“Damn it Jim, I’m a doctor not a scientist”!


I had a conversation with my wife the other night about a blog she had read about someone’s take on raising children. There was a lot of argument about the particular post because the writer had no children of his or her own. The person’s post had described a situation where their friends had been an hour late to an event because they were trying to convince their young daughter to take some medication, she commented that the parents should just have told their daughter to take the medicine and that should be that. Having a 3½ year old myself, my hackles instantly rise when someone (real or online) tells me how I should be raising my child if they haven’t had any experience raising children.

When it comes to education, everyone has a frame of reference because we all went to school; and perhaps have children at school. For some, school was a great experience so therefor we suggest all schooling should be like this; for others the experience was traumatic and therefore no one should have to go through it. Either way that shapes our response to stories about education and you can see this in the comments posted at the end of education stories in the press. In most cases you can just ignore the comments (cursing their name under your breath) and move on. However, it is not always easy to ignore ‘advice’ when the person is well known, has a large public following or is a government minister.

Below is a (not exhaustive) list of things we might think about when people outside the profession proffer advice:


Other than his or her own education or that of a child, does the person have any experience of teaching? If they haven’t it isn’t necessarily a deal breaker but I would be wary of taking advice offered by someone where the closest they have got to a school is a parent teacher evening. The type of experience is important, a background in something clearly connected to teaching or learning is going to be more valuable. Daniel Willingham as a cognitive psychologist has a great deal to say about how the brain works, how it processes new information, how it retains it – or doesn’t – and how we can improve retention. This doesn’t mean that someone with no relevant experience can’t make valid points, they obviously can: Ben Goldacre understands very clearly about dodgy scientific claims, bad experimental protocols and the importance of research, his advice on how to avoid pseudo-scientific nonsense would be excellent advice (as it was with Brain Gym©). The experience of the person should be directly relevant to the advice about education or teaching they are giving; they, as with Dr McCoy shouldn’t try and claim expertise beyond this.

Research or evidence backed.

This is a hard one to check, you need a good understanding of research protocols, statistics and the existing literature on the topic under-discussion. However, which teacher has time to identify the good studies from the bad or explore the links and references included in ‘scientific’ papers? There are many books on this, so I won’t repeat all of their sage advice here, books by Ben Goldacre, Tom Bennett and Dan Willingham would be my first stop. There are also several publications that include articles about education and research, hopefully if the publication of the, “Journal of Applied Education Research” – a Kickstarter project – goes ahead, this will be an excellent addition and one dedicated to research in education.


If someone wants to tell you how to do something better or ‘fix’ something, then they need to be able to provide you with a clear idea of what this intervention will do. They need to explain why this is better than what you have done in the past, how you will know if it has been successful, and have some kind of criteria for success (improved results on standardized tests, for example). There are two problems here; one, the claims made could be so vague or nebulous that you simply can’t test them or see how they will have been effective (similar to claims made by alternative medicine practitioners who say they can improve your ‘wellness’). Secondly, some of the improvements might be very hard to measure; motivation, engagement, creativity, character for example. How do you measure these so you can make sure you aren’t seeing something else at work? Can you even teach it? What units of measurement do we use? Who decides what ‘creativity’ is? When do we measure? So many questions….

Shows respect for those actually in the profession

Often the sense you get from certain non-education experts telling teachers how to teach is that teachers really don’t understand kids, or we don’t care about them, or that we are all a little bit slow, or just ‘in it for the holidays’, or some other pejorative comment. Sometime even those who profess to love teaching can come across as somewhat negative, Sir Ken Robinson for example – I get the distinct feeling he doesn’t like teachers very much. I read a paper by Roger C. Schank, which was so antagonistic that it is unlikely to appeal to anyone who is actually a teacher. Here, lack of experience is an issue (Dr Schank has none as far as I can tell – he designs software), but I’d probably have thoughtfully considered his views if Dr Schank hadn’t been so condescending and patronising.

Willing to have ideas challenged

People providing advice (especially those in position of power or responsibility) are sometimes very unwilling to have their opinions challenged – this is the ‘sacred cow hypotheses’; we believe so strongly in something or have put so much effort into it that we simply can’t give it up. We then either modify the thing so it fits new evidence or makes the criticism invalid; this is the ‘moving the goalposts’ fallacy (again, a favourite of alternative medicine practitioners). Or we argue the point even more strongly hoping to shout down any dissenting voices, this is much easier if you have a big social media presence or you are a politician!

Tone of delivery

This is hugely important, I’m much more likely to listen to (not necessarily believe) the comments from someone who presents their ideas in a way that doesn’t automatically insinuate “I know best and if you can’t see that my advice is clearly the way to do things then you are a fool!” You can ignore this kind of advice when it is on the comments page of news story, but it’s harder to ignore when it comes again from someone in a position of responsibility or power. If someone adopts a tone that is aggressive or patronizing, it’s unlikely they are going to be open to criticism and they are probably best avoided.  Dr Schank in his article “Everything You Think You Know About Education is Wrong” (a promising start), is a good example of this. As a taste of Dr Schank’s approach:

  •  “In every country in the world we have adopted a view of education that is simply wrong.”
  •  “Successful people attribute their success to their education, when in fact they likely succeeded in spite of their education.”
  •  “If subjects don’t matter at all, and there is absolutely no reason to believe that they do outside of the mission of creating scholars, something that is certainly not the mission of the modern high school, then what does matter?”
  •  “…if high school teaches nothing of value…”

Well that’s me told; I feel better already.

Has a particular agenda

The last is last point is about having a particular agenda or set of beliefs, these can be hard to spot in many cases. Advice from government ministers, business leaders, University professors or new age gurus are all likely to advocate for teaching a particular content in a particular style that will achieve a set aim. This is not necessarily wrong, but it’s probably worth realizing that this isn’t going to work in all contexts and there might be more to education than just creating nice little workers for your particular industry. This recent talk from the Asia Society in Hong Kong is a good example; the title tells you all you need to know: “The Role of Business in Shaping the Future of Education”.


I think we should embrace ideas from outside of education that might help us improve out practice; we can’t really ignore them. I’d certainly trust a cognitive psychologist like Daniel Willingham to tell me about cognitive psychology and the effect this might have on teaching and learning, rather that trust to the opinion of someone who has had no experience in this field. In many cases though, what really helps us decide if we are going to listen to the ‘non-expert expert’ (even if they have failed all our checks) is if they support our already held beliefs. Our own prejudices and faulty reasoning play a massive part in what we will and won’t accept – we need to minimize this as much as possible.



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