Category Archives: research

It has been a long time since I last posted – too long!


IMG_5504I  have been busy because I have decided to write a book on education.  My subject is research-based education and does it exist?  Here in Ontario we are big on research based or brain based education.  I am always a bit dubious about this as there are at least three things that need considering in implementing education based on research.

The first is the reliability of the research For readers like me who don’t always remember the difference between those two important pillars of good science, reliability and validity, I will explain.

Reliability refers to whether an experiment can be done more than once and by other researchers and still get the same result.  If your dog eats a tablespoon of peanut butter and then lies down and rolls over twice, can you get the same effect the next day when you feed him peanut butter?  If you can, can your friend in the next city get her dog of a different age to lie down and roll over twice after he has eaten a tablespoon of peanut butter?  Will it work with different breeds or only black dogs weighing more than 60 lb.?   The more often replications of the experiment end up with the same result, the more likely it is to be reliable.

The second pillar of research is validity.  This is not as simple a concept to explain.  Validity requires that the thesis and experiment make sense i.e. they are designed using both logic and fact.  The conclusions must be interpreted logically, too.  As the saying goes: “data is not the plural of anecdote.”

One mistake we often make is confusing correlation and causation: a classic example is the woman who believed that it was the sign “deer crossing” that caused deer to cross at that particular spot on the road.  She thought this was very dangerous as she had hit a deer three times just after passing the spot.  Her solution was to move the crossing.

The mistake this woman made was to mistake the correlation of a deer crossing sign and the deer crossing the road with the sign causing the deer to cross the road.   Some careful thinking about the nature of deer and their abilities would have brought the realisation that deer can’t read or follow traffic rules.  The deer’s preference for crossing the road at that point was the reason the sign was posted, not the other way around.

We can laugh at this person’s logic, but how often do we see similar thinking in

World Health Organization building from the So...

World Health Organization building from the South-East, Geneva (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

our lives.  Think of your friend who won’t get her child vaccinated because she believes that vaccinations kill children.  The World Health Organization (WHO)

clearly outlines the faulty logic as it applies to the DPT i.e. Diphtheria, pertussis (whooping-cough) and polio:

Diphtheria-Tetanus-Pertussis (DTP) Vaccine And Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS)

One myth that won’t seem to go away is that DTP vaccine causes sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). This belief came about because a moderate proportion of children who die of SIDS have recently been vaccinated with DTP; on the surface, this seems to point toward a causal connection. This logic is faulty however; you might as well say that eating bread causes car crashes, since most drivers who crash their cars could probably be shown to have eaten bread within the past 24 hours.

If you consider that most SIDS deaths occur during the age range when three shots of DTP are given, you would expect DTP shots to precede a fair number of SIDS deaths simply by chance. In fact, when a number of well-controlled studies were conducted during the 1980s, the investigators found, nearly unanimously, that the number of SIDS deaths temporally associated with DTP vaccination was within the range expected to occur by chance. In other words, the SIDS deaths would have occurred even if no vaccinations had been given.

In fact, in several of the studies, children who had recently received a DTP shot were less likely to get SIDS. The Institute of Medicine reported that “all controlled studies that have compared immunized versus non-immunized children have found either no association . . . or a decreased risk . . . of SIDS among immunized children” and concluded that “the evidence does not indicate a causal relation between [DTP] vaccine and SIDS.”

Looking at risk alone is not enough however – you must always look at both risks and benefits. Even one serious adverse effect in a million doses of vaccine cannot be justified if there is no benefit from the vaccination. If there were no vaccines, there would be many more cases of disease, and along with them, more serious side effects and more deaths. For example, according to an analysis of the benefit and risk of DTP immunization, if there was no immunization program in the United States, pertussis cases could increase 71-fold and deaths due to pertussis could increase four-fold. Comparing the risk from disease with the risk from the vaccines can give us an idea of the benefits we get from vaccinating our children.

A plot of SIDS rate from 1988 to 2006

A plot of SIDS rate from 1988 to 2006 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For more information on vaccines and childhood illnesses go to Global Vaccine Safety:

Six common misconceptions about immunization.  This is a much more serious case of correlation = causation than the Deer Lady’s confusion.

