is scientific, then I think I’m doing an ok job.

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