Daniel Willingham: “When Can You Trust the Experts?”

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I have been impressed with Dan Willingham’s work separating the wheat from the chaff in the world of educational psychology ever since I found his earlier book, Why Don’t Students Like School (Jossey-Bass, 2010), in which he explains what we actually know about teaching and learning, as opposed to what many people believe about teaching and learning without any scientific evidence to support those beliefs.

Only this year I have I discovered his subsequent work, When Can You Trust the Experts? (Jossey-Bass, 2012), and I am kicking myself for not reading it sooner. It would have been an outstanding book to use with students when I was teaching IB Theory of Knowledge, which poses the questions, “What do we know, and how do we know it? What do we believe, and why do we believe it?” Willingham addresses those questions in a practical way that would be especially valuable in a TOK class because educational psychology is a social science, and the social sciences deal with complex, messy human situations that make experiments, measurement, evidence, and conclusions problematic—but not always impossible.

Willingham sorts through this maze of questions with the same wit and clarity he displayed in Why Don’t Students Like School? Anyone who has read about (or taught!) the Golden Ratio, for example, will be hooked from the first page. Anyone who has sat through long committee meetings thrashing out the wording of a school mission statement will enjoy his “do-it-yourself school mission statement,” which made me laugh out loud. Anyone trying to teach the “scientific method” will find a valuable resource, filled with clear explanations and vivid examples.

Most importantly, anyone whose job involves curriculum decisions—high school department heads, school and district administrators, school board members, and state and federal officials and bureaucrats in departments of education—needs to read this book three times and consult it carefully before adopting a single new textbook or curriculum program. At a minimum, they should all photocopy Willingham’s “Exhibit 8.1: A Checklist to Be Completed Before You Adopt a Change,” distribute it to everyone in their organization, and direct them to post their copies prominently in their work areas.

In fact, every teacher should read this book, and every parent with school-age children should read it. As Willingham writes, we need “individuals who are better able to discern good science from bad, institutions that are willing to help individuals in that job, and a change of mind-set for all in how science relates to educational practice.” Amen to that!

 

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