Who’s Minding the Store?

Gamification, project based learning, flipped classrooms, STEM, maker education…these are just a few popular pieces of jargon that any connected educator will have come across in the last year.

There are now entire conferences (maybe even closer to cults) on flipping your classroom. Gamification has its own research network. The president of the United States is making it a priority to increase STEM education in America. The maker movement has made its way into classrooms through technology like robotics, programming and 3D printing. Clearly schools are changing. The way we teach is changing. But which changes are actually making a positive impact, and which are not? As teachers and leaders are we jumping on the buzzword bandwagon too quickly?

I am writing this post as a reminder to myself not to get too caught up in the hype (not to sound preachy). The education pendulum is polarized, often swinging from one extreme to the next – students should sit a desk; NO! We should ditch all the desks! It can be confusing.

As a scientist, I am a skeptic. As I teacher, I am an optimist. I want to believe that “best practices” exist that can reach every student and enable them to achieve, but I am also critical and cautious. In the past I have wasted time and resources by not investigating claims properly (learning styles anyone?). In the spirit of full disclosure, I admit that I have succumbed to the effects of a charismatic and persuasive speaker. I have even BEEN that speaker, overeager to share positive experiences with mostly anecdotal evidence. I have experienced the educational version of “the Dr. Oz effect.”

Allow me to use an analogy here. Would you try a new drug that has not been researched, tested and approved by a group of reliable scientists? Probably not. But we don’t have the time or necessary knowledge to sift through medical journals analyzing data and evaluating bias. It’s not our job anyway. Instead we trust the advice of experts – our doctors. But who are the experts in education? We are all meant to be experts in our respective fields – teachers, coordinators, facilitators and administrators alike. In my humble opinion, however, we certainly do not hold educational practices to the same scrutiny as our medical counterparts. Maybe it’s silly to compare a blood test to a biology test, but as a teacher it is my job to know the best way to help my students learn just as my doctor should know how to keep me healthy. At the end of the day, I am the one accountable to my students and their parents. I have a vested interest in student achievement and I take it very seriously. The problem is that even though I am meant to be the expert on all things education, I don’t have the time during the school year to vet every tweet, email or PD presentation with a scrupulous scientific comb. Therefore, when I am flooded with ideas about “the next best thing” I have to start by using my intuition and experience to decide if a change is worth my time or if it is not – like whether I should teach like a pirate, champion, rockstar, velociraptor, ceiling fan or whatever else is trending at the moment. Thankfully we have summer vacation to reflect on what we have tried during the school year and to read a few more books, blogs or journal articles to inform our practice. And I can finally read some of those Marshall Memos that have accumulated in my inbox!

The title of this blog post – Who’s minding the store? – comes not from the 1963 Jerry Lewis movie, which for the record is way before my time ;). It is the title of a chapter in one of my favourite books called Dancing Naked in the Mind Field by Dr. Kary Mullis. I share this chapter with all of my IB biology students as part of helping them understand a bit more about the nature of science. I won’t spoil it for you because it’s brilliant. The author (a Nobel laureate and inventor of PCR by the way!) can be described as someone who refuses to accept any proposition based on secondhand or hearsay evidence, and always looks for the “money trail” when scientists make announcements.” 1  The chapter relates to the fact that while we do have governing bodies like the MOE and the IBO guiding and directing our practice, it is ultimately up to us to be critical and reflective of what we are doing in the classroom.

I think the main message to myself is that changes can be positive if made for the right reasons and if supported with external/personal research and reflection. If possible, both quantitative and qualitative data relevant to student learning should be collected and analysed from multiple sources (including your own classroom). Last school year I experimented with two practices that I felt had merit – gamification and project based learning. I attended PD on both of these topics to see how they could fit into MYP science. However, I mostly dove in head first as I knew that if I did not just do it, I would over think things and never get started. I will post my reflections and research in the near future.

This summer I also did a bit of reading around the topic of research in education. The following books proved to be very interesting and I will post reflections on these as well.

Make It Stick – The Science of Successful Learning by Peter C. Brown, Henry L. Roediger III and Mark A. McDaniel

When Can You Trust the Experts? How to Tell Good Science from Bad in Education by Daniel T. Willingham

Teacher Proof: Why research in education doesn’t always mean what it claims, and what you can do about it by Tom Bennett

Visible Learning and the Science of How We Learn by John Hattie and Gregory Yates



1  This quotation comes from the back of the book.

Photo credit: https://pixabay.com/p-548105/?no_redirect


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