When critical thinking is not critical thinking

Science and social justice

The strange case of Lindsay Shepherd and Laurier University hit the news in 2017. During one class in order to illustrate how gender pronouns have caused controversyShepherd, a 23 year old teaching assistant, showed a clip of Canadian Psychology professor Jordan Peterson. The clip was of a TV show in which he discussed his opposition to legally enforced gender pronoun use. 

After the class, a student (allegedly) complained about the video and the university launched an enquiry. Shepherd was asked to attend a meeting and was castigated by her employer for showing the video. The conversation, which Shepherd recorded, included this exchange: 

Rambukkana: So bringing something like that up in class, not critically, and I understand that you’re trying to-
Shepherd: It was critical. I introduced it critically.
Rambukkana: Howso?
Shepherd: Like I said, it was in the spirit of debate.
Rabukkana: Okay, “In the spirit of debate” is slightly different than “This is a problematic idea that maybe we want to unpack”
Shepherd: But that’s taking sides.

This conversation shows two competing version of the term ‘critical’ crashing into each other in real time. So how do these two version of ‘critical’ differ?

The ‘critical’ schools 

From the 1960’s there was a flourishing of academic subjects using the term ‘critical’ in the title. These include but are not limited to such things as:
These subjects often seem to be concerned with similar things. For example, Critical Discourse Analysis focuses on:

the role of discourse in the (re)production and challenge of dominance. Dominance is defined here as the exercise of social power by elites, institutions or groups, that results in social inequality, including political, cultural, class, ethnic, racial and gender inequality.

Critical pedagogy is defined as

an approach to language teaching and learning which, according to Kincheloe (2005), is concerned with transforming relations of power which are oppressive and which lead to the oppression of people. It tries to humanize and empower learners…The major goal of CP, as Vandrick (1994) claims, is to emancipate and educate all people regardless of their gender, class, race, etc

Critical EAP similarly seeks to take account of factors previously ignored in EAP, like “gender, class, race and power relations…” (Benesch) The key themes, then of ‘critical’ fields are 1) power and oppression, 2) ‘social justice‘ and 3) the notion of using academia to transform society. This is quite different from the usual sense of ‘critical’ in phrases like ‘critical thinking’. Burbules and Berk suggest that the traditional sense of being critical:

…basically means to be more discerning in recognizing faulty arguments, hasty generalizations, assertions lacking evidence, truth claims based on unreliable authority, ambiguous or obscure concepts, and so forth.

I recently had a couple of papers published. One was titled ‘a critical look at NLP in ELT‘ and the other ‘A critical examination of perceptual learning styles in ELT‘. Both of these papers use ‘critical’ in the sense of something akin to scientific skepticism. Questioning the veracity of claims, asking for evidence to support arguments and evaluating claims. I would guess this is what most people understand ‘critical’ to mean. 

The other ‘critical’ thinking 

In contrast, the ‘critical’ in Critical Pedagogy means something akin to ‘Marxist’. Proponents can be a bit coy about this, but Scholem (in Hammersley) notes that after the Nazi takeover of Germany, Marxists of the Frankfurt school fled to the US, a country not particularly welcoming to Marxism. There they adopted the term ‘critical’ to describe the kind of research they were interested in. Freire’s critical pedagogy is an example of this:

Freire’s philosophy was continuous with what has been euphemistically termed “western” Marxism, which embraces the quest for a sufficient theory of subjectivity identified in the post-war periods with the Critical Theory of the Frankfurt school, psychoanalysis, and phenomenology.” (Aronowitz)

Freire was a Marxist with a fondness for approvingly quoting Mao Tse Dong*. The Marxist roots are important to note because they represent the underpinnings or tenants of ‘critical’ subjects and include such things as: 
Both types of ‘critical’ would describe what they are doing as ‘critical thinking’ but this seems to be, in the critical theory sense a case of humpty-dumptying (after the character’s insistence that ‘When I use a word it means just what I choose it to mean’). Freire’s definition of critical thinking, namely “thinking which discerns an indivisible solidarity between the world and the people and admits of no dichotomy between them” (92) is not one most people would recognise as ‘critical thinking’. 

