The failures of intuition in education

For some reason I’m in a fairly contrarian frame of mind tonight. So starting a series of blog posts listing and criticising widely held positions in education seems like the thing to do. I’m sure you have your favourite example, feel free to add them to the comments. Also feel free to add pointers to resources – both for and against – the examples.

The spark for the idea comes from this article title “Why Is the Research on Learning Styles Still Being Dismissed by Some Learning Leaders and Practitioners?” from the ACM eLearn Magazine. The article argues that (one of) the reason(s) where the idea of learning styles are still widely given credence within education is because they appeal to intuition and common sense. The idea resonates with people and hence it is hard to convince them of the alternate view.

I’m pretty sure learning styles aren’t the only example of this problem within the field of education. Given that I’m taking up a role as a teacher educator in the new year, it seems a good time to start adding to my list. The following starts with my initial list and I plan to expand on these over the coming weeks. (There’s a connection between this idea and the list of cognitive biases I included in the initial Ps Framework presentation – start on slide 154.)

The initial list

I haven’t bothered to define what it meant by “failure of intuition”, that would only prematurely close off discussion. I’m happy to live with messiness.

So, my initial list:

  1. Learning styles.
    Steve Wheeler calls learning styles A convenient untruth and points to a range of additional resources arguing against learning styles. Including a 2010 article from Change that argues for three reasons why learning styles continue to be accepted:
    1. Broader claims (e.g. all learners are different) with which learning styles connect are true.
    2. Learning styles suggest that everyone has strengths, it’s egalitarian, which much be good.
    3. Learning styles have become common knowledge.
  2. The learning pyramid.
    The most visited post on my blog is this one that argues that the learning pyramid has no support whatsoever from research. The comments on this post are symptomatic of the intuition/common sense problem. The commenters – including some apparent “gurus” on the education publication/conference circuit – argue for the learning pyramid because it just makes sense to them. This is especially problematic because – as argued by this post (I’ve just read the comments on this post, I recommend them, but that could just be my own confirmation bias) – the learning pyramid resonates with constructivist theories of learning, which as everyone knows must be good.

    Will Thalheimer has a blog post critical of the learning pyramid and associated ideas.

  3. People are rational.
    This isn’t specific to education, most other professions assume that people are rationale. Especially when they are in a management role (or from the IT division). This list is based on the idea that people are not rational decision makers. We do not actively search through all the evidence, weight that evidence and make objective decisions. We are pattern matching intelligences, when evidence matches our established patterns, we select for it.
  4. Leadership.
    Earlier this week Dean Groom tweeted a link to “What we know about successful school leadership” from the American Educational Research Association (AERA). It starts with the following

    Scratch the surface of an excellent school and you are likely to find an excellent principal. Peer into a failing school and you will find weak leadership.

    20 years experience in university (yes, it is only anecdotal evidence) suggests that such a causal link between “good” leaders and organisational performance (good or otherwise) is questionable. But this belief in the importance of leadership to outcomes seems to be a key part of the teleological myth underlying much or modern organisational practice.

    In Managing without leadership: Towards a theory of organizational function argues against the causal link and attempts to develop “a causal, bottom-up account of organizational practice, in place of top-down theories of leadership”.

  5. Digital native and immigrants.
    This one is fairly obvious.

So, what other examples of intuition failure exist in the discipline of education?

4 thoughts on “The failures of intuition in education

  1. I think one of the more interesting fields to emerge in recent years has been behavioural economics. I’ve been teaching myself about it for a wee while. Very quickly it arose (I think) cos most economic models were based on humans as rational decision makers. Funny thing is we ain’t! :) So this field, which has a scope of pretty much everything humans do, is kinda interesting. There is a good set of talks on Brockman’s The Edge (If I knew how to link it i would) – this has a collection of the main names, key pubs etc. The Nudge is a popular account of this stuff. You may find it worth a peek re intuition, teaching etc.

  2. Seriously, though, I do disagree a bit on your take of the importance of leadership, especially given that virtually all organizations are built on the pyramid. If we accept the notion that most organizations contain a myriad of special interests, politicking is guaranteed. Without a strong sense of purpose and direction from the top, the special interests fight amongst themselves and the organization pretty much goes no where. I’ve worked in under both circumstances and I definitely prefer strong leadership.

  3. Leadership is so hopelessly entangled with “person at the top” that it is a truly useless but ‘feel-good’ word that only means you are adding insult to injury by demanding that lower-paid “followers” (who are rarely mentioned, btw — the leader leads in a rosy vacuum) grovel in amazement and delight at how well they are being led. “The boss is not just in charge of controlling me, but I would do what s/he wanted anyway — such a joy to be led — here’s little old me, and hey! there’s my leader, look!!! so — um, visionary, transformational, inspirational, reputational, celebrational, situated, distributed, cashed-up — and so say all of us, hip hip hooray for the boss, all you followers!!! ‘ray, ‘ray, ‘RAY!!!. (But oh my, grandma, what big teeth you have!)

    Leadership is ‘REALLY’ — um, whatever package I am selling at great expense in the fashion business of leadership training. These days leadership is often said to be ‘really’ about SELF-leadership. This is more than usually nonsensical, but it gets over that awkward problem of everyone wanting to be “a leader” in a vacuum. No need of any followers at all. Hey, I’m, a doctor, a lawyer, a dentist, a teacher, a mailroom boy — but I went to that course, I learned the little pyramid thinggy, and NOW I’M A LEADER TOO! Oh, hooray, at last everyone follows so willingly … heil, heil!

    The leadership water is so muddy that when you start talking about leadership of any kind (including distributed leadership or situated leadership) you easily end up in a mess because half (or more) of the time you are talking about the person at the top, who has positional authority (supervision and control) in addition to whatever traits, dispositions, competencies, skills, models and the rest you might be spruiking in a “leadership program”. The other half you are claiming it has nothing to do with being in charge and you want everyone in the show demonstrating that they have ‘leadership capabilities’.

    What Lakomski (2005 and elsewhere) is on about is the lack of any demonstrated causal link between leadership (HOWEVER defined, including situated and distributed) and organisation results. Lakomski takes a broadly Deweyan view on this. Dewey said we must “advance to a belief in a plurality of changing, moving, individualized goals and ends, and to a belief that principles, criteria, laws are intellectual instruments for analyzing individual or unique situations.” (Dewey 1920, pp.162–163).

    Leadership may have a place in the military “follow me over the top, men!” but its transfer from military to management in the command-and-control view of organisations has not been demonstrated to be an effective way of mobilising the creativity and willingness of people in organisations. Needing a visionary leader to motivate you is more than a nonsense, it’s a personal tragedy. It places motivation extrinsically, abstracting it from the contexts in which tasks of all kinds occur. And we wonder why there is de-motivated ‘presentism’ in the workplace. I know — let’s ask a leader!

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