Wilful Blindness

I was in a meeting recently about teaching, and as usual, I ended up chanting my line about what the evidence says about teaching this particular subject (statistics). One of the other lecturers said something that I have heard too many times. She said something like “I don’t care what the evidence says, I already know how I want to do it“. A few months earlier I was talking to someone about proposed changes to the procedures and penalties to deal with plagiarism, and asked the same question, receiving the same response. It seems to happen every few months, that as I ask if the evidence has been considered I am told that, essentially, it doesn’t matter what the evidence says, this is the way we have decided to do whatever.

These examples that I can think of are only the examples that the disregarding of evidence has been made explicit, often, there is no explicit statement, simply a disregarding of the evidence.

The most recent incident made me think about our attitudes toward evidence in general. I work in a research intensive department (ranked 50th in the world for research), and regularly rub shoulders with highly regarded researchers. What I began to wonder is, if some of these same people can so quickly and easily dismiss evidence about teaching and learning, how do they react to evidence that does not fully support their theoretical stance in their particular area of expertise. Do they simply dismiss evidence there as well?

I can’t help but have my faith in their scientific objectivity shaken by these interactions that take place year after year.

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3 thoughts on “Wilful Blindness

  1. I think that goes to show how context dependent critical thinking can be. I doubt very much that the scholars who dismiss evidence on teaching also play fast and loose with evidence in their own disciplines.

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  2. I agree with Paul. These examples do not necessarily represent the attitudes toward evidence as much as they do the attitudes toward teaching and learning. Many people still believe that teaching is an innate talent – you either have it or you don’t. Furthermore, many think that the process of learning is ineffable. If these conditions are indeed true (I do not believe that they are), then there can be no meaningful improvement of teaching and learning. If you want people to evaluate the evidence of pedagogical efficacy, you must first convince them that there is indeed a *science* of teaching and learning. It is only from this mindset that the data can be seriously considered and acted upon.

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  3. Given that the roots of the scholarship of learning lie in psychology, and that is the department that I work in, you would think that applying the principles of psychology (robust, longstanding, and well researched) would be a reasonable expectation. However, it is not. Although many of my colleagues understand the principles underlying the scholarship of learning, somehow, when it is applied to education, anecdotes become the order of the day, and evidence becomes meaningless.

    I know that confirmation bias is a real problem outside science,and I think that what we see when it comes to teaching and learning is simply confirmation bias – looking for the evidence that supports what they already believe. I am beginning to believe that confirmation bias is more widespread than we would like to admit. How often do we have researchers within their area of micro-specialism shrug and admit that maybe they (or their pet theory) is simply wrong – because the evidence does not support it. I have taught research methods classes for years – at all levels, and know very well that there are almost an infinite number of arguments that can be developed to explain away a finding that doesn’t fit.

    It isn’t the statistics that provide obfuscation but the biased use of reasoning and logic. The same applies to education. If the evidence doesn’t fit, discard it and use what you wanted. Everyone else does.

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