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The Education Community Can’t Read or Research

Cardiff Giant, 19th Century Hoax

The education community has been swindled, hoodwinked, bamboozled – and what it says about the education debate’s commitment to truth is damning.

The Hoax

On July 29, Alexander Russo published a post on his This Week in Education blog called “Television: “Classroom Intervention” Appears This Fall.” It detailed A&E’s announcement that a reality show would debut this September exposing professional interventions for struggling teachers.

News Flash: There’s no show. It’s fake. And the ed community swallowed it right up.

Claus from publicschoolinsights.org was the first to bite:

“This could be very good, or it could be very bad. Depends on who’s creating the intervention, I guess.

Teachers TV in the UK offers an example of how it could work–though in 15-minute segments”

I was surprised that an ed commentary regular took the bait despite the post being listed under the category of “Made-Up News” – that detail went by the wayside. So did the lack of a link, perhaps to a page on A&E’s site, that would have more fully described the show’s premise and goals. That didn’t matter to Claus (and surely many other readers who didn’t bother to comment), who took it as gospel – despite being unverified – and went on with the day.

I chimed in, laying a foundation for my post-to-be and hoping to encourage contributions from others (which didn’t happen):

“From reading teacher-to-teacher discussions on blogs, chats, and events like the weekly Twitter #edchat, I had the impression that all teachers were motivated, future-thinking “lifelong learners” – along with most of their colleagues.

That A&E has rounded up a few teachers in need of improvement will be a difficult reality for many of the education cult leaders to deny.”

Then I posted.

The Natives Are Restless – and Bad at Research

Much is made about “digital natives” – the generation who grew up with broadband internet, fast computers, iPods, iPhones, iEverything – and their ability to multi-task, conduct in-depth research and create media. Some, like Mark Bauerlein in “The Dumbest Generation,” have ripped holes in theories that digital natives use these tools to increase their knowledge and productivity at a faster clip than non-natives. Others have more generally criticized the natives as familiar with technology, but sloppy with its use.

Study after study confirms that students fail to examine information found on the internet, follow up appropriate links/citations, or read beyond the first hit in Google. What the education community omits is that they – teachers, administrators, scholars, professors, policy wonks – are, for the most part, as careless as students when it comes to reading and researching online.

Studies Show…

Emily Alpert, an excellent education writer (and there aren’t many) from San Diego, Tweeted a link to a ReadWriteWeb piece about this problem. From “So-Called “Digital Natives” Not Media Savvy, New Study Shows”:

“A new study coming out of Northwestern University, discovered that college students have a decided lack of Web savvy, especially when it comes to search engines and the ability to determine the credibility of search results. Apparently, the students favor search engine rankings above all other factors. The only thing that matters is that something is the top search result, not that it’s legit.”

They give it a quick read and moved on without thinking twice:

“During the study, one of the researchers asked a study participant, “What is this website?” The student answered, “Oh, I don’t know. The first thing that came up.”

That exchange sums up the overall results from this study: many students trusted in rankings above all else. In fact, a quarter of the students, when assigned information-seeking tasks, said they chose a website because – and only because – it was the first search result.

Only 10% of the students made mention of the site’s author or that author’s credentials while completing tasks. However, in reviewing the screen-capture footage of those respondents, the researchers found that even in this supposedly savvy minority, none actually followed through to verify the identification or qualifications of the site’s authors.”

For the millionth time, kids are sloppy with internet research (though they’re slightly more skeptical when it comes to Wikipedia).

I decided to mix the findings in these articles with the response to Russo’s post to see how closely the ed community actually reads the information it discusses. That night I wrote a post called “Teacher Interventions, Education Policy and Common Sense.” The first part of the post opined on the A&E show and the questions it raises in the context of a seminal problem in public education: that the ed community doesn’t always get the relationship between the forest and the trees.

And readers gobbled it up. Stephen Downes was the first to comment. He thinly criticized my claim to read a lot of ed content, explained that he disagrees with the entire post “point for point,” and that he “won’t bother with the point by point refutation,” case closed. Had he clicked the link to Russo’s original piece – or Googled, or bothered to verify any of it in any way – he would have seen that the content was fake. Instead, indignation and automatic disagreement took priority to informed debate.

Swing and a miss, Mr. Downes. It was an eephus, not a fastball.

Stephen’s response came within 15 minutes of my post. I wanted to encourage him, and anyone reading the post/comment debate after him, to take another look. I replied:

“I know you follow a tremendous number of sources – your RSS feed compilation is more extensive than any I’ve ever seen in education.