It’s worth noting too, that those who advocate for critical approaches don’t necessarily see a difference between the two forms of critical thinking. One is merely the logical conclusion of the other. If your analysis identifies a problem in the world, naturally you would work to fix it. That is to say, “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it“(Marx). 


What’s the difference?

So how would a ‘critical’ article differ from a traditionally critical one? Recently a useful example popped up in my twitter feed. It’s a critical look at the book ‘Visible Learning’ called ‘Seven reasons to question the hegemony of Visible Learning‘.  Those not aware of critical approaches might take this to be an examination of Hattie’s arguments and the evidence supporting them, but the authors are very clear that that is not the case:

Critique of this program […] has tended to centre on the mechanisms of meta-analysis. We consider what Visible Learning puts to work in relation to cultural politics and find it closely aligned with agendas of neoliberalism, sexism and ableism…

That is, they are not going to criticise Hattie for factual errors but rather for having the wrong ideology. The journal in which it is published, ‘discourse studies in the cultural politics of education‘ may just sound like any other journal name but if we examine its scope we note that it:

adopts a broadly critical orientation, but is not tied to any particular ideological, disciplinary or methodological position. It encourages interdisciplinary approaches to the analysis of educational theory, policy and practice
Recent articles include ‘Key elements in the naturalisation of neoliberal discourse in higher education in Chile‘ and ‘Christmas in U.S. K-12 schools: categorizing and explaining teacher awareness of Christo-normativity’. 


There are a many critiques of Hattie’s work, based on issues with his statistical analysis (see for example hereherehere and here) but as this is a critical paper, the focus is elsewhere. The authors are concerned that “colonising metaphors” like Visible Learning, with its focus on the “dominance of the visual” and “seductive neoliberal style” are in danger of becoming tools of “fascistic education”. Visible learning is “sexist and masculinist” in it’s pornographic “preoccupation with the visual” that forces a “feminized profession” (teaching) to submit to a “heteronormative, sexist and ableist” vision of education which revolves around “ejaculatory outcomes”. 

Being critical of ‘critical’ 

Science, when it works, is a self-correcting system (see for instance the recent replication crisis and trial registration). So we can ask, ‘is this the right way to go about thinking about a problem?’, ‘is this the right problem to be thinking about?’ ‘Are these criticisms valid?’, ‘how can we tell?’, and so on.  The critical academic subjects generally do not:  
it is characteristic of CDA, and of much ‘critical’ work in the social sciences, that its philosophical foundations are simply taken for granted, as if they were unproblematic. This reflects the fact that, in many ways, the term ‘critical’ has become little more than a rallying cry demanding that researchers consider ‘whose side they are on’.”(1997:244)
The ideas central to the critical subjects cannot be challenged. We cannot, for example, ask if Freire is right that people are not currently ‘fully human’ and that praxis and inquiry would make them ‘fully human’. Nor can we ask if it’s useful to divide the world into oppressors and oppressed. In short, critical subjects are not, themselves, subject to criticism. 

When we do approach them critically we notice problems. For instance, the seemingly simplistic division of people into either oppressor or oppressed class. It’s never exactly clear how a person finds themselves in one of these groups. 

Freire deals only in vague generalities. Oppression is never clearly defined. Freire concentrates on the oppression of the poor and fails to deal realistically with oppression as it is found at all levels of society. It is a mistake to see only the poor as oppressed and all others as oppressors. (Elias 1976)

Among Radical Feminists a woman would be a member of the oppressed class ‘woman’ and a victim of the ‘patriarchy’ system. However, the same woman, if she is white would, in critical race studies be a privileged member of the oppressor class in the system of ‘white supremacy’.

