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Thursday, March 23, 2006

The value of anecdotal information in education

In reacting to one of Mark Wagner's posts, I squeezed out a thought that I had been meaning to get out on this blog for a while:

Since I do research in chemistry and educational technology I can assure you that being productive in each requires a completely different mindset. In chemistry you are trying make a compound and you want a reproducible result for the minimum cost and effort. But you can’t do that with education because human beings are not molecules.

Reducing the value of an educational approach to an average number (like improved test scores) is very counter-productive because it will encourage teachers to hype the results of their experiments to satisfy the gatekeepers (employers, editors, grant managers) and then lose credibility.

I got to watch a student spend 2 hours on an organic chemistry game last week and show me by the questions that he came up with that he was understanding the material on a new level. The statistical value of that is zero but I have no doubt as to the value of that experience for that particular student.

The difficulty comes from the fact that you cannot repeat any educational situation because it results from the interaction of a particular teacher with a particular student at a certain time over a certain subject matter. The teaching experience leaves both the student and the teacher changed and they cannot unlearn it to repeat the experiment.

Certainly, the testable basics in any class must be taught well but, beyond that, it becomes increasingly difficult to quantify the richest unique teaching and learning experiences. However, a conversation with the teacher and the student will reveal the value to anyone who cares enough to ask.


  • This is incredible!

    I think it is akin to the frog dissection example. If you dissect a frog, you learn a lot about the insides but he's no longer a frog, he's a dead frog.

    It is so important to quantify and measure things but in the process you lose a little bit of what you are trying to examine.

    The true teaching experience is a living, breathing organism that can be observed but not dissected very well.

    You have spoken well!

    By Blogger Vicki Davis @coolcatteacher, at 9:27 AM  

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