Thursday, 2 February 2012

Let's say something so stupid we have to call it science: obnoxious, loud children 'learn better'

My learning style involves everyone else not learning.
NEWSFLASH: A study of 12,000 baby Tyrannosaurus Rexes found that the larger, more aggressive calves with longer, sharper teeth tended to outperform their more civil, amenable peers in standardised herbivore intimidation tests (SHIT). This contradicts the commonly held view that agreeable, polite mega-carnivores would be more successful. This raises questions about the need for T-Rex mentors to consider other methods.....(continues in a similar vein forever and ever until everyone dies crying)

Comedy Gold dropped into my email box this morning; a timebomb of stupid that I normally associate with people 'standing on street corners, selling coloured pencils from a tin cup,' to quote the Hitch. Only this time it was a paper written by m'learned educational scientists at Durham University, and blazed on the BBC news website here. The claim was that children who shout out in classes do better than their kinder, lovelier peers.

If Charles Darwin read this report he'd be chewing his long beard like Gandalf and wondering what all the fuss was about. 'Competitive, unpleasant organisms unfettered by social mores or self-restraint get more of what they want' isn't exactly news. Nor is 'teachers forced by obnoxious organic alarm clocks to focus attention on hitting the snooze button until Hell freezes over.'


'The lead author of the research, Peter Tymms, head of Durham University's school of education, said that among children with ADHD symptoms, those who got excited and shouted out seemed to be more "cognitively engaged and as a result learn more".
"Perhaps those children also benefit from receiving additional feedback and attention from their teacher," suggested Prof Tymms.'

TEACH ME! TEACH ME!
YOU THINK? Noisy, greedy little attention-hoovers grab attention, do they? Well, KNOCK ME DOWN WITH A FEATHER. Who knew? Maybe they should ALL be like that, eh? Those quiet little f*ckers, keeping their heads down and working hard, what do they know, eh? Despicable little arse-limpets. They should step the HELL up and get some attention for themselves. Except....except if they all did that....then there wouldn't BE a survival advantage any more because the teacher would be split like a kaleidoscope into a million shards of fragmented attention. So for anyone to grab more attention than their peers they would have to....SHOUT LOUDER AND LOUDER UNTIL THERE WAS NOTHING LEFT IN THE COLD BROKEN UNIVERSE BUT THE BAYING SCREAMS OF CHILDREN HOWLING UNTIL THEIR THROATS HAD TURNED TO STONE.

Let's not do that.

'Ms Merrell, CEM's director of research and development, said she wanted to carry out further studies to see how pupils could be encouraged to shout out as part of the lesson.'

OH BOY OH BOY, I bet the teachers will be QUEUEING ROUND THE BLOCK for Ms Merrell to start doing her experiments in their class. Perhaps after that we can test the effect of letting kids fling faeces at the teacher like Barbary Apes. Form a line, comrades.

"We need to look more closely at this behaviour and how the interaction can be managed in the classroom." 

The data suggests that this is optimal.
No, chum; we don't. I, and every teacher, know how this interaction can be managed in the classroom. You don't allow it. If we allow the loud mouths and the intemperate to dominate the time and attention of the teacher, to guzzle the oxygen of attention, to monopolise discussion and personal resources, then all we do is create a war of all against all, where the loudest, neediest and least agreeable come first. Which is fine if we are breeding the next generation of politicians, transvestite cabaret artists or X-Factor participants. Less so if we seek to sculpt human beings.

Other aspects of this paper:

1. The title: 'ADHD and academic attainment: Is there an advantage in impulsivity?' Are they kidding me on? Are they really asking that question? Normally Educational Social Science needs to be pretty brave to show its face round my manor, but this takes the whole packet of biscuits. Are they having me on? Ask anyone with an ounce of language and experience and they would tell you the answer to the question: yes, of course there is, sometimes. But it still makes you a dick. I look forward to the follow up: 'stealing things- does it mean you get more stuff?'

For F*CK'S sake.

