As those of you who follow my blog know, I urge those of us who teach to constantly ask how what we think is helpful or useful might not be and how what we think is not helpful or not useful might be. I have recently read a number of articles that show that this advice is only rarely followed in teaching but in other areas. In the December 2012 issue of the Atlantic, I read one article about business leaders who saw only the positive side of moving manufacturing plants out of the US. As I read this conclusion, I think of all the fads in education in general and language teaching in particular that have proved to produce negative effects—the most recent being the focus on testing and a common reading list for all US public high school students. Charles Fishman had this to say about offshore production in his article: “There was a herd mentality to the off shoring. And there was some bullshit.” Many of the costs were hidden. (page 49)

The other item in the December 2012 Atlantic is a review of a book about a research psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School—Uri Simonsohn–who uncovers studies in which the authors use “sloppy statistical maneuvering and, in some cases, outright fraud” to support their beliefs. In other words, they are using data to support their beliefs and ignoring data that does not support their beliefs. (page 32)

Simonsohn is not alone in raising red flags about much research related to psychology. In the March 8th 2013 issue of the Weekly Guardian, I read this headline with great distress: It’s time for psychologists to put their house in order. First and foremost, we must resolve to publish repeat studies and negative results.” Keith Laws, the author, not only describes flaws in the use of statistics but also points out that 67% of those he surveyed said that they reported their results selectively. And 74% said that they continued to collect data to support their claims because their initial data did not support their claims. The concluding paragraph is a devastating comment on research in psychology: “Psychologists, editors and reviewers have conspired to deny the rightful place of negative results and the importance of replication—psychology’s dirty little secrets. We must change.” (page 34)

I read the following comment in the Financial Times of 23 March 20013, page 6: “Cognitive biases and groupthink remain crucial in explaining how markets work and overshoot.” The title of the comment was “The blind faith in wishful thinking”. Gillian Tett, the author, does not claim that financial consultants and bankers manipulated the data as the psychologists did. She says instead that the bankers involved seemed to believe in their own hype just as those who advocated moving US manufacturing offshore believed their own unsupported claims. The fact that leaders of manufacturing companies and banks had their own money invested in what turned out to be disastrous decisions did not lead them to ask how what they thought was positive might in fact be negative. Gillian Tett makes a point of saying that the bankers were not engaged in deliberate malevolence. In the same way, I have never criticized teachers for doing what they think is useful. Rather I have tried to remind them that all of us can be easily trapped in a limited view of reality.

Recently, I have realized that many think that trying the opposite or breaking rules—my two mantras for understanding what we do with more clarity—some consider negative. I am attaching some associations teachers have made in workshops I have done recently that show that what I consider positive steps—breaking rules and trying the opposite—are seen as negative steps. But as the articles I have just described show unless we question what we do we will end up in the same hole as psychologists, bankers and manufacturers did in the last decades.



700 words, rounded Flesch Reading Ease 50% Grade Level 12