Thursday, 9 June 2016

Seven tools for thinking #6 Don’t waste time on rubbish

Argue with idiots, and you become an idiot.

Paul Graham

Science fiction writer and critic, Ted Sturgeon coined what’s become known as Sturgeon’s Law: “Ninety percent of everything is crap.” This is sometimes taken to be an excuse for throwing up one’s hands in disgust at the paucity of original thought and beauty in the world, but that’s not what Sturgeon intended. Speaking at a science fiction convention in 1951, what he actually said was this:

When people talk about the mystery novel, they mention The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep.  When they talk about the western, they say there’s The Way West and Shane. But when they talk about science fiction, they call it “Buck Rogers stuff,” and they say “ninety percent of science fiction is crud.”  Well, they’re right.  Ninety percent of science fiction is crud.  But then ninety percent of everything is crud, and it’s the ten percent that isn’t crud that is important, and the ten percent of science fiction that isn’t crud is as good or better than anything being written anywhere.

In Intuition Pumps, Daniel Dennett extols us not to waste time arguing about the crap:

Let’s stipulate at the outset that there is a great deal of deplorable, second-rate stuff out there, of all sorts. Now, in order not to waste your time and try our patience, make sure you concentrate on the best stuff you can find, the flagship examples extolled by the leaders of the field, the prize-winning entries, not the dregs. Notice that this is closely related to Rapoport’s rules: unless you are a comedian whose main purpose is to make people laugh at ludicrous buffoonery, spare us the caricature.

This is a useful injunction against arguing against easy targets and constructing straw men. Let’s allow, for instance, that 90% of teacher talk is crap: there are, no doubt, very many boring farts out there who drone endlessly at serried ranks of slack-jawed, drooling teens. It’s too easy to point out that crap is crap. Instead opponent of traditional teaching should pick out examples of the very best exponents of the art and critique their practice.

Likewise, 90% of groupwork is probably crap, 90% of marking, 90% of classroom display, 90% of 1-1 iPad policies, 90% of homework, 90% of SATs test questions, 90% of Teaching Assistants, 90% of PE lessons, 90% of education blogs. Maybe 90% of everything really is crap, maybe it isn’t. The point is, there are always plenty of terrible example to pick on. Dennett tells us that, when we want to criticise anything, “don’t waste your time and ours hooting at the crap! Go after the good stuff or leave it alone.”

“Hooting at the crap” leads us into some dangerously lazy thinking: If most teacher talk is crap, let’s stop teachers talking (I’ve written about this here.) Instead we should say, when teachers give clear, relevant, memorable explanations it really helps students to understand slippery abstract concepts: how can we train teacher to do this better?

The thing is, our confirmation bias naturally guides us to the best examples of what we like and the worst examples of what we think is crap. I’ve seen some wonderful examples of teachers using group, but the well has been poisoned by all the crap. Comparing the very best examples of teacher explanation with the very worst examples of discovery learning is unfair, unhelpful and demeaning to everyone involved. Sadly, it seems that lots of education research is set up in precisely this way, with the result that no one learns anything but everyone feels a little bit better about what they already believed to be true. Thankfully, 10% of research is great, and we should seek it out.

Some useful tips to avoid wasting time on rubbish:

Don’t trust sweeping statements, like “Homework doesn’t work.” Of course homework can be effectively in reinforcing students’ learning. Most of it doesn’t.  Maybe even 90% of homework is an utter waste of time. But maybe most of the alternatives are equally rubbish. Arguments that make sweeping generalisations about an entire ways of thinking are never right: we should ignore them.

Use outliers to figure out what does work.  Look at the very best examples of homework, or teaching assistants, or whatever you’re worried about; find out what makes them effective and try to emulate them. This is the rationale behind the Teach Like A Champion taxonomy – you don’t have to like it (and 90% of implementation will be crap) but it’s based on training teachers to do what the most effective teachers seem to do.

In a complex system, average isn’t useful. Tim Kastelle puts it well:

If we took the average height of all of us, it would be somewhere around 1.76 meters. What happens to this average if we’re joined by Sultan Kösen, the tallest man (2.51 meters) in the world? Our average height goes up to 1.767 meters. In other words, the average increased by about 0.4%.

Now think about our average wealth. The stats vary, but average net worth in the US is around $120,000. What happens to this average if we’re joined by Carlos Slim, the richest man ($63.3 billion) in the world? Our average net worth goes up to $745,544. In other words, the average increased by 521%!

The difference between 0.4% and 521% is the difference between normal and complex. Height is distributed normally, and in a normal system, the average dominates the extremes. The economy is a complex system, and in a complex system, outliers matter.

Is education also a complex system? Maybe not at the level of student performance, but at school level it almost certainly is. In a complex system there are no one-size-fits-all solutions. This is another reason outliers are important.  We tend to ignore outliers because they’re not like us, but that’s just the point. If the majority of examples are rubbish, we need to study the best to work out what works.

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