As always, you and everyone else can take my word for it, disregard it completely or behave somewhere in between (which is probably best). Then we can discuss the differences and see what’s true and what isn’t.”

I gently pushed for a re-examination – including undermining my own credibility in a subtle way – but that didn’t happen. It rarely happens in the online education debates; instead, folks tend to  go-go-go, pushing their agenda – no homework, smaller class sizes, charter school expansion, etc. – with blinders on. But occasionally, someone takes the time to do all that research, fact-finding and verification they spend their careers  preaching to the digital natives.

At least he (and the friends/colleagues I personally linked my post to) and the other readers aren’t alone: Russo’s hoax grew tiny little legs. On Joanne Jacobs’ site, “Teaching Badly on TV” got a couple comments.

Kim Caise, Our Hero: She Trusted, But Verified

In the Northwestern study (Trust Online: Young Adults’ Evaluation of Web Content, available at the International Journal of Communication), 0 out of 102 did what we’d consider complete research, despite students  (presumably) trying to do their best. I started writing this piece when my post, “Teacher Interventions, Education Policy and Common Sense” hit 102 views. 1 out of those 102 – Kim Caise, who writes about education technology – followed up what she’d read and commented:

“As I visited the website you mentioned regarding the upcoming ‘Classroom Intervention’ show. The category for the post is ‘made up news’ and some of the other posts in that category by the author indicate the posts were fake and actually made up. Seeing that there isn’t any discussion or mention of the show on A&E’s website, I tend to believe that this show is actually made up as well.”

Here’s what Kim did:

  • She read the text closely and with a bit of skepticism;
  • Followed the link to Alexander Russo’s original entry to reference it with my post;
  • Read Russo’s entry, including the category titles, which she followed to place his original “Intervention” post in context;
  • Researched A&E’s website (and probably Google as a whole) to verify;
  • Put together the available evidence to form a conclusion (in this case, that some of us were full of it)
  • Notified the community and added to the debate by leaving a descriptive comment.

In short, Ms. Caise did exactly what the ed community preaches to digital natives, while the balance of readers dropped the ball.

To Lie or Not to Lie

Once I took a class that was filled with the types  those concerned about the quality of higher education lament: mindless neo-hippies, illogical diversophiles (whose lives, paradoxically, are anything but diverse), professional protesters (who seldom grasped either side of an issue) and the well-meaning smart kids who’d encountered too few good teachers. Most had tunnel vision with regard to most complex social/political issues, so when I had an opportunity to read something to the class, I chose a short letter about the lynching of Zachariah Walker.

I edited the letter to make it anonymous in terms of time, place and demographics, though it was clear that a black man had been lynched for killing a white man. I asked a few questions at the end that gauged what the class thought about the letter. They expressed with confidence that it was about a black man being lynched in the deep South in the 19th century and that the letter-writer was a black man, too. Had to be, said one, because no one else could have understood the complexities of the issue – what happened, why, what it said about the community – the way a black person could.

Walker was lynched in Coatesville, Pennsylvania in 1911 – both details were tiny surprises to the other students. And the letter was written by a white reverend. It was the first time I’d seen a number of people have that blank, 5-second “I’ve just realized that I’ve totally misunderstood this issue to the detriment of myself and others” look.

After the class I talked with the professor – with whom I talked frequently, so we were candid and friendly – about my bait’n'switch. I thought it was harmless and perhaps would push a student to a stark realization about how they process, usually without enough consideration, complex issues. She thought that it was a mistake and that in terms of teaching strategy, creating skepticism might have negative consequences down the road.

I’ve never made up my mind on this issue (which is a good discussion for another post, probably on another site). I see the merits of both sides, but I’ve leaned slightly – very, very slightly – toward the position that a refresher on skepticism is a valuable thing when it’s infrequent and about something significant.

Significant, like students, teachers, and the rest of the education community not knowing how to read or research properly.

What Can We Do?

This is not a scientifically rigorous study. It’s not longitudinal and it’s not exhaustive. It is, in my opinion, representative of the sloppy – and downright lazy – approaches to the education debate that we see in too many comment threads and too many back-and-forth arguments.

And what’s worse is that it exposes the lack of commitment the ed community has to ensuring serious debate and the pursuit of truth.

The moral of the story is that progressive debate in education – and any other field – requires a bit of care. It’s hard and it’s time-consuming, but professional responsibility dictates that we do it.

We aren’t perfect. For example, the original Tweeted article cited University of Chicago students as subjects rather than University of Illinois – Chicago students and I re-Tweeted it without catching the error. Mistakes happen. But if teachers, administrators and policymakers are going to maintain credibility and engage in productive debate, they need to practice what they preach.