The sample used should be a reasonable size and reflect the population in question.  How many samples, people, classrooms or animals are needed can’t be defined theoretically, but scientists and most sensible people should know when the sample is not enough.   For example if one wants to know the death rate from measles, the best sample would be all the reported cases of measles in an area or all the confirmed cases of measles.  The latter would be better, unless one can safely assume that doctors are generally accurate in diagnosing measles and therefore their reports won’t skew the data.

One of the cruellest results of poor research is the myth that the MMR (mumps, measles and rubella) vaccine causes autism .  The research was published in 1988 and retracted by the eminent medical journal, Lancet in 2012.  Not only was the research retracted but the author was also reprimanded by Britain’s General Medical Council and stripped of the right to practice medicine in Britain.

The doctor used only 12 children for his research, taking the blood samples from children at his son’s birthday party.  There were other flaws in his work; for more information see the sites below.

After his results were published in 1988, some British parents refused to get their children immunized with the MMR vaccine and the incidence of all three diseases increased.  Measles is highly contagious and can lead to more serious illnesses or death.  For example: one in twenty will develop pneumonia (a common cause of death from measles) and one in a thousand will develop encephalitis, putting them at risk for convulsions, deafness, mental retardation or death.  By 2008 there were enough measles cases in Britain to declare it an epidemic.  See web sites in the bibliography below for a discussion of MMR vaccination from at least two opposing perspectives.

Even when research is well done, there are two more pits for the unwary: drawing conclusions and applying the results correctly. If your dog rolls over repeatedly after eating peanut butter, is it to please you in order to get more peanut butter or does peanut butter put his belly in such agony that he needs to roll over more than once to relieve it?  One might argue that the dog’s motivation doesn’t matter; the important thing is that the dog rolls over.  It does, however, make a difference to dogs and to dog lovers.  They care whether pain or delight is causing the new tricks.  This is another case where the researcher will have to explore the connection between the incidents in order to do good science.

Research intent on testing the results of other studies is not glamorous and doesn’t get the headlines (or the grants, sometimes) but it is as important as the initial work.  In fact, without it, we would have more drugs with disastrous side effects, more collapsing structures and poorer educational systems.

The third thing that needs considering, besides reliability and validity and the conclusions draw by the researcher, is the interpretation of research by the layman – or woman.  It is easy to misunderstand research if we don’t read the work or summaries without a critical eye.  I find myself increasingly wondering who did the original research, how valid and reliable it was, if the researcher had a bias towards the results and what other research has been done. Education needs good research to inform good teaching practices and teachers need to know how to read the research, question it and implement what has been learned.

I have not covered everything you need to know about scientific methods and the methods of science.  My intention here is to draw attention to the layman’s need to understand scientific thinking and reflect critically on research before applying it in the field.  For a more thorough analysis, go to:  The Scientific Method vs. Real Science at http://www.av8n.com/physics/scientific-methods.htm.  It does require some thoughtful reading but it is worth the effort.

So, I am writing a book about the relationship between education and what we really know about the brain and relevant psychology.  I am still in the research stage.  Instead of doing my own original research, I am reviewing other peoples’ studies to understand the results and their relevance to education.

My blog will probably have a different flavour, as it is likely to reflect my thoughts and discoveries as I learn.  I hope you enjoy accompanying me on this journey.

Bibliography

Donna, The Deer Lady

http://www.webpronews.com/donna-the-deer-lady-learns-what-deer-crossing-signs-are-for-2012-10

The MMR Vaccine Discussion.

Autism-vaccine study retracted Tuesday, February 2, 2010 | 10:08 PM ET CBC News  http://www.cbc.ca/news/health/story/2010/02/02/autism-mmr-lancet-wakefield.html

http://www.cdc.gov/vaccinesafety/concerns/autism/index.html

http://www.infection-research.de/infectious_diseases/measles/

http://www.vaccinationnews.com/why-do-pediatricians-deny-obvious

http://www.vaccinationnews.com/measles-united-kingdom-wakefield-factor

http://www.who.int/vaccine_safety/initiative/detection/immunization_misconceptions/en/

 

Scientific Method:

http://www.av8n.com/physics/scientific-methods.htm.