If we start from the position that women are part of an oppressed class, then our research will tend to look for examples that support that narrative whereas a fact based approach may tend to throw up problematic data. For instance, a recent trend on twitter was for female PhD holders to affix ‘dr’ in front of their names. This was in response to a viral tweet from ‘Sci Curious’ about how male colleagues were far less likely than female colleagues to correctly address a female colleague. When the researcher actually checked her emails she found no difference. 


There is also an unfortunate tendency to characterise opponents as fascist or at least unwitting agents of fascism. For instance, in the meeting with Lindsay Shepherd, Professor Rambukkana (who’s written on topics like ‘From #RaceFail to #Ferguson: Digital Intimacies, Racism and the Politics of Hashtag Publics.’ and ‘Taking the Leather out of Leathersex: BDSM Identity and the Implications of an Internet-Mediated Sadomasochistic Public Sphere.’) thought showing a clip of Peterson‘s was comparable with showing a clip of Hitler (a position for which he later apologised). Tying opponents’ opinions to unsavoury movements like fascism can in some cases, be a substitute for refutation.  

Widdowson, responding to a critical paper, characterises such approaches as having an ‘epistemological intolerance‘ noting that:

There is here a sort of fundamentalism: a zealous adherence to a way of conceiving of the world based on an unthinking trust in the wisdom of the pronouncements of some guru, sage, or prophet, whether this be Karl Marx or Thomas Aquinas or Ron Hubbard.

Finally it’s not at all clear that critical approaches actually deliver on the promise of empowerment and liberation. One reporter noted that “for years I have been searching for an instance in which peasants have broken out of their oppression, but have found none. When I asked Freire he admitted that neither has he.”

The spread of a critical approach

slides from RadicalKent EAP conference
Over the last couple of years I’ve noticed that this critical approach seems to be gaining more popularity in ELT and applied linguistics circles. Perhaps this is just a frequency illusion or perhaps these approaches are really starting to resonate with people due to the particular political situation we find ourselves in. 


Recently, The University of Kent hosted a ‘RadicalEAP‘ event, which included talks on subjects such as ‘Learning and teaching for the post-capitalist economy’, ‘How can I increase my impact as a teacher upon WP and BME students?’ and ‘Critical Race Theory (CRT): A framework for liberating, learning, teaching, assessment and the curriculum in higher education (HE)’’. 


‘White knowledge’ 
similarly, the AAAL conference this year seemed to have quite a ‘critical’ focus. For instance, echoing the ‘OscarsSoWhite‘ trend of 2015 the hashtag AAALsowhite was promoted by Ryuko Kubota who spoke against ‘white Eurocentric knowledge’ and criticised the conference for not having more PoC speakers. Another speaker dealt with the question of whether or not applied linguistics is a ‘tool of white supremacy‘. 
not the same

Adopting a critical perspective can mean viewing the world through a restrictive lens. Teaching English becomes enforcing ‘linguistic imperialism‘, which in turn is pushing Western values on oppressed people and is thus a tool of white supremacy (even when ‘the oppressed’ don’t necessarily agree). 

There is also a real danger that as critical approaches becomes influential, research which discovers uncomfortable truths will be censored or suppressed. There is evidence that this is already happening (see here and here). Alice Dredger‘s book Galileo’s Middle Finger documents a number of cases of this kind. She argues that Good research has “to put the search for truth first and the quest for social justice second”. 

I think it’s possible to worry that women or PoC often suffer discrimination without believing that there is a systematic ‘neoliberal’ conspiracy at work to keep them under the boot. It’s also possible to want to improve the world without assigning yourself either oppressor or oppressed status. As Widdowson puts it“you do not have to be a critical linguist to have a social conscience”. 



*It has been pointed out to me that the wording of this is not quite accurate. Freire does seem to talk approvingly of Mao’s China up to 1985 and never walks those comments back, but he doesn’t actually quote Mao in the main body of Ped of Opp. 

Arguments by other means

A few weeks ago a post by Carol Black defending the use of learning styles was making the rounds on twitter. I say defending but in reality it was more of an attack on those criticising learning styles. People like me. 

