Dangers of educator tribalism

The Internet comes with both dangers and opportunities. A major problem is the opportunity to align with a group taking a particular position supporting and strengthening erroneous personal biases. A personal bias is difficult to challenge, but a personal bias supported by a support group is particularly problematic.

I worry about this issue with educators. There are things about what some educators even describe as “finding their tribe” that I find particularly disturbing. The tribal mentality is a perfect environment for the type of bias sustaining environment I describe above. A component of some of the teacher tribes I observe is a kind of “teachers know best because teachers teach”. This perspective is sometimes encouraged by some ex-teachers who make their living writing, speaking, and providing in-service experiences. These folks tout their previous backgrounds as a source of credibility. I do recognize that educators may have insights focused on tactics they have found to be successful and that follow practitioners may not have considered. My concern is that personal experience can lead to what is called “naive science” when theories of how the world works are derived from personal experience. This term originated from the study of how learners understand scientific processes based on encountering these processes in daily life rather than through formal training. Just because you have a personal theory of how some aspect of the world works does not mean that this theory is valid.

What learning is and how learning happens are topics that people like me study for a living. These are not issues I try to understand as an individual, but as part of a community that investigates these phenomena from a research-based perspective. So, like climate change which can be associated with several perspectives, I can suggest that the preponderance of the evidence seems focused on specific conclusions. Getting from these models of learning to classroom implementation can be challenging, but some applications are simply inconsistent with what is suggested by the preponderance of the evidence. This does not mean that applications inconsistent with these findings will not work. Humans can processes pretty much any life experience to their benefit. What it means is that some applications will be far more successful than others.

So, depending on your tribe, you may be reluctant to hear that many project-based or problem-based learning experiences are relatively ineffective, but careful analyses indicates that this is the case. Perhaps some students will be motivated and benefit as a consequence, but some others will likely find many such experiences as busy work. When committed to a given personal theory, it is common to focus on the cases that suit this theory. Careful research commits to rigorous design methods to avoid such problems.

So, this is a suggestion that individuals recognize that their tribalism may encourage bias and promote the current shiny thing. In my opinion, researchers tend to police each other and demand that claims made be associated with data generated. This constant questioning may frustrate some who want simple answers, but over time, the demand for proof does reduce the biases that can creep in.

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  1. Pingback: What you know strongly influences what you can learn – Learning Aloud

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