Technology and Education


Technology and the Author

While I have to confess to losing my temper and being rude to the first microwave that took up residence in my kitchen, in general I am a technophile, especially when it comes to things that make my life easier.  Typewriters were a gift to this dysgraphic child; electric typewriters were even better but the advent of word processors and personal computers made my life much easier.  Suddenly I could write nearly as fast as I could think, have a machine catch most of my typographical errors and revise my work often and quickly.  Paragraphs flew from one end of a composition to the other, split, spliced with other paragraphs, were deleted, then reintroduced almost unrecognisable in new vocabulary, style and brevity.  Gone were the days of double spaced writing on yellow legal pads, cutting up pages, numbering paragraphs and setting up a new scheme.

I was among the first teachers to pounce on computers as an aide to drilling arithmetic.  I taught my older students to type, save to disc and do their essays on the computer as part of a history/English course.  Before the word summative began to haunt the dreams of high school students and teachers, my grade seven students researched certain topics and wrote essays under controlled conditions (the library and the computer lab) to demonstrate they had learned the skills taught in English and history.

Electronic devices make a difference to students with learning differences:  blind students can hear text using text-to-speech software, the partially sighted can do homework using machines that magnify textbooks, the dyslexic can use spelling dictionaries and word processors, the deaf have access to FM broadcasters, the physically handicapped have access to a number of tools to help them learn.  The electronic devices do not level the playing field, but they allow these students on to it.

I love my MacBook, my Kindle and my iPod Touch because they allow me to write, read, store information and photos and organise myself within a minimum of space.  The Kindle has its limitations, but it still reduces the number of books I need to carry on vacation.

Technology Good …

You hear the BUT coming.  Yes, here it is: technology can do a great deal for students and educators but sometimes we are dazzled by its magic.  Technology does not teach reading, writing or arithmetic.  For that we need only very simple tools such as paper, pencil, literature and counters of some sort such as stones, buttons or beans.  I have put paper bags over students’ heads to demonstrate unknown variables when teaching algebra and created a dance to demonstrate the relationship between high pressure, low pressure and rain.  Everything else is extra and not necessarily helpful.

Before we invest in tools for schools, especially expensive technology, we should ask why we are buying the tools.  What, exactly, will it help us teach and how will it help us teach it?  Will it be used frequently?  How flexible is it?  How will the kids respond to it?  Finally, is it truly good value as a teaching or learning tool for the money and time that will be spent on it?

When I was learning to teach ESL we were given the rule of thumb, teach new grammar using old vocabulary and new vocabulary using old grammar.  When we use technology are we using it to enhance what we are teaching or are we using skills the students already have to teach them how to use the technology.  Both are valid.

What are the School’s Computer Labs for?

For example, we have computer labs.  Why?  We have to teach children how to use the Internet.  What do they need to learn about the Internet?  How to find information is probably the first thing you think of.  The biggest problem with information on the Internet is the variability of the quality.

When children start visiting the computer lab in kindergarten what can they learn about assessing the quality of information?  You laugh; you know that kindergarten kids just play games on the computers.  The games are chosen to improve the children’s knowledge of letters and numbers, to acquaint them with the keyboard, to improve their manual dexterity and for a number of solid educational reasons.  The games would not be in the lab if they were not educational.  We hope.

By grades four and five they are doing research but the research is usually on sites handpicked (by their teacher) where the job is to find the information required and make notes or answer questions Taking notes and answering questions are important skills.  Doing them in a lab does create a stimulating change of pace from writing notes in the classroom.

However, the students do not have to determine how good the site is as their teacher has already done that.  They can not be allowed the freedom to roam the Internet and assess what they find as some of it would be entirely inappropriate.  When my sister was concerned that my niece might have scarlet fever, I typed those two words into the search engine and the first site I found had nothing to do with medicine.  The difficulty is that by the time students are free to roam the Internet at will, they still have not learned to assess the sites they find.