Trust, but verify.

16 Responses to “The Education Community Can’t Read or Research”

  1. You publish a bunch of fake stuff. I weigh in and say I disagree with all of it. And I was somehow wrong here?

    Some things to note…
    - from my perspective, seeing you publish fake stuff is nothing new
    - the stuff you posted here had that whiff all over it
    - and it was so bad I spotted it in 15 minutes

  2. Stephen,

    if anything else has been fake, I’d applaud you calling attention to it – and you should. It’s important for all of us that I’m corrected when wrong.

    You were lazy, you were duped – it happens (as I pointed out, I made a sloppy mistake in my original re-Tweet, too). You can recognize that and go on with things, preferably with a stronger commitment to reading and research that might inform your criticism.

    Whenever you decide that you’d like to contribute to the debate, you’re welcome to join in.

  3. Claus says:

    OK, I’ll admit it. I was bamboozled. I was an idiot. I can’t read. I can’t research. I’m a failure.

    Or am I? I wrote in the subjunctive–so does that let me off the hook? (Be kind.)

    Or how about a retroactive justification? Something along these lines: Reality television blinded me. It blurs the lines between the sublime and the ridiculous, the serious and the absurd, the real and the made up. Our corrosive popular culture has begun to destroy my brain!

    Well, maybe I just blew it–but I console myself with the thought that it was just a comment dashed off after a moment’s thought. (Another symptom of mental decline in the internet age?) At least I’ve given a sympathetic ear to researchers who tell us that the internet isn’t all good, all the time.

  4. Claus,

    You’re right, you blew it. No one’s immune to this. Sometimes I do it in tiny ways, like the Tweet screw-up I cited; sometimes I do it in big ways. For lack of a better term, we need to exercise constant vigilance.

    But is it a big deal? This time, no.

    I’m not kidding when I say or Tweet that reading is hard, time-consuming work. It really is. The time it takes to read something in full, especially with the volume of stuff we read, adds up. If we read it in RSS, sometimes we’ve got to manually open the link to see everything (for example, on This Week in Education’s RSS feed, categories don’t show – you have to go to the main post to see those).

    We’ve got some people who we trust unconditionally. We can let down our guard and roll with what they produce because, for whatever reason, we know them/their work well enough that we can get away with being less skeptical. Even so, they can make mistakes, the people they cite can make mistakes, etc.

    It’s hard, boring work, but if we always verified the information we use in the education debate, we’d make a lot more progress. It’s better than thousands of people riding their hobby horses in circles.

    I chose to highlight this particular post because – let’s be honest here – the post and the joke are insignificant. If we can take what was meant to be a quick humor and get something useful out of it, excellent.

    I don’t know if that’s happened here, but I do think we need a reminder now and again about making sure we put the best, most accurate argument forward.

  5. I’m “duped” only if I believe it. You are obviously confusing me with somebody who believes anything you write.

  6. p.s. if you actually read my post, you’d see I comment on only one thing – the amount of reading you claim to do – and argue that even if it is true (which I doubt) nothing follows from it.

    You can argue that this somehow constitutes being duped, but this doesn’t follow from what I wrote. Not that this for a moment will stop you from drawing the conclusion, because that’s what you do.

    I’m done with this thread. Have fun with your followers, but don’t imagine I’m reading any reply you make.

  7. Stephen,

    I don’t understand how you can toss all work from someone and expect to be taken seriously. And do I think you called the bluff immediately? Perhaps you did, but my money isn’t on it. If you knew of something patently, irrefutably false, you’d be all over it (I hope, at least – cue the “I refuse to bother to refute the post, but I will bother to troll the comments” music…). I might be wrong, but probably not.

    The truth is that we do good work and not so good work – and each time we do something, it should be evaluated on its own merits. It might be a naive, pie-in-the-sky approach, but in my opinion, it’s the best one that’s most fair and most productive.

    You do some great work. Sometimes you blow it. And each time you comment, Tweet, write a post, anything, I’ll evaluate it without regard to whatever has come before it, good or bad.

    That you commit to any other system of evaluation, let alone dismiss anyone’s work based on anything other than its merit, is troubling.

    2+2 is still 4, Stephen – even when you might not like the person doing the math.

  8. Stephen,

    I’ll break this down:

    “p.s. if you actually read my post, you’d see I comment on only one thing – the amount of reading you claim to do – and argue that even if it is true (which I doubt) nothing follows from it.”

