Otto in “The War on Science” complains that politicians and journalists hedge when addressing issues on which scientists are nearly unanimous. For example, if 95% of scientists support the position that man (woman) has influenced climate than proposing that scientists differ on the topic of global warming my be technically accurate, but misleading. The scientific community regards the question as resolved.
I agree with Otto. Having taken this position, I noticed a related issue in my own work that might seem, at least on the surface, as being a contradiction. My wife and I have long written a textbook intended to prepare preservice and practicing teachers to effectively use technology in K12 classrooms. One distinction I have made between our textbook (and what I think textbooks in general should do) and what I describe as trade books (books advocating a position on educational practice – Teach Like a Pirate, Flip your classroom, Making, etc.) is the commitment to offer both sides of certain controversies. For example, does coding develop computational thinking (e.g., problem-solving skill)? Is learner-controlled inquiry superior to direct instruction?
Am I hedging in my approach even though I criticize politicians and journalists for hedging on what science has determined?
I think the situations are different. One thing Otto notes is that few politicians or journalists have the capacity to understand the positions taken. Few have a science background. Few make the effort to actually investigate the evidence offered by those taking different positions at the primary source level. Few have a credible rationale for why positions differ beyond noting that the conclusions different individuals reach are inconsistent?
I don’t think it arrogant to claim I have the expertise to comment on the research offering competing positions. This is what my professional training required and my practice involved. I have reviewed and in some cases authored some of the primary source content I describe. I also believe I have a logical rationale for why most evidence in support of competing positions appears on the surface to be contradictory.
An example – problem-based learning
A number of the most prominent educational psychologists have reviewed the research on problem-based learning (and other types of what I would describe as inquiry learning) and come to the conclusion that quality comparisons of such techniques with direct instruction conclude that direct instruction is superior. I cite one such summary below – mostly because the title of the paper offers a flavor of the findings.
Kirschner, P.A., Sweller, J. & Clark, R.E. (2006). Why minimal guidance during instruction does not work: An analysis of the failure of constructivist, discovery, problem-based, experiential, and inquiry-based teaching. Educational Psychologist, 41(2), 75-86.
This position might be considered akin to the pro-climate change position.
However, I do think are there specific studies demonstrating the efficacy of problem-based learning (one citation follows). I have read these studies and accept the quality of the methodology. The data generated in research must be interpreted by considering the methodology producing that data.
Wirkala. C. & Kuhn, D. (2011). Problem-Based Learning in K–12 Education: Is it Effective and How does it achieve its effects?, American Educational Research Journal, 48, 1157-1186.
How can the results of the general summary and results of specific studies that contradict the general summary be reconciled? It seems quite possible that common attempts to implement inquiry learning may be less productive than direct instruction. Perhaps certain topics and probably certain variations of an inquiry method may represent reasonable exceptions. The rationale in the Kuhn research (note the phrase “how does it achieve its effects”) makes sense. Kuhn exposes learners to a problem and allows them to struggle with it for a bit. This may have a cognitive advantage because it forces the learner to use existing knowledge to try to solve the problem (activating what the learner already knows) and also provides a context for any information that may then be provided. Kuhn then uses some direct instruction (not nearly as much as is used in the direct instruction condition). One way to describe the advantages might be that activation and context allow better processing of this content even though far less time is spent in presenting and discussing this content in traditional ways.
I would argue that an appreciation of both the general outcome and the specific example have value. It should not be assumed that any form of student controlled inquiry will be more effective than direct instruction. However, the consideration of certain topics and with certain “scaffolded” approaches may be uniquely productive.
The question of whether man has contributed to climate change is a little different. This question is really a matter of yes or no (arguing to what degree is a variant of yes).