One Way to Integrate Technology and a Number of Forms of Media:

Starting in the Library Using Indexes, Chapter Headings, Catalogues and Key Words

So how could you teach children of that age to search for and assess the quality of the information they find?  You could take them to the library and teach them what they might find in an encyclopaedia, a dictionary, a book on the topic or a thesaurus.  Many students don’t realise that if they want to know something about cows, a book on farms might have something.  They don’t know that if they have five books in front of them, perhaps only two have a lot of information and the other three should be searched using the index or the chapter titles for a few salient facts.  What kind of words should they use to look up information in the index?  If they were studying cows, how about bull, calf, cattle, beef, milk, leather, ranches and so on.  This is often a new idea to them, but when they start using the Internet knowing how to come up with good keywords will be essential in their searches.

I like to give students an adult crossword to solve after pointing out the encyclopaedias of pop culture, space, writers, sports figures and other specialty references.  It becomes a bit of a competition to see who can figure out the answers, using only books. The crosswords are at their most effective if they are difficult.

Assessing the Quality of Information

Once students know how to find information you can teach them to think about what things should make them sceptical about the quality of the knowledge.  Which might be more out of date: a book on cows or a book on rockets ships written in the 1950’s?  Would a book about farming written by an astronaut be as informative as one written by a farmer?  Would a farmer who had studied physics and math at university be able to write a good book on rockets?  What kind of books is most likely to provide information?  What would you find in a book labelled fiction? Biography? Non-fiction? A search on the online library catalogue has turned up:

It’s ONLY Rocket Science: An Introduction in Plain English Lucy Rogers

Rocket Boys, Homer Hickam

Rocket Science: 50 Flying, Floating, Flipping, Spinning Gadgets Kids Create Themselves Jim Wiese &Tina Cash-Walsh

 Sesame Subjects: My First Book about Airplanes and Rockets (Sesame Street) by Kama Einhorn and Christopher Maroney

The Rocket Mike Leonetti & Greg Banning

Now ask the students which books are not likely to help them learn about rockets.  What helpful information is missing that they should expect to find in a library catalogue? What other information will they find only by looking at the book? Of the books they think might help them learn, which do they think might have the most information?  Which one would they prefer to start with (not always the same one).

Ready for the Internet, More Skills and Boolean Logic *

All of this thinking applies to searching the Internet.  Once students have learned how to search for information and having found information, examine the source with a critical eye, they are in a better position to make good use of electronic sources. They will now need to learn how to search effectively using Boolean logic* and how to navigate web sites.  Just because they can navigate their favourite web sites doesn’t mean they know how to navigate those which will provide useful information

Students researching cows and rocket ships are just one example of how some of the skills needed on the Internet can be taught and honed elsewhere. Skills like these are transferable and not just from the library to the Internet.

From the Internet to Media Studies

From the Internet the skills transfer neatly to media studies.  Here the added value is learning how language, graphics and sound are used to influence consumers. You can show this on Internet sites as well as magazine and television advertising. In fact, it is important to teach detecting bias on Internet sites.  In teaching your students you will bring them through the skills of searching for facts and analysing sources to looking for bias and observing how bias can subtly affect people.

Your students will be better equipped to look beyond the razzle-dazzle to the message. This is use of technology in education but not technology for its own sake.  This is examining how to use technology and how other peoples’ use of it affects us.  With luck you could leave your students with the most valuable lesson of all, the inclination not to take information at face value no matter where it comes from.

*Don’t know what Boolean Logic is?  I won’t tell.  See this site for a good explanation in how to use it in Internet searches:

Boolean Searching on the Internet: A Primer in Boolean Logic by Laura B. Cohen.  Part of Internet Tutorials: your basic guide to the Internet http://www.internettutorials.net/boolean.asp If you teach math, set theory and Venn diagrams, you will be able to do a two for one lesson or reinforce one concept in the other class.  Show your students how even the weirdest math has real life applications!  How cool is that?