Clever, thoughtful, plausible ideas can be wrong

It is galling to think that someone who has given no thought to an issue can be right whilst another person who has spent years thinking about that same issue can be wrong, but this is the case.

Let me give you an example: on my PGCE I was told that rather than memorise large amounts of small chunks, students found it easier to attempt to understand big ideas that incorporated these small chunks. So, instead of breaking down new ideas into small chunks, I should teach the big idea holistically, thereby reducing the amount of seemingly arbitrary knowledge students would have to remember and increasing their conceptual understanding. My PGCE tutors were good people, who had put a tremendous amount of thought into teaching: they were well read and had clear, sound arguments for making this case.

Cut to me working in a school on my placement, and teachers in my department telling me that the way I was going wrong in my teaching was that I wasn’t ‘breaking it down’ enough. When I asked way I should teach like that, I was told, with some exasperation, that it was obvious: kids need to learn things in small chunks and master those small chunks before moving on. The only argument they had for their way, beyond their own observations, was that this was the way everyone had always taught it. A line of argument that I came to despise.

Now, I think teaching in small chunks is definitely the right way for students to learn, and that my PGCE tutors were wrong. It’s taken well researched arguments and articles such as Rosenshine’s Principles of Instruction to convince me, and I have changed my mind.

The people who had put a huge amount of reason and effort into determining what was right turned out to be wrong, and those who had just done thing because that was the way they’d always been done were right. I think that this is:

  1. Counter-intuitive and plays against the logic we all like to think lies behind the things we do; and
  2. Very uncomfortable to realise.

The line of argument that I despise? This is the way we’ve always done it has validity and I am wrong to despise it. If a method of teaching has always been used, then there are probably very good reasons for this, even if the person using the argument can’t explain what these are.

All this brings me to debates in Education. As uncomfortable and unpleasant as it may be, people who have put a great deal of thought into their views on Education, and have come up with clever, plausible arguments can be completely wrong. Now, if I put myself in the shoes of one such person: a person with reason, thought, logic and evidence behind my ideas; ideas that have been championed and supported by colleagues. And then someone comes along and tells me that I’m wrong? I’m going to suggest that it will be very hard for me not to be affronted, even offended by this challenge.

And this is where Educational debates can become uncomfortable. My view is that the standard response to this challenge is for the person who is challenged to first seek to show that they’re right, and then if this fails, to show that they are at least partially right.

I think that when people want to show that they are at least partially right, they are using the fallacy of the golden mean. That is, when there are two distinct views, the fallacy is that the truth lies somewhere between them. This is very rarely, if ever, the case and the reality is that someone will be right and someone will be wrong. In my example, it cannot be partially right that students learn better by being taught a concept in a holistic way: either they learn better by being taught new information in small chunks or they don’t, there’s no middle compromise to assuage the feelings of everyone involved.

It’s not pleasant, I wish it wasn’t true, but sometimes even with a huge amount of intelligence, good intentions and reasoned arguments one can still be wrong.

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3 thoughts on “Clever, thoughtful, plausible ideas can be wrong

  1. Perhaps it depends on the learner. Some learn better when they understand first how the ‘chunks’ fit in to the whole; others need to learn all the ‘chunks’ before they can see the big picture. Both ideas can be right, for different learners.

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    1. I think there’re two points here:
      1. Students are more similar in how they learn than different
      2. As per Rosenshine etc the best way to teach novices is by breaking the material down into small chunks

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