I have a number of issues with Black’s post which I will get into another time, however the most problematic part of her essay is that she attempts to discredit critics of learning styles by tying criticism to unpopular social/political positions. This can be seen, for example in the title of her piece:
Science / Fiction
‘Evidence-based’ education, scientific racism, & how learning styles became a myth.

From the title onward, Black explicitly attempts to link critics of learning styles with racism. This is not an attempt to argue that the evidence itself is weak (a legitimate position) or that more researcher needs to be done. She is simply trying to make those who disagree with her seem unsavoury. Debunkers of learning styles, she writes, are “are finding their way, step by step, back to their institutional origins in scientific racism”. Now call me old fashioned but surely we should reserve the term ‘racist’ for, you know, actual racists? Of course, Black never explicitly calls critics, racist. She doesn’t need to, the accusation is enough. Arguing from the position of ‘this is why I’m not a racist’ is not a good look for anyone. 

And what if you think learning styles is bunk but don’t think you’re a racist? Well, no fear! Black has this angle covered too, noting:
We should all know by now that structural racism can operate unconsciously, through unquestioned assumptions that have a racist impact without the oppressor intending or even being aware of the oppression.

Sexism 

In the same article she also unsubtly suggests that those who are dubious about learning styles are, by and large, men bullying women. This is, as Ashman has shown, entirely untrue. It is also untrue for TEFL where the only article in the literature really critical about learning styles was written by two women (most male academics who have published on the topic are generally supportive). 
Considering the author claims, that learning styles critics are trying to ‘bully’, ‘shame’ and ‘intimidate’ others, it seems astonishing that she would choose these tactics to make her argument. Black is, I think, aware of how bad this looks and so when challenged on this point continually denies it. 

On twitter, in response to Ashman’s piece, she writes “Greg has misrepresented my views in his piece. There are reputable & rigorous scientists, both male and female, on both sides of this debate…” which seems a strange statement to make when her piece contains the claim that:
A disturbing feature of this discourse in education is the frequency with which it takes the form of male researchers and pundits telling female educators that their views on learning are cognitively childish and irrational and should therefore be disregarded. 
Her earlier twitter comments also make this statement hard to believe. She previously dismissed Willingham’s work on learning styles as ‘mansplaining‘ and issuing ‘edicts to (mostly female) teachers’. 

Again, compare this stated opinion of Willingham with later backtracking when challenged by Ashman. 

Is it possible to be respectful and a ‘mansplainer’? 











The attempt to smear critics of learning styles continues when Black, through a series of convoluted arguments, arrives at the conclusion that:
when the debunkers double down on their claim that LEARNING STYLES DON’T EXIST, they are doubling down on the claim that the children who don’t perform well in traditional instructional settings are in fact just less intelligent.
The logic here is that if a child is not doing well in traditional settings and we discount learning styles then the only explanation must be that the child is less intelligent. Black presents no evidence for this conclusion. Could there be other factors which affect a student’s progress? teacher qualitypeersFamily? Not according to Black.  Any argument that will cast learning styles critics in a bad light is marshaled by Black regardless of how tenuously constructed it is. 

The more general point of this post is to say that I think this kind of ‘tactic’ in argument isn’t helpful. Black isn’t the only person who has attempted to discredit ideas based not on their merit but on some of factor, such as who said it or what accepting it might mean. 

We ought to be generous in our assumptions about intent or we risk creating a toxic environment. Accusations such as these can also be a double edged sword. Looking at her blog, how easy would it be to construct an argument that Black, with her frequent uncritical promotion of various tribal practises, actually fetishises minorities? From here it’s a hop, skip and a jump to ‘Orientalism‘, essentialising minorities, the ‘noble savage‘ and then, right back to racism. But to do this would be wrong. 


Black’s arguments about education, like all arguments, should be judged on their merits, not on assumptions about her intentions. Black would do better to start from the assumption that critics of learning styles actually just don’t think the evidence shows they work. That would be the charitable thing to do. 

