I take the train into London every day, and I must say I enjoy the experience on the whole. I have time for marking, reading, and of course writing blog posts. On the vast majority of days, the trains are punctual. But occasionally something happens: someone falls on the line, or a freight train holds up the express passenger service. I look around me sometimes when such incidents occur, and see people shaking their heads and muttering ‘typical’. Because of course, British trains are rubbish, aren’t they?
And then there’s British weather. There are often spells of sunny, dry weather, but as soon as it turns wet (to the relief of the farmers), the moaning begins. Because it’s always raining in Britain, right?
Confirmation bias is our tendency to find proof for that which we already believe. Even when there is plenty of evidence to the contrary, we will tend to filter it out, and focus in on factors which bolster our cherished ideas.
This tendency to seek out proof is one of the major reasons that pseudoscience has succeeded so remarkably in taking hold of our education system in recent years. Remember that pyramid with percentages about how much pupils retain of what they read, hear, teach to others and so on? Those percentages are a complete fabrication. And yet they were thrust down our throats by management at a particularly doctrinaire comprehensive at which I worked a few years ago. When I explained to two senior managers at the school that their proof was mere fiction, they ended up by saying that regardless of the actual validity of the statistics, it just sort of fitted into experience that pupils would remember little what they had heard. And so the campaign to stop teachers teaching or pupils listening continued, untroubled by the need for any evidence to justify its experiments on the minds of the young.
Make no mistake about it: the evidence is in favour of traditional methods. But even before the discoveries of modern cognitive science, or the recent overwhelming proof of the efficacy of direct instruction, educators should have been more sceptical about the claims of progressive theorists. Surely it is our duty as educators to be cautious in the extreme about innovation, until it can be conclusively proven to be effective? Without this healthy scepticism, we could end up inflicting any old unproven trendy fad on the minds of those in our care.
Above all, we must be convinced that reason and objective evidence are more important than mere anecdote. G K Chesterton once said that once people cease to believe in God, they start to believe in anything. We could broaden this and say that in the last fifty years, educators stopped believing in objective truth and reason, and so they started to believe in anything. Thus it has been that for ideological reasons with no basis in objective fact, the darkness of ignorance has been inflicted on countless young people.