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Saturday, November 20, 2010

In education conversations, the mutually assured destruction is "Prove it!"

When discussing any of the "rules" in Unschooling Rules, a skeptic may reasonably say, "Prove it."

For example, consider Rule 45, "Tests don't work. Get over it. Move on." Can I prove that tests don't work?

Here are some thoughts.

  • Can schools prove that tests do work? Billions of dollars (all told) are spent on tests each year. Is there any evidence that they work? Has research been used to evolve the tests to be better than the alternatives? What are the alternatives to today's tests? Or has short-term practically (for uniformity, convenience, control, and for unambiguity, but not for diagnostic or evaluative properties) shaped the evolution and spread of tests as a tool?
  • What form would such a study (or series of studies) even take? How would such a comparison be evaluated? What evidence would genuinely convince people? Whom would people trust to conduct the study (I have a hard time believing either vendors selling products OR academics who have committed to the current system)?
  • Can change even occur in the current system if there was consensus that tests encourage the wrong behavior and select the wrong people? Do we, as a nation, have the imagination to consider genuine alternatives to tests for the goals of evaluation and motivation (not in that order)?

I have found, as much as I respect and try to develop rigorous evidence, there are thorny traps around "prove it." Many people who pretend to be scientific by invoking "I want proof" are just hiding their dogma.

  • People who support the status quo can (pretend to) require the perfect argument before moving on.
  • People who can't change will ask for "proof" in order to justify their own lack of change. They will say, "Oh, this experiment was done on white, suburban children. Of course it would not work in the inner city." Or "this evaluation was done over only five years. It needs to be much longer."

Schools best defense against change is that schools have never been proven to work, and so nothing can ever be proven to work better.

"Prove it" must never be used as a unilateral weapon. So is the answer to the evolution of education not to be rigorous? Is the answer to reform to be capricious? Not at all.

I would argue that the answer is two fold:

  • First, there needs to be clinical trials in education, akin to cancer research. There needs to be open, long terms studies with explorations and comparisons against very different approaches.
  • Second, at this stage, there needs to be a diversity of approaches. The role of Government should be anti-monopoly and pro-diversity, not pro-monopoly and anti-diversity, at least in the absence of any proof.
Finally, several organizations like touting a variation of "Evidence based Research" or "Research based Conclusions," or some other hard-to-refute framework. The problem there is that there is no evidence that an evidence-based-decisions strategy works in improving the human condition, including the subsection of schools.


  1. "People who can't change will ask for "proof" in order to justify their own lack of change."

    This right there resumes why people are still complacent with a schooling system that is obsolete and inadequate.

    The problem isn't lack of proof but fear of change and paralysis from the realization that changing the way we educate our children also means changing the way we manage our work, priorities and lives.

  2. I agree. Celeste. Beware the person asking proof who had no intention of changing.

  3. My “proof” has always been to ask a simple hypothetical question that compares the two extremes:

    Take a 5 year old kid and send him to school. There he spends twelve years doing everything he is required to do. He sacrifices time with friends and family to complete every homework assignment, complete every work sheet, finish every reading assignment, jump through every hoop and in the end becomes valedictorian of his graduating class.

    Take another 5 year old and put him on a sailboat with his family where they spend the next twelve years sailing around the world. He learns reading, writing and arithmetic naturally, as the need arises and time permits. But he also gets to experience first hand every continent, dozens of countries, hundreds of cultures, cities, museums, historical sites and road side markers.

    At the end of twelve years, which child had a better education?

  4. Roy,

    Even on a simpler example, I am amazed when teachers try to talk parents out of taking their children on one-in-a-lifetime family trips for just a week.