Science Says! Or Maybe It Doesn’t!

There are many reasons why science reporting in the popular media, especially television, is crap. But one major problem, according to a writer in Vox, comes from the fact that “half of the studies you read about in the news are wrong”.

At least it’s a fact according to a new study. Which means there’s a 50-50 chance that this particular research is wrong?

Breaking news blog

Maybe. But let’s continue anyway.

Yet as researchers in PLOS One recently found, journalists typically only cover those initial papers — and skip over writing about the clarifying meta-reviews that come later on.

What’s more, the study finds, journalists “rarely inform the public when [initial studies] are disconfirmed” — despite the fact around half of the studies journalists write about are later rebutted by follow-up studies.

What’s more, journalists really, really like to report on studies that deliver positive results — even though studies that deliver negative results are equally valuable.

And although journalists gravitate toward covering single studies concerning lifestyle choices such as diet or exercise, these were actually the least likely to be confirmed by a meta-review (as opposed to non-lifestyle papers on topics like genetics).

What do the researchers suggest could be done to improve the quality of the science reporting most people are likely to consume? The article offers one suggestion:

Pick up the phone, and ask researchers whether it is an initial finding, and, if so, they should inform the public that this discovery is still tentative and must be validated by subsequent studies.

Which is likely too complicated for both the journalists, most of whom probably studied very little science in school, and their audience’s attention span.

So, I have another approach to the matter: How about if we teach the process of analyzing scientific reporting to our students in K12? Not just in “science” class but as part of critical reading, media studies, and social studies instruction.

We want students to graduate with a fundamental understanding of the concepts of science. But that understanding should include the necessary skills to intelligently evaluate and question the reporting done on science issues presented in the media they consume. At the very least, they need to learn this very basic fact: “in science, truth takes time”.

Maybe, if we educate a more scientifically literate population, they would demand better quality science reporting.

However, that will also take time.

New Generation, Much of the Same

Researchers over analyzed and stereotyped baby boomers, Gen X, and Millennials (aka Gen Y), so now it’s time to do the same to Gen Z. And Adobe is right on the job with a new report on Gen Z in the Classroom.

For the study, they interviewed around a thousand students ages 11-17, plus 400 of their teachers. And what did they discover…

Gen Z students are most likely to describe themselves as “creative” and “smart.”

Gen Z students have mixed emotions when it comes to their future after they finish school – their top emotions are “excited” and also “nervous.”

Both students and teachers feel that Gen Z is only somewhat prepared for their futures after school.

Many students feel uncertain about what they want to do, worried about finding a job and concerned that school has not properly prepared them for the “real world.”

All of which could have been said about any group of teen agers in the US for decades. At 16, didn’t most of us think we were smarter than our parents? Were excited and nervous about the future? And were very uncertain about where we would be in ten years?

Being a technology company, a large part of Adobe’s focus in the survey was about the Gen Z group’s relationship with technology. But even then, most of the results are hardly surprising or particularly unique.

Both students and teachers agree that growing up in the age of technology is the defining characteristic of Gen Z – and technology provides more digital tools and outlets for creativity.

Computers & technology classes are the “sweet spot” – not only a favorite class, but also a top class to prepare students for the future and a top class for creativity.

Most say that increased access to digital tools and technology will make Gen Z more creative and better prepared for the future workforce. Still, some students and teachers think Gen Z’s reliance on technology is holding them back from thinking “outside the box.”

I always wonder when people use that phrase “outside the box”. Who gets to define “the box” and what’s inside or outside? In the case of kids, it’s the adults, of course.

Anyway, my favorite “findings” from the executive summary are in section Insight 3.

Both students and teachers alike agree that Gen Z learns best through doing/hands-on experience (e.g., lab work, creating content).

Both audiences wish that there was more of a focus on creativity in the classroom.

Teachers say that having more opportunities for this type of hands-on learning is the number one way they can better prepare Gen Z students for the workforce. Most feel that the technology is already in place, but the curriculum needs to catch up.

I’m not sure we needed more research to arrive at those conclusions. And I don’t believe they are unique to one generation. Millennials, Gen Xers, even us old Baby Boomers, all learned better through experiences rather than lectures, and most of us would have been better served if we could have had more of it during our time in school.

In the end, some variation of this report could have been written about any group of students from the past sixty years. The question is, why has American education not changed to better meet their needs in that time?

More, But Not Necessarily Better

EdWeek, a tabloid that’s supposed to be about education but more often deals more with business, posts about a report that claims spending on “edtech” has hit a world-wide total of $15 billion. According to a UK consulting firm, “growth has been strong”, with edtech purchases up by $4.5 billion over the past four years.

So, how do they define “educational” technology? And, more importantly, how is all this new tech being used to enhance student learning?

The press announcement doesn’t say much about the latter but did list the following equipment that was included in their research:

mobile computing — notebooks, netbooks, Chromebooks and tablets; classroom displays — interactive whiteboard, interactive flat panel, interactive projectors, standard projectors, attachment devices, complementary devices — visualisers, lectern panels/pen displays, voice amplification, voting systems and slates/tablets.