    I’ll leave it up to you – and everyone else – to decide whether I actually read, or just subscribe to sites in RSS, or make the whole thing up.

    Ok, fine – you got me. I only “read” the websites with pictures.

    I’m interested in dialogue that advances debate on an issue. That’s why I’ve replied to you, Claus, others in e-mail/Twitter, etc.. I follow them and try to understand as much as possible about what they think and say – and my personal feelings about those people don’t factor in.

    “I’m done with this thread. Have fun with your followers, but don’t imagine I’m reading any reply you make.”

    Your participation is obviously up to you – thanks for taking the time to comment and reply, though I’m not sure how much value those comments have brought to the table. You don’t have to reply, but I’m going to reply to you and everyone else whenever I can. The debate isn’t about you, Stephen – I reply, and encourage others to reply, for the benefit of everyone reading.

    On a side note, this is one of the most bizarre comment threads I’ve ever had on this site.

  9. Mike says:

    Plus points for the eephus reference.

  10. I saw your first article pop up in my RSS reader, but I didn’t read it. Sadly, I read this post first, so I missed being completely duped. :) I need to keep up with my feeds.

    One thing that stood out to me with all of this is another route some educators take: apathy. They may do the research (even just a bit), find out something is fake, but not take the time to comment on it like your reader Kim did. I fall into this category. I’m still trying to figure out the whole #edchat + conversation thing, and it sometimes has so much info and so overwhelming that I just sit back and watch…and laugh at some stuff, glean good tips from others, etc. but silently. Maybe I should comment more.

    Thanks for getting me thinking.

    Cheers.

  11. Mike,

    Thanks – every time I see someone swing with all the ferocity they can muster and still miss the mark, I think of a muscled MLB’er fooled by a well-timed eephus pitch.

    Which means I think of it about 26 times a day when reading ed coverage.

    Really nice job rounding up the hiring/lay-off/re-hiring “edujobs” news in the HotAir Green Room today:

    http://hotair.com/greenroom/archives/2010/08/04/edujobs-clears-senate-while-schools-are-rehiring/

    I’d love to see your posts promoted from the Green Room to the main site – fingers crossed.

    Also, I’d love to see other ed journalists (like the guy in WaPo, was it?) stop stealing your research – or at least credit you. Probably a pipe dream.

  12. Corinne,

    I think a significant percentage of readers did exactly what you described – noticed it, disregarded it, moved on. Apathy abounds.

    It’s tough – on one hand, we want to say, “It’s your professional responsibility to get involved as much as you can, to right every wrong, etc.” – but we also need to recognize reality. It’s not realistic that someone has time to comment on every blog post, so I understand when folks don’t bother. We can only read and write so much – time’s a scarce resource.

    And if you’re following #edchat, you know that there’s a virtually inexhaustible supply of topics to weigh in on, whether it’s in support or criticism. That’s why I find it most critical that the original authors of ed pieces do all of *their* homework – it means readers can use their time efficiently. But that’s a big topic.

    Also, I was at the Wal-Mart in Santa Clarita a few weeks ago. I should’ve waved!

  13. Durn…..apparently I was laying out in the sun that day and missed the original posting.. :) Since my fun in the sun is just about up, I’ll try to stay current from now on.

  14. Vicki Nelson says:

    The Natives Are Restless – and Bad at Research

    My name is Vicki Nelson I am a student from the University of South Alabama. So what are you saying that natives that live here lazy. And non natives are not. That non natives use all the resources and the natives do not. If so why are they kicking them all out . Just a question? If you ask me you would think they would us they resources there self and try and help the the economy.

  15. Hi Mr. Tabor,
    My name is Kristen Phelps and I’m currently in Dr. Stanges’ EDM310 class at the University of South Alabama in Mobile, Alabama. I’ve been assigned to comment on your blog! I have to say that this was one of the most interesting and straight forward posts that I’ve seen this semester. I have to admire how subtle yet blunt you are. We have done several projects this semester about how extremely important it is for us (as prospective teachers) to make sure that we do research and lead our students to credible sources. I find it interesting that so many teachers jumped on board with this topic with out doing SOME research first. I really enjoyed reading this post and all of its comments. Thanks for sharing!

  16. The education community has been “stuck up” for many years now. With their inability to listen to others and to break away from traditional ideas, they have are stuck in the dark ages. It really is no wonder that so many children are growing up without the basic skills they help us all to make it through life.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. ‘Classroom Intervention’ is a hoax « Joanne Jacobs - [...] was classified as Made-up News, points out Mathew Tabor.  In other words, it’s a hoax. I linked to Russo ...

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