2. 'However, it is also recognised that these behavioural problems can lead to children being excluded from pre-school and school from an early age, and that early interventions are promising.' Or to put it another way, kids who shout out and misbehave get in trouble a lot, and if you work hard with them to control themselves at an early age, they can improve. Which we already know. How do we know? We work with kids. Isn't that grand?

School Uniform? More research is needed.
3. In the 'alternative hypotheses' section of the paper, the writers scratch their undoubtedly pointy chins, and ponder their own fallibility:

'Could an unmeasured variable, such as the intelligence, confidence or knowledge of some young children be acting as the key causal factor? This is a possibility; only intervention studies could firmly establish a direct causal link.'

Say it isn't so! You think...you think it might be something else? You think maybe it wasn't just the shouting out that gave them an educational advantage? I love the cautious, wide-eyed uncertainty allowed to creep in at the end, as if they were scared to even ask the question: is it possible that human behaviour is so complex, that the causal density for potential explanations is almost infinite, and the possibility of exacting a clear predictive mechanism is next-to impossible? Let me answer that one for you: yes, it is possible.

It's possible that you wrote this paper before you wrote it. It's possible that you found exactly what you were looking for. It's possible that the first ten cars I see tomorrow will be red: does that mean that Friday generates a glut of scarlet Hyundais? If, every time I wake up on a Sunday morning I have a sore head, a wet mattress and a pocket full of sticky pennies, can I infer that Sunday mornings cause incontinence, cephalalgia and amnesia, or should I look to the pile of empty Laphroaig bottles surrounding my bed? 

4. Most importantly, this paper actually only makes the claim that pushiness is a competitive learning advantage in the group that already displays inattentiveness; in other words, being quiet and well behaved still outweighs all the other factors in terms of educational achievement correlation, as you might expect. It's just that the shouty kids who are inattentive do better than the quiet kids who are inattentive. Now that's not so much of a claim,but in my opinion, the paper frames these themes in such as way as to present them in a more newsworthy and provocative, bone-headed light. The news article certainly does.


T-Rex: surprisingly good Value-Added.
Social science, I despair of you. You're not really a science are you? Like an ape pretending to be a prince, you can wear the robes and hold a sceptre, but you'll never pass the laws. You can hide behind as many abstracts, tables and T-scores as you like, but you aren't physics. You aren't chemistry. You aren't even biology. Until educational research remembers what it can do- act as a commentary on human experience, suggest and frame that experience- and what it can't- discern causation in anything  more than the most rudimentary sense when it comes to human desires and direction- then I'll file papers like these squarely under 'that's nice, did you have fun writing it?' and turn to the classroom for the laboratory, the research, and the Petri dish of my teaching.

But more than that, I despair of the way that papers like this are presented in the national media. Normally sober and I'm sure, reliable journalists put things like this under the magnifying glass, cranking up the claims and turning a fairly standard investigation into data, into something beyond even the claims of the writers. The paper itself is no worse than many others, and was, I'm sure the result of many hours of dedicated enquiry and analyses. It isn't the author's fault that the factual conclusions of the research are so unremarkable, although it is their fault that the suggested implications are so knuckle-headed. But the BBC online news portal seems to be increasingly hyperbolic, as if no Thursday could be complete without a claim so absurd that the Krankies would have blushed to imagine it. 


And of course, the real heart ache is that people will pick up on research like this, and attempt to shoe horn it somehow into the classroom, advising impressionable teachers to let their kids shout out because of some imagined benefit it brings. What kind of people? Normally people who have never taught in a classroom, never will, and yet have the kind of stones to tell people like you and me how children best learn. Get back in your pit, weasels. We have a job to do.


Teacher Voice.


Thanks to @Bio_Joe for passing on the paper to me, and highlighting the alternative hypothesese.
Read the paper yourself here. It's a barrel of laughs. At least it's short.

1 comment:

  1. Very good indeed. I do enjoy reading your posts.

    ReplyDelete