Seeking Nirvana

“Nobody made a greater mistake than he who did nothing because he could do only a little.” – Edmund Burke


How do you know that smoking causes cancer?

Easy, right? scientists said so and they did lots of research to prove it. But what research did they actually do and how did they do it? If you’re anything like me, you probably have absolutely no idea.

In the 1950s two British doctors carried out a cohort study. This is when you look at a large group of people (40,000+ doctors in this case) over a period of time and study which conditions they suffer from and then try to match those conditions with other factors. For example those in the group getting lung cancer seemed to also overwhelmingly be the ones who smoked. Bingo, we have a correlation. 

I often wonder what would have happened if this were education research posted on twitter nowadays? My feeling is that as soon as it had been tweeted out countless blogs would have popped up to discredit it. 

Firstly someone would point out that correlation doesn’t always mean causation. Next we would read that doctors shouldn’t be trusted because ‘remember what happened with Thalidomide‘. Then, someone else would casually note that there must be hundreds of other factors which could influence these people, like diet and lifestyle. They would then pull out the classic educational trump card that ‘every smoker is different’ and that what affects one wouldn’t necessarily affect another. Next someone would ask for the authors to define exactly what they meant by ‘smoking’ are we talking pipes or roll ups? And just how many cigarettes makes one a smoker? Finally the coup-de-grace would be delivered with the comment that ‘my grandfather smoked 40 a day and lived till he was 100’.

Once the cloud of doubt was thick enough, everyone could go back smoking, safe in the knowledge that the imperfections in this research would protect them from cancer. 

The reasons used to dismiss research in education also exist in medical research and psychological research and somehow they seem to manage. 

Take a human beings for example. Each has their own unique genetic code. The differences are so extreme that some people can drink a little alcohol and suffer quite high levels of liver damage while others drink lots and are fine. Other can smoke their whole lives without getting lung cancer. Other people can die if given penicillin.  

Yes despite these differences when I buy a packet of painkillers it says “take one per day for adults” with no warnings about “unless you’re a middle-aged woman weighing between X and Y”. Somehow we can all just take one a day and ‘it works!’ But in education context is king and attempts to move the field forward can often be dismissed out of hand by this kind of low level niggling. 

The Nirvana fallacy is where ‘good’ is rejected because it isn’t ‘perfect’. It’s the enemy of ‘good enough’ or just ‘better than before’. And in education these kinds of improvements are exactly what we should be aiming for. There will never be a perfect method, but we should be asking are there ways of doing things that are a little better than how we’re doing them now. 

The Nirvana fallacy is not only apparent in criticisms of research, it also makes an appearance in two other areas of TEFL; textbooks and testing. Textbooks often don’t represent real language use, have contrived levels and use ‘old fashioned’ teaching methodology. They are often bland and designed by companies seeking to make a profit

None of this is controversial and there is plenty of research to back this up. But new textbooks come out all the time and are often better than the ones that precede them. Yet here again ‘better than before’ is not seen as good enough and instead there are many who seem to feel they should be thrown out altogether unless they are perfect. Of course ‘perfect’ here means applicable to every individual student’s needs regardless of the context, first language, learning preferences and cultural beliefs. They would also use the teaching methodology preferred by whichever teacher was using them and contain language appropriate and authentic for every knowable context. 

Tests too fall victim to the nirvana fallacy. In all areas of education it seems anti-test sentiment is high. Certainly tests can be powerful and life changing and bad tests are disastrous but again is that a reason to stop testing students or is it an argument for better tests? 

Testing is one of the most well-researched and evidence driven fields in education. The test ‘form‘ a person sits is the very tip of a complex and expensive test writing process which has been refined for decades. Tests also give us information on what a students is capable of, how well they’ve progressed and what they need to work on. Test writers and theorists go to incredible lengths to ensure tests are fair for students and yet I know of hardly any teachers who have positive views about testing. 

