Too Good to be True: When Research and Values Collide

Let’s start with some quick opinions:

Flipped classrooms…

… can transform education and foster students’ independence, or

… are often a waste of time, and at best just rename stuff we already do.

A growth mindset…

… allows students to learn and become anything, or

… is just an over-hyped fad with little research support.

Multiple-choice questions…

… help me see what my students already know (and help them learn), or

… reduce knowledge to trivia, and enforce an authoritarian view of learning.

It seem strange that our profession can contain such starkly contrasting beliefs about core practices.

But if your experience is like mine, you know that debates among teachers can quickly arrive at these extremes. (If you hang out on Twitter, you probably see these clashes at their fiercest.)

Resolving Conflict with Research (?)

When we come across such vehement debates, we might propose an obvious way to settle them: research.

If the science shows X, well then, we teachers should believe X. And, we should run our classes and our schools the X way.


Alas, this solution might not work as well as we would hope. A recent essay by Brendan Schuetze (Twitter handle, @BA_Schuetze) helps explains why.

As Schuetze outlines, Mindset Theory lives in a strange place in the world of education.

On the one hand: research suggests that specific growth-mindset strategies offer some students modest benefits under particular circumstances. (Better said: they sometimes or probably do.)

On the other hand: lots of teachers and school systems think that…well…a growth mindset means that “anyone who tries can succeed at anything.”

How can it be that researchers (often) have one view of an educational theory, and teachers (often) have such a dramatically different understanding of that same theory?

The Values We Hold Influence the Beliefs We Adopt

To answer this question, Schuetze focuses on “values-alignment.” That is: we (teachers specifically, people generally) are quick to endorse research that aligns with values we already hold.

If (and this is my example, not Schuetze’s) we value innovation and the transformative power of technology, we’re likelier to think that flipped classrooms will radically improve education.

We might even come across research supporting this value-aligned position.

If we value tradition and the transformative power of face-to-face conversation, we’re likelier to think that this flipped-classroom nonsense will fail quickly and spectacularly, and we’ll go back to the methods that have always worked.

We can easily discover research supporting this position as well.

In his essay, Schuetze takes the example of growth mindset.

In a well-sourced recap, Schuetze explains:

Teacher education programs tend to endorse transformative constructivist pedagogy (as opposed to more traditional pedagogy), where social justice and the socio-emotional needs of students are increasingly seen as legitimate educational concerns…

In line with this affective turn, teachers are encouraged to be concerned not only with intellectual development, but also with molding, inspiring, and caring for their students–or what might be summarized in one word as the “growth” of students.

Because teacher training programs encourage us to value students’ “growth” quite broadly, our profession tends to believe any research that holds up growth as an outcome.

And we might not ask hard questions before we embrace that belief.

More Concerns, Possible Solutions

In fact (I’m inferring this from Schuetze’s essay), we’re likelier to over-interpret the plausibility and effectiveness of that theory.

Imagine a modest, research-based suggestion aligns with our values:

Researchers say, “X might help these students a bit under these circumstances.”

We teachers hear, “X transforms students — it’s almost magic!”

In my experience — and here I’m going WAY beyond Schuetze’s essay — our hopeful beliefs then call up the very “evidence” we need to persuade ourselves:

Well-meaning teachers write hopeful books that extrapolate substantially from the research they cite.

Blog posts — in an effort to make complex research clear — gloss over the nuance and uncertainty that researchers typically highlight.

Edu-Tweeps with thousands of followers simplify complex ideas into 280 characters.

Suddenly, it seems “everybody believes” that “research shows” what we already value.

To face this problem, I think we need to combine several steps.

Too Good

In the first place, I think it helps to focus on Schuetze’s troubling insight. We might find, someday, that a teaching practice BOTH helps our students learn AND contradicts our values.

Perhaps flipped classrooms really do help students (for the most part), even though we value tradition and face-to-face pedagogy.

Or, to reverse the case,

Perhaps growth mindset strategies don’t really help, even though we value students’ overall growth above their narrow academic achievement.

In these cases, we should honestly accept the tension between research and values. If we act as if they align when they don’t, we won’t make decisions as effectively or thoughtfully as we should.

That is: we can quite appropriately say:

This intervention might not help students learn more. But it aligns with a core value in our community, so we’ll do it anyway.

In the second case, I think we should hone an odd kind of skepticism:.

If a research-based teaching suggestion sounds deeply good — that is, if it aligns with our values — then we have an extra responsibility to assume it’s too good to be true.

Does “authenticity” sound good to you? You should BEWARE a pedagogical strategy called “authentic exploration.”

Does “mindfulness” sound uplifting? You should BEWARE mindfulness initiatives.

Have you (like me) always enjoyed being outdoors with the trees? You (like me) should BEWARE any teaching initiative with the words “woods” or “nature” or “wilderness” in the title.

Of course, when you warily undertake a review of the research literature, you just might find that it does in fact support this core value. (Quick: let’s all study in a forest!)

But we owe it to our profession and our students to admit: the values we hold dear might lead us into too credulous acceptance of the next new thing.

I (hope I) value my students’ development too much to let that happen.

tags: category: L&B Blog

One Response to Too Good to be True: When Research and Values Collide

  1. CTabbert says:

    Thank you for explaining the circular process that actually makes many of these initiatives highly successful! Any teacher valuing a certain approach and the research that supports it will develop new programs or curricula that transfers their positive values to their students, able to guide them on a pathway to new ways of thinking and accomplishing – no harm done. Therefore, I can’t acknowledge any reason to BEWARE.

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