Note that most of that hardware is not for use by kids.1 And it’s likely that use of the mobile computing devices is almost completely teacher directed as well.

It would be nice to know more about how teachers are using all this stuff but that’s probably beyond the scope of a market report like this. Besides, if you want the full details of this kind of research, you’ll have to pay for it. “Knowledge-based” consulting companies don’t work for free.

However, just reading the summary is more than a little depressing. Especially this part about interactive displays.

Futuresource found that, in countries where teachers continue to stand in front of the class for instruction, display devices are more prevalent. That accounts for the fast growth of interactive flat panels in China, and interactive whiteboards in Spain, Italy and Russia.

In Germany, so-called “visualizers” are popular. These devices take images of documents and project them onto a screen.

In 2015, over 2.5 million interactive displays were sold. The volume of interactive flat panels more than doubled, with new models and new vendors entering the market.

Those “countries where teachers continue to stand in front of the class for instruction” unfortunately still includes most of the US. Of all the devices covered in this report, interactive flat panels/whiteboards do more to lock in that model of instruction than anything else. They are a giant waste of money, funds that could be spent in far better ways, for tech as well as other learning purposes.

The power of technology available for instructional use has increased dramatically over the past decade or two, as the cost of those devices and networks has dropped equally dramatically. But as schools spend more and more on electronic stuff, we waste much of that power and it’s potential for changing the way kids learn.

The World Beyond Just Facts

A recent report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) says that most American eighth graders are “not proficient” in geography.

Specifically, these students had not demonstrated solid competence in the subject, and the proficiency levels of eighth grade students have shown no improvement since 1994 (see figure). Geography is generally taught as part of social studies, but data show that more than half of eighth grade teachers reported spending a small portion (10 percent or less) of their social studies instruction time on geography. Further, according to a study by an academic organization, a majority of states do not require geography courses in middle school or high school.

So, why did the GAO (a well known source of reseach on teaching and learning)2 undertake this study? As you might expect, the student deficiencies in this particular subject are tied to economic issues.

Geography–the study of places and the relationship between people and their environment–is present across many facets of modern life, from tracking lost cell phones to monitoring disease outbreaks like Ebola. The growing use of geographic information and location-based technology across multiple sectors of the American economy has prompted questions about whether K-12 students’ skills and exposure to geography are adequate for current and future workforce needs.

They do make a good point, however, about how the interconnected nature of the world will impact the lives of students, as well as their parents. Unfortunately, even when geographic topics are included in the curriculum, kids rarely learn about tracking lost cell phones or Ebola.

The approach taken is far too often based on memorization. We still ask kids to collect and repeat lists of state capitols, African countries, and bodies of water – in Virginia, elementary students learn about the state by “locating and describing”, the five regions, important river features, and the bordering states – even though those facts can easily be retrieved in seconds on their phones.

That’s true even in Fairfax County Schools’ (aka the overly-large school district, my former employer) where one of the six major goals of the superintendent’s Portrait of a Graduate plan declares that students will become “ethical and global citizens”.

Maybe students are “not proficient” in the geographic understanding they’ll need to meet that standard because they have very little interest in a world consisting of a list of facts. If kids are actually going to understand the larger world they live in, we need to do a better job of helping them connect to the people and issues out there.

Computers Destroy Learning!

“Investing heavily in school computers and classroom technology does not improve pupils’ performance…”

That’s according to a new global study by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). And we all need to sit up and take notice of “global” research.

In case you’re not familiar with OECD, they are “an international economic organisation of 34 countries, founded in 1961 to stimulate economic progress and world trade”. They also administer the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), the test most often cited by ed reformers in the US as conclusive evidence that our students are falling behind their counterparts in the rest of the world. Especially Finland. Or maybe it’s Singapore this week.

Anyway, as you might expect, the conclusions reached in this study are based primarily on PISA data.

The report from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development examines the impact of school technology on international test results, such as the Pisa tests taken in more than 70 countries and tests measuring digital skills.

It says education systems which have invested heavily in information and communications technology have seen “no noticeable improvement” in Pisa test results for reading, mathematics or science.

Several other quotes from the OECD’s education director also make clear the organization equates test scores with learning, and learning with traditional knowledge transfer classroom practice.

He said making sure all children have a good grasp of reading and maths is a more effective way to close the gap than “access to hi-tech devices”

He warned classroom technology can be a distraction and result in pupils cutting and pasting “prefabricated” homework answers from the internet.

But Mr Schleicher says the findings of the report should not be used as an “excuse” not to use technology, but as a spur to finding a more effective approach. He gave the example of digital textbooks which can be updated as an example of how online technology could be better than traditional methods.

However, the supporters for the use of technology in schools quoted at the end of the article didn’t present a very good case. As evidenced by this image

showing students playing games in a computer lab, and the usual statements about preparing students for a future that “hasn’t yet been invented”.

Probably the only valid conclusions found in this study said that the highest achieving students were the ones who made “moderate” use of technology.