Bad research, bad textbooks and bad tests are all arguments for better research, better textbooks and better tests. It’s absolutely right that teachers should be critical of things that don’t work, and I will be there with them, pointing out sloppy research, crappy textbooks and poorly written tests. But should we dismiss the whole endeavour because it’s not perfect? Would we make similar arguments about other fields? charity for instance; ‘sure this well may supply clean drinking water but the hospitals are still in a terrible state and the government is unstable so why bother?’


We can still aim for improvements while admitting that things are not perfect. As Michael Long notes

The responsibility of professionals in any field is not to know the right answer, but to be able to defend recommendations in light of what is thought to be the right answer or the likeliest right answer (best practice), given what is known or thought to be known at the time. What is irresponsible is to throw up one’s hands and declare that no proposals should be made and defended until everything is known for sure (which will never happen). 




Deep, man!

‘lightning never strikes twice.’


‘What doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger.’


These sentences both sound really profound while being nonsense, and nonsense that can very quickly be identified as nonsense. In both cases a few seconds of thought would be enough to show this. The word ‘lightning rod‘ and the existence of lightning rods is not a contested issue. Lightning rods exist and are placed on the side of tall buildings precisely because lightning often strikes the same spot (tall things) repeatedly. Similarly it’s not hard to think of things which while not killing a person would definitely not leave them any stronger. Ebola, spinal injury or brain damage are a few examples. And yet, like the bizarre ‘it’s the exception that proves the rule‘ despite making no sense and this fact being apparent to anyone with normal mental capabilities, these phrases continue to be used

One place they’re particularly prevalent is on any social media platform that teachers have discovered. Social media + education has led  to the rampant proliferation of what Carl Hendrick calls, ‘the scourge of motivational posters‘. Little nuggets of ‘wisdom‘ about teaching usually plastered over the top of an inspiring landscape or picture. Alternatively the quote appears next to a famous figure (Einstein is a popular choice) who probably didn’t actually say the quote in question. They’re so prevalent they’ve inspired a satirical section on Shaun Wilden and Lindsay Clandfield‘s TEFL commute podcast
The internet is awash with these edu quotes and they come In a few different flavours. There’s the ego-bolster: memes about how hard teaching is and what under appreciated heroes teachers are.On a side note, it’s interesting that such a large number of these memes exist. If you google, ‘doctors are heroes’ or ‘even ‘firefighters are heroes‘ you get far fewer memes than you do for teachers.  Next, there’s the heart warming type usually including the word ‘heart’ in the quote and a picture of a heart somewhere. And finally there are the deepities.


Deep deepities
The word Deepity was coined by Daniel Dennett. He explains it (see video) thus: 

The example he goes on to quote is ‘love is just a word’. He makes the point that saying love is just a word is either false (it is an emotion, a condition or  way of explaining a phenomenon) or it’s trivially true (yes its a just a word, like pain or joy or sadness, but why even say this?). Other deepities include ‘beauty is only skin deep‘, or there is no I in team‘. I am inclined to add the phrase ‘everyone learns in different ways‘ into this category. If it means ‘everyone has a preferred way of studying’ then *shrug* who cares? If however the implication is that learning, as in the process that occurs in the human brain differs among people, then that would be truly earth shattering as “the architecture of human brains varies very little among adults or among children” (Long 2011:375). 
It is perhaps not at all surprising that we find NLP cornering the market in these kinds of pseudo-profound edu memes, after all, reproducing form without bothering about the substance is kinda NLP’s thing. Here are a few examples that I’ve collected over the years:


‘[1]What you believe to be true either is true, or becomes true.’ 
‘[2]All behaviour has a positive intention’ 

‘[3]There is no failure in learners, only in the teacher’s intervention’ (Millrood 2004:29)

‘[4]There is no such thing as reluctant learners, only inflexible teachers’ (Winch 2005).

