Time and time again I find myself coming back to an essay called “‘How Obvious”: Personal Reflections on the Database of Educational Psychology and Effective Teaching Research” by Gregory Yates (2005). It is a rich piece of work that covers topics ranging from the process-product research of the 70’s and 80’s to the failure of discovery learning, but it is the central premise of the article that has really stuck with me: Why is it that teachers make statements during PD about how obvious it is? My favorite line from the article is when Yates, after explaining the possible psychology behind the “How obvious!” reaction (e.g., hindsight bias, fundamental computational bias, ego-protection) provides the reader with this tongue-and-cheek template for workshop leaders to use in response:

“Hence, whenever anyone declares, “But, such findings are obvious,” one possible, albeit inadvisable, reply would be: This feeling that it is obvious stems from your elevated ego. You may be so naturally egocentric you believe others share your views. Believing such things are obvious is one way to protect your ego, but it also suggests a level of faulty memory processing. Furthermore, such perception on your part could relate to the possibility that you presume to know far more than you actually do.”

(Yates, 2005, p. 691)

I find this sort of thing funny, but I would add that there is probably more going on than “faulty memory processing” that contributes to teachers’ views towards professional learning.

I think many teachers have earned the right to be skeptical, and even a bit jaded, about their PD opportunities, if only because so much of teacher PD is terrible. Part of this may be due to so few PD sessions being based in research. Outside consultants tend to claim that what they’re presenting is research-based but take offense when asked to provide the breadcrumb trail of researchers’ names and works so that we can read the “research” they’ve cited for ourselves. Often these sorts of presentations were designed based on a set of faulty assumptions about how humans learn, with the “research” part tacked on at the end of the design process to imbue it with an aura of authenticity, or, more probably, there wasn’t any research done by the workshop leader at all.

Worse, still, are those workshop leaders who perpetuate learning myths or who co-opt entire sections of famous TedTalks. Just a couple of years ago, I was in a session where the consultant separated us into different corners of the room, first according to our learning styles, next according to our multiple intelligences, and where she described the instructional implications of the learning pyramid for left-brained and right-brained learners. That same calendar year, I was in a session that was blatantly copied from the late Ken Robinson, who the workshop leader claimed to have met. The highlight of the plagiarism was when the speaker mistook knowledge obsolescence for information growth (Kirschner & van Merriënboer, 2013) as he questioned, with total incredulity, why we as a profession were so fixated on memorizing facts in the age of Google. The arrogance.

How can we expect teachers to go from “How obvious” to “You know what, the evidence you provide is compelling but it doesn’t gel with my personal experience and I’m feeling some cognitive dissonance” when most workshop leaders appear evidence-ignorant or evidence-adverse and resort to regurgitating the same old folk wisdom about teaching?

As the Director of Educational Technology at my school, I was recently asked to present multiple sessions to faculty on effective feedback for online learning. Trying to put my own advice about research-based professional learning into practice, I followed some simple steps:

  1. First, identify an empirical regularity or principle from the literature (e.g. the worked example effect, the spacing effect, the self-explanation effect, etc.).
    • I identified formative feedback practices from my reading of Guasch et al. (2013), Shute (2007) and Wisniewski, Zierer, & Hattie (2020).
  2. Next, codify these findings into concrete, practical solutions that are applicable to common classroom problems.
    • I investigated the corrective, suggestive, and epistemic feedback affordances of Canvas LMS, our school’s digital platform and wrote them down as a list.
  3. Finally, present these solutions to teachers in ways that lead to application of the research-based principle.
    • I demonstrated corrective, suggestive, and epistemic feedback features in Canvas LMS by sharing my screen via Zoom, I had teachers practice using these features in their sandbox courses and ask questions, and I ended with a performance task where teachers created either a Canvas quiz, discussion, or assignment that included all three types of feedback that were the focus of the workshop.

The reaction I got from faculty was highly positive and I am so proud of where I work. Thankfully, there weren’t any how obvious critiques from attendees, but if there had been I suppose I could have defended my efforts with a variation of Yates’s final line from his essay:

OK, but there is a parallel between obviousness and common sense. And what did Voltaire note about common sense? The problem with common sense, he said, is that it is not so common.

(Yates, 2005, p. 698)

– Zach Groshell @mrzachg

References

Guasch, T., Espasa, A., Alvarez, I. M., & Kirschner, P. A. (2013). Effects of feedback on collaborative writing in an online learning environment. Distance Education, 34(3), 324–338. https://doi.org/10.1080/01587919.2013.835772

Kirschner, P. A., & van Merriënboer, J. J. G. (2013). Do learners really know best? urban legends in education. Educational Psychologist, 48(3), 169–183. https://doi.org/10.1080/00461520.2013.804395

Shute, V. J. (2007). Focus on Formative Feedback. http://www.ets.org/research/contact.html

Yates, G. C. R. (2005). “How obvious”: Personal reflections on the database of educational psychology and effective teaching research. Educational Psychology, 25(6), 681–700. https://doi.org/10.1080/01443410500345180

Wisniewski, B., Zierer, K., & Hattie, J. (2020). The Power of Feedback Revisited: A Meta-Analysis of Educational Feedback Research. Frontiers in Psychology, 10(January), 1–14. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2019.03087

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