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It's Okay to Disagree About Education Reform

Closing out this round of guest bloggers is my research assistant, Amy Cummings. Before joining AEI, Amy taught high school social studies and completed a master's degree in cognitive science at Columbia's Teachers College. This week, she'll share some reflections on what she's learned about cognitive science, and what it might mean for education policy.

I've spent the week reflecting on my cognitive science master's program and offering some takeaways for education policy. On Monday, I discussed the cognitive science theory-practice divide and the need for the academy to be more intentional in bridging it; and on Wednesday I compared the "radiation problem" to the self-destructive nature of education reform. To close out the week, I'll share some (non-peer-reviewed) research of my own on the benefits of disagreement.

Last year, I conducted a study with two high-school students to determine whether their thinking evolved more after discussing a topic they agreed on or one they disagreed on. After determining topics on which they agreed and disagreed, I had each student write a 300-word response explaining their initial stance on the topic. I then gave them some background information that corresponded with this initial stance to ensure that they had a basic understanding of the topic.

The students then engaged in two twenty-minute discussions: one for the topic they agreed on and one for the topic they disagreed on. Using an online chat forum, they explained their opinion to their partner and were able to ask questions of their partner's opinion.

Following the discussion, the students wrote another 300-word response explaining their final stance on the issue. I scored the pre- and post-responses using a rubric that awarded points for a clearly stated position, relevant facts, supporting details, explaining or analyzing significance, and acknowledging and countering opposing arguments. I compared the pre- and post-discussion response scores and conducted a significance test on these change scores to determine how their thinking changed.

As I predicted, the students' thinking evolved more when they initially disagreed about the topic than when they agreed. Quantitatively, the change scores for their written responses were statistically significant in the positive direction. Qualitatively, the discussion was richer for the topic they disagreed about: They challenged each others' viewpoints, asked for clarification, and questioned their partners' comments. Additionally, their post-discussion responses successfully addressed and countered opposing arguments. None of this was true for the topic they agreed about.

The takeaway? Disagreeing with one another helps us learn and evolve in our thinking. It exposes us to competing viewpoints and encourages us to challenge our own thinking. Meanwhile, conversing with people that we agree with creates an echo chamber in which we do little more than list reasons why we believe we're "right" about an issue, with little to no mention of alternative viewpoints.

As a newcomer to the education policy and reform world, over the last several months I've been trying to absorb as much as possible, paying special attention to anything empirical. So what have I learned about the "right" way to reform education? Almost nothing.

Take school choice for example. Depending on where you look, you can find studies that make it look like school choice benefits students and schools, and others that make it sound like choice is destroying our nation's education system. One study finds that a private-school voucher program has significant negative impacts on math achievement. Another finds that vouchers had positive effects on math achievement. One finds that schools of choice are more segregated; another finds that choice aids desegregation. It's even hard to tell what the public thinks about choice. Depending on how you ask the question, people's answers change quite a bit. You could find the same for choice's effect on school-level outcomes, parental satisfaction, non-academic outcomes, and so on.

The point is that it's easy to find studies that support your initial stance on choice, whether you think it "works" or it doesn't. Further, I've found that many of the same researchers consistently find positive effects of choice, while others consistently find negative effects. Just as the students in my study experienced more growth in their thinking after discussing a topic they disagreed about, the research community may benefit from talking to, and even collaborating with, researchers who have differing beliefs about school choice—or whatever the topic may be. In doing this, we might learn something new about a topic, or see a different side of it that we had not previously considered. Working across the ideological spectrum in this way has the potential to create more comprehensive research that scrutinizes potential biases from both sides of the issue. I don't think this happens as much as it should, and much of the across-the-aisle communication I've seen is more combative than collaborative. We shouldn't see such disagreement about an issue as a roadblock to reform, but as an opportunity.

Amy Cummings

 

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