Red Meat, Chocolate, AP Statistics and Teaching

In a recent article in Discover magazine, Gary Taubes presents a lucid analysis of some recent nutrition news articles – articles that conclude that “meat is bad, chocolate is good”. Taubes’ argument is that the results of these research reports violate a principle that we teach in AP Stats: “correlation does not imply causation”. There is a world of difference between OBSERVING that people who eat meat on a regular basis have a higher death rate than those who do not and CONCLUDING that the higher incidence of death rate is DUE to eating red meat. Taubes argues – as we all do in AP Stats – that the gold standard in drawing conclusions is randomized trials and he mentions that when these trials were indeed performed, eating red meat improved the mortality rate (Atkins diet). [Unfortunately, for me, Taubes also shows that eating chocolate is not the healthy thing that these reports show].

The article is long, but it would be a very useful reading when we teach experimental design in AP Statistics and I intend to use it if I teach Stats next year. However, Taubes’ argument can be extended to what happens currently in high school teaching in general. From personal experience at my school and from what I read, there is increasing pressure that all teachers of a given course, say Algebra II, teach the same thing, the same day, IN THE SAME WAY. The pressure to do so comes from the disease of standardized testing. That all teachers – again, say in Algebra II – should cover the same curriculum at reasonably the same pace is to be expected when we are all judged by a test given to all, at the same time.

What is more disturbing to me is the fact that we are moving toward standardizing THE WAY we teach. In my district, administration has hired a consulting company that developed a way of structuring lessons based on “brain research”. The company is training the teachers in how to use this lesson structure and administrators observe us in how we apply it.

Now, brain research is a new catchword in reforming teaching, and it is becoming more and more en vogue, despite the fact that our knowledge of how the brain works is extremely poor for any kind of practical applications.  Administrators are generally not qualified to evaluate this so-called brain research, but usually they try to find some new hook to hang their hat on, and boy, does “brain research based teaching” sound good!

It so happens that the consultants hired by my district are very professional, experienced and their lesson plan is sound and reasonable. So what is wrong with using their method, outside of a visceral reaction that we are all not the same and that students benefit when we put our different personalities in our teaching?

I think the rub is that there is no evidence that our kids will do better if taught by this method than by any other. There are no randomized trials where the results of this method were compared with the results of another method. By whatever metric we apply – state tests, class grades – we cannot argue that one way of presenting the material is better than another in the absence of randomized trials.

As a recent post (Apr. 4) indicates, engagement in class does not necessarily result in doing the homework or in understanding the material better. My argument is that, up to a point, the effect of teachers is GENERALLY not as high as we would want it to be. I refer specifically to high school where students’ study habits and basic knowledge (in math) are already formed. Students who do not want to learn, who are not eager to learn, will not do better or worse when the material is presented to them in one structure or another. From my experience, truly understanding the basic math facts in middle school is much more important to high achievement in high school than any method or structure we use to formulate our lesson plan.

I would argue that “good teaching” (IN HIGH SCHOOL) gives more bang for the buck in the higher-level courses (Math Analysis and AP) than in the lower ones.  In my opinion, developing critical thinking depends much more on the teacher and the method of teaching than developing algorithmic facility. However, the distinction between the two is the subject for another post.

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