‘[5]there is no failure only feedback’ 

The fact that these statements have appeared (and continue to appear) in print in teacher training publications is hard for me to understand. Not only are these quotes, after a minute of consideration, obviously not true, in many cases they seem to absolve students of any responsibility and lay everything at the teacher’s feet. what kind of masochist believes that a [4] reluctant learner must be the fault of the teacher or that [3] any student failure is the teacher’s fault?  And the notion that ‘all behaviour has a positive intention’ seems indefensible until you notice that NLP experts helpfully redifne the word explaining that ‘positive here, does not mean good so much as goal driven.’ In other words, people do things for reasons. Behold! An earth-shattering truth reduced to banal triviality. 



Fish Trees

He didn’t say this 

My most hated of all ‘edu memes’ is the infamous fish tree meme. I hate it for many many reasons. Firstly, Einstein didn’t say it. Secondly if everyone is a genius then no one is a genius. 

This quotes is wheeled out usually in opposition to standardised testing or in calls to rethink education. Climbing a tree is unfair for a fish because a fish can’t climb a tree. It follows, supposedly that this is just like how maths tests are bad for those who are not mathematically gifted. Yhe ‘take-away’ is supposedly that a fish doesn’t have the ability to climb a tree and some kids don’t do well at maths, and so tests are evil, right? This poster seems superficially deep, but why would  teachers ask students to do things that they were physically incapable of?I could rant on about this quote for a whole blog post but I’ll direct you to this one by Todd Pettigrew instead

 

Credit: Carl Hendrick

It seems odd that actual discussions about teaching and learning have, in some parts of the education world been replaced with pithy saccharin soundbites tweeted and retweeted ad nauseam. As Carl Hendrick notes. these kind of posters show “a culture that privileges the media-soundbite over critical reflection” Ironically, the same teachers who insist on the importance of critical thinking and creativity as the very pinnacle of a good 21st century education are often the ones thoughtlessly reproducing these edu memes. 

My 100th Blog post. For this occasion I wanted to write something clever, deep and satirical. I couldn’t do that so I just wrote this instead. Thanks for reading. 
Russ 


E=MC hammer

I follow a fair few teachers on twitter and so I get to read a lot about education. One of the  faces most commonly peering out of tweets and retweets at me, is that of Albert Einstein; usually with some pithy quote attached to his name. More often than not these quotes are attributed to Einstein, but he didn’t say them. As with the following examples.
he didn’t say this
he didn’t say this either

nor this

nope


he kinda said this, but not in these words

 

I recently got involved in a spat with a guy who posted one of these quotes. The klaxon of “someone on the Internet is wrong” began buzzing in my head. No. resist. I said to myself, but the urge was too great. Our conversation went like this: 
 


he does agree!

Leaving aside the argument as to whether facts matter or not (hint -they do) just why is Einstein such a popular figure for educators to (mis)quote? What is it about the German Jewish physicists that appeals to some modern educators? Einstein isn’t popular among all teachers. Instead you tend to see his stuff quoted by teachers who have a strong disposition towards things like creativity, student emotional development and imagination. The kind of teacher who derides tests and wants students to ‘think outside the box’. Now there’s nothing necessarily wrong with these ideas .I’m just merely pointing out the  odd correlation I’ve noticed between Einstein and beliefs of this sort. I say ‘odd’ because a gifted mathematical genius, smart in the most traditional sense who excelled at school doesn’t strike me as the poster boy for the values being espoused by these teachers. What’s that you say? But Einstein didn’t do well at school!  Ah, before we continue, there are a few myths that need debunking. Here’s a quick recap.

 

Myth: Einstein did badly in school
No, he did really well in school. He aced almost everything except French. He tried to enter university when he was 16 but his French held him back (damn you, French!!)

Myth: Einstein failed maths
Nope, he could do differential and integral calculus by the age of 15 whereas I don’t even know what those words mean.

Myth: Einstein had learning difficulties and was an average student
This one is tricky because Einstein didn’t speak a lot until he was about 5. He did speak though. His biographer Pais (1982) claims that Einstein started speaking in whole sentences between the age of 2-3 and at age nine he was accepted into a prestigious school. It would seem quite odd for an ‘average’ student with learning difficulties to be accepted into such a school. The only ‘learning difficulty’ he seemed to have was in that he hated the way his teachers taught, -i.e. memorising large amounts of data. This to my mind, makes Einstein quite a ‘normal’ child.


