Educators: Don’t Assume A Can Opener

1282274161_d342cf26f7_nThere is a famous joke about the way economists often undermine the usefulness of their conclusions by making too many simplifying assumptions. Here’s one of the older formulations:

There is a story that has been going around about a physicist, a chemist, and an economist who were stranded on a desert island with no implements and a can of food. The physicist and the chemist each devised an ingenious mechanism for getting the can open; the economist merely said, “Assume we have a can opener”!

It’s probably not fair to pick on economists in this way when then the abuse of simplifying assumptions is at least as widespread in education.

For instance, arguably the trendiest thing going in education today is ‘grit‘: “the tendency to sustain interest in and effort toward very long-term goals”.

We all agree, I suspect, that a tendency to persevere is desirable, and that we should prefer that students have more of that tendency than less of it. So it is perhaps not surprising that since the term was popularized by researcher Angela Duckworth many teachers and schools have begun reorganizing their work to better promote and instill ‘grit’ in their students.

And yet, here’s Duckworth being interviewed by Alexander Russo last month:

Can you talk about how to teach grit in the classroom?
AI don’t know that anybody’s totally figured out how to teach it: What do you do exactly, even when we do have insights from research? How do you get your teachers to speak in ways that support growth mind-set? That’s why, through a nonprofit I helped cofound called the Character Lab, we’re organizing some lectures for teachers about self-control, grit, and related topics. It’s not totally prescriptive, because the science is still developing.

Not to put too fine a point on it, the world’s leading expert on grit is saying that educators who are substantially altering their work to better teach grit are doing so without much in the way of scientific backing or guidance.

In other words, in their excitement over grit many teachers and school leaders have simply assumed – without justification – that it is a trait that can be taught and that they know how to teach it.

This is by no means a problem limited to grit. Before grit it was “21st century skills“, “social-emotional learning”, “critical thinking”, or “scientific thinking”. What unites these fads is that they all, to varying degrees, suffer from a lack of rigorous scientific evidence indicating that they can be taught at all, let alone that we have reliable ways of teaching them in schools. (“Fluid intelligence” may be next.)

Meanwhile, we have good evidence indicating that schools today are reasonably – if imperfectly – effective at teaching kids the less-glamorous knowledge and skills – e.g., in math, science, and history – that we associate with “traditional” education.

So while it’s a good idea for researchers and educators to experiment with methods for teaching other, “higher-order” or “non-cognitive” abilities, it’s also important to remember that it is probably premature to ask schools to move away from their core competencies if we can’t also give them a clear alternate path forward.

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  1. Posted March 4, 2014 at 7:37 PM | Permalink

    I’m not sure I see non-cognitive skills as either “higher order” or separate from cognitive skills. One of the most compelling reasons to try and improve non-cognitive skills is that they’re often stronger predictors of performance on precisely the type of “traditional” educational metrics you mention. Grit, for example, was more closely tied with GPA in one study than IQ.

    Not only are non-cognitive skills important alone, they’re necessary for true growth in cognitive abilities.

    • Posted March 4, 2014 at 8:48 PM | Permalink

      I agree about the importance of non-cognitive skills, and am also often puzzled by the assumptions that are loaded into the cognitive/non-cognitive distinction.

      Unfortunately, the fact that they are important doesn’t imply that we have reliably good ways of teaching non-cognitive skills.

      • Posted March 5, 2014 at 12:12 AM | Permalink

        I agree that we don’t really know how to teach them, I just disagree with the false dichotomy that we can choose to teach either cognitive OR non-cognitive when improving their non-cognitive skills subsequently helps students improve their cognitive skills.

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  • By soma on August 1, 2014 at 8:28 AM


    Educators: Don’t Assume A Can Opener | Paul Bruno

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