Sunday, May 14, 2017

Things We're Going to Need You To Stop Saying, part 5

False Dichotomy, aka. Twitter Broadside

Education seems to be full of these things, but perhaps they're in every business and I'm only paying attention to education. You see them often, pithy statements that fit into 140 characters by eliminating all the gray area and reducing everything to black or white extremes of "The Right Way" vs "What You're Doing". Often well-meaning but ultimately harmful:

If your exam questions can be googled, then you're asking the wrong questions.

Google is useful for information, less so for understanding. Googling the answer doesn't "show your work" and, given the nature of the Internet, isn't particularly trustworthy.

If kids in your class are more engaged by a fidget spinner than they are by your lesson, the spinner isn't the problem. Your lesson is.

Learning is hard. Kids fidget. Fads come, then go. Your lesson doesn't suck simply because two kids out of 25 are fiddling with this thing.

If your exam questions are multiple choice, then you aren't asking the right questions in the right way.

There's always a place for quick, multiple choice questions, even on summative assessments.

If your exam questions only use integers then they aren't Real World(tm) Questions.
If your exam questions require a calculator, then you're asking the wrong questions.

Integral answers allow students to show their work, are useful to the learning process because the arithmetic is secondary to the learning. Integral answers can also encourage students to search for different solution methods. Decimal answers that require a calculator are great for Real-World data but Real-World data is often confusing and isn't usually appropriate during the learning process. Learn first, then use the learning. Calculators make guessing too easy and encourage kids to waste time with it.

If you are asking questions at all, then your students aren't agents of their own education. 

This is just silly. Teachers are there to teach. Sometimes the students "lead" the class down the carefully prepared road through the weeds ... but the teacher has laid the groundwork for that.

I am really tired of this nonsense. These blanket statements that reduce the complex world we teach in to just two colors (what you're doing and the right way) are unnecessarily reductive. It encourages simple-minded extremist fads that wither away after a couple of years of damage to children's education.

It's a false dichotomy and we're really going to need you to stop saying it.


  1. Thanks for raising this point.

    I sometimes think that Twitter makes these sorts of broadsides easier to make and share, and Twitter's algorithms stick these highly shared broadsides right under our noses.

    There is a tremendous amount of friction involved in using Twitter, but distancing yourself from those who make broadsides.

    The only solution I see is for those who dislike false dichotomies to take a very significant step away from Twitter and back to blogs.

    1. Twitter used to point me to blogs - that's why I loved it. I have to be very careful now on Twitter - because if I'm not - I can be made to feel so incompetent. I still find the blogs - thank goodness - but it's usually after mucking through all the rest. I would be lost without #mtbos - but now sometimes I'm lost because of #mtbos.

    2. I've been taking a bit step back from Twitter lately, and it feels great. To make it happen, I had to figure out 2 things in my Twitter workflow.

      (1) You can set Twitter to notify you anytime you're included in a tweet or DM-ed. That keeps me off of the service, because I can know who is contacting me and either contact them via email or sign in for just a moment to reply.

      (2) To discover blogs, I turned the MTBoS_Blogbot twitter account into an RSS feed, and subscribed to it in my RSS reader. It's a pretty good selection of MTBoS blogs. (I also check in on some of my favorite twitter accounts when I'm signed out of Twitter, which keeps me up on things I care about being up on.)

      I've been commenting on blogs a lot more as a result (hey guys!) and that's been a lot more fun for me, too. I would never tell people not to use Twitter...but if like me you sort of hate Twitter, it's possible to engage in MTBoS without it.

  2. But can't such statements provoke thought? I generally don't read them as inflexible rules, but food for consideration.

    1. I see what you mean. But are there costs to using big, blanket slogans to provoke thought? What other ways are there of provoking thought that don't risk marginalizing others?

    2. I've been trying to put my thoughts down about this for a few minutes and I keep deleting, so forgive me if this version is still a bit unfocussed and disconnected...
      A big slogan says to me that the discussion is over -- you don't need to think any more because the problem is solved. A big slogan makes you feel a lot more than it makes you think -- you feel guilty about your own practice, or gratified about it. A big slogan seems to me to invite argument more than discussion.
      If we want to promote food for consideration, perhaps we do need to point to other places where you can read about nuances, rather than simply share memes. If we want to think with people on Twitter, then maybe we need to share things with a more open and wondering turn of phrase.
      The maths puzzle of mine that got the most response was one where I started with "I wonder..." rather than "Find...". "I wonder" said maybe there's an answer or maybe there isn't, but invited people to discuss and try. "Find" says there is an answer and invites people to give it. Perhaps a similar thing can happen with teaching sorts of things.