Myth: Einstein was dyslexic/autistic  

There is little credible evidence to support this claim. Mostly these claims were made retroactively. Also Autism and dyslexic are both somewhat problematic terms. Autism is a spectrum disorder and dyslexia is not one condition with a clear definition. Thus to say Einstein was autistic or dyslexic is probably not true and even if it were true probably doesn’t tell us very much.

So it seems there are in existence, two distinct Einsteins. There is ‘physicist Einstein’ who was a smart kid, good at school (with the exception of French) and brilliant at maths. This Einstein went on to publish hundreds of ground breaking articles concerning physics and won the Nobel Prize. Then there’s ‘educator Einstein’. A young boy with learning difficulties who was written of by foolish teachers unable to see his potential. He failed at maths and yet went on to become a world-renown genius. He spent much of his later life poised before a blackboard making pithy statements about education to his enrapt students. 

While it is true that Einstein trained to be a school teacher and lectured at various Universities, it’s also true that for two years he failed to find a teaching job and his only teaching was at university level. It’s also likely that none of the teachers quoting his thoughts on teaching have any idea how he fared as a lecturer. Was he any good? Did his students like him? Did he teach well? Among Einstein’s hundreds of papers not one dealt with teaching or education. Despite this he’s claimed by teachers as one of their own, there are even (flawed) academic papers speculating about Einstein’s views on teaching

 

reverse halo -or ‘Devil effect’. Retweet anyone?

So why exactly is Einstein popular among  some  teachers? It would seem that Einstein is a kind of short-hand for ‘genius’. Stick his picture next to a quote and the quote gains 9000 Internet points more of credibility than just a normal quote. This is an example of the cognitive bias known as the Halo effect. This is where one attractive characteristic can lead people to assume more favourable things about a person in general. The halo effect is well known and well studied. It’s what leads to attractive teachers getting better student ratings than less attractive teachers, and to attractive criminals getting shorter sentences than plainer ones. Einstein wasn’t hot, he was smart, but the effect still holds. E = S = T or Einstein = smart = true. Smart guy A says B so B must be true because smart guy A is smart. Of course, this is a non-sequitur. If Einstein was talking about Physics you would do well to listen, but would you want his advice on marriage and dating?

 

What’s strange about all of this is that fans of ‘educator Einstein’, those who quote him  regarding ‘imagination’ and stress his poor school record are often the same people who would normally bristle at ‘outsiders telling teachers how to teach’ especially ‘ivory tower academics’ and ‘men in white coats’. How many times have we seen researchers or scientists dismissed because they’re not at the ‘chalk face’ and don’t understand the realities of the classroom, even when that researcher is/was an educator themselves?

Also odd is that teachers often use Einstein to back up things like creativity, imagination and alternative conceptions of intelligence, focusing on the idea that ‘standard’ definitions of intelligence  are not the be-all and end-all of education. Yet Einstein was as ‘traditionally smart’ as they come. He was not smart in a ‘fish climbing trees’ sense, or a ‘bodily-kinaesthetic’ sense but smart in a ‘discover how space and time works through complex maths’ smart. So why do teachers promoting the notion that ‘everyone is clever in different ways’ use the guy who is smart in the most vanilla way to push that point home?



Sure Einstein hated the way he was taught, he hated memorising facts and thought that imagination was important, -but so what? If an idea is good, it doesn’t matter who says it, be it Einstein or Hitler. That is why when vested interested attack, for example, Charles Darwin they are missing the point. Darwin doesn’t matter. The theory of evolution matters. Good ideas are good whether Einstein said them or not, -and bad ideas are bad ideas regardless of who said them. We need to focus on the text, not the image.

 

So we have teachers misquoting a famous physicist, and academic, who may or may not have been a good teacher, but was certainly very good at maths and science to support the view that education isn’t just about being good at things like maths and science.
 
Am I missing something here?