At the Sixth World Skeptics Congress in Berlin this year, I'll be presenting a talk on "Why Can't a Teacher Be More Like a Scientist? - Pseudoscience In Education". I wish I could take credit for the start of the title: I was initially inspired by a paper written by Mark Carter and Kevin Wheldall, published in the Australasian Journal of Special Education, back in 2008. Although it is now many years after that paper's publication, many of the things it discusses are pertinent to educators still - for me, it encourages collaboration with educators and educational systems, to prevent pseudoscience from entering classrooms and playtime. The paper by Carter and Wheldall investigates how teachers access good material and what influences their views on educational practices:

The move towards evidence-based practice in education has been accompanied by an increasing demand for evidence of efficacy of educational programs and interventions. Unfortunately, given the decline of scientific research in education over recent decades, in favour of more ideologically-driven approaches, such empirical evidence of efficacy is thin on the ground. For example, in exasperation with the tardiness of the US government-backed What Works Clearinghouse (WWC) in issuing recommendations of effective educational programs, the website has been dubbed the ‘Nothing Works Clearinghouse’ (Viadero, 2006) by its critics! Unfortunately, the What Works Clearinghouse may be rapidly moving from the ‘Nothing Works Clearinghouse’ to the ‘Almost Anything with One Controlled Study Works Clearinghouse’. In an ideal world, only gold standard research would be considered in reviewing relevant studies. In education, we currently do not live in an ideal world.

What could help create a closer approximation to ideal educational programs and interventions (if not an "ideal world")? The suggestions by Carter and Wheldall include "an alternative model for evaluating efficacy of educational programs’ that would be more like ‘…a sliding scale of levels of acceptable programs, similar perhaps to the Australian Travel Advisories".

These five levels, from a First Level "gold standard" that is "supported by a number of independent randomised controlled trials, providing strong evidence for specific efficacy". It would then go down to an "Educationally Unsafe" Level 5, with "no credible specific empirical evidence an are predicated on assumptions counter to substantial scientific evidence and theory". With their examples, they mention the TV show Arthur, the effectiveness of Reading Recovery, how Jolly Phonics is a "strong candidate for a Level 1 grading" and it even touches on where DORE would rank on such a scale:

In spite of considerable accumulated evidence that such programs are ineffective, they resurface every decade or so under a different name or guise (Stephenson et al., 2007). Moreover, the two scientific studies of Dore’s efficacy published in a refereed scientific journal (Dyslexia) have subsequently been severely challenged and criticised by numerous reading researchers and Nature, arguably the most influential science journal in the world, has seen fit to publish a cautionary editorial (Nature Neuroscience, 2006). Dore, then, would probably currently locate at Level 4, or even 5, on the proposed scale.

Dore's claims have been covered extensively by the likes of Dr Ben Goldacre on his Bad Science site and in The Guardian, such as Dore - The Media's Miracle Cure for Dyslexia and Determined Bloggers Who Blew Whistle, which covered the 2008 administration of a number of Dore centres, leading to closures in Australia, USA and the UK. Despite questions and criticisms of their methods (and the finding of abandoned medical records), they still continue to operate world-wide and their programs are implemented within schools even now.

What to do? It's well past 2008 and clearly a review of what constitutes "gold standard research" in education still isn't available world-wide - let alone a newly published paper taking into consideration the multitude of other factors that hinder teachers, such as the No Child Left Behind act in the USA, controversy over Ofsted's proposal for no-notice visits for schools in the UK - or in my country, Australia, concerns about the National Assessment Program - Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN) test preparation interfering with learning.

When educational systems and worn-out educators are fighting budget cuts, questioning performance-related pay, trying to fit in cookery classes to combat claims of obesity epidemics (in an already crowded curriculum), debating the cost and value and ideologies of public schools versus private schools versus faith schools... do we honestly expect people not to cut corners when an educational "miracle" is offered to children of varying abilities?

Just how much time, money (let alone impetus!) do educators have to take a breath and look critically at programs that may be implemented and running in their schools - that is if they notice a handful of skeptical bloggers waving a red flag? What else can be done, without running rough-shod over the passionate efforts of parents and teachers to do what they think is best for young people? Does a "scientific" approach to teaching mean a mechanistic, one-size-fits-all solution, rather than a contextualised one, recognising that students, teachers, communities, cultures...all differ, both importantly and meaningfully?

For future articles and for the Sixth World Skeptics Congress, I'm unpacking what less-than-credible programs have been offered up as educational programs and interventions and discovering more as to how (as Dr Ben Goldacre has put it, albeit in other circumstances), “It's a bit more complicated than that” when it comes to solving a complex problem. I think we can all learn from a closer look at how a gold standard learning experience isn't simply pulled out of a test-tube, let alone produced like a rabbit from a hat by a magician.  


Kylie Sturgess is the host of the Token Skeptic podcast, and regularly writes editorial for numerous publications and CSICOP’s Curiouser and Curiouser online column. She holds Masters degrees in gifted and talented education and wrote her thesis on the educational measurement of paranormal beliefs. She is the co-host for the Global Atheist Convention in 2010 and 2012 and will present at the Sixth World Skeptics Congress in Berlin on pseudoscience in education. In addition, Kylie Sturgess is an award-winning secular activist, a member of the James Randi Educational Foundation Education Advisory Panel and writes at The Token Skeptic at FreeThought Blogs.