Truthiness and the Education Conversation

In this era of evidence-based decision-making, how often are we now being confounded, rather than comforted by evidence? While on the surface it seems natural that leaders would seek research and evidence to support the decisions they make, digging a little deeper reveals all might not be quite what it seems. Evidence-based decision-making certainly came to the fore during the last Bush administration in the US, and in recent times, it has become the mantra by which politicians and policy makers are making choices around education world-wide.

But is it always the right way, and to what extent is the intent prejudiced by inference, rather than fact?

Few would argue that some of the best decisions we make as a society are based on research evidence; but to make the assumption that research should be the basis on which we make all of the best decisions, all the time, allows for a very different level of complexity and confusion.

On the one hand, it implies we have robust evidence available on every matter on which we wish to make a decision, including decisions that are both unprecedented and unpredictable…necessarily. That’s what we call innovation. That’s what we call risk.

On the other hand, it suggests that the best decisions are always only made with supporting evidence. Hence we’ve seen the explosion of the role of focus groups in product development, and polling in politics…and look where that has gotten us. Steve Jobs was famous for his total disdain for focus groups, which many would suggest freed his company to lead innovation, and governing by polling is not leadership, it’s followship.

In these times of ambiguity and uncertainty, we have to step back and take a different tack about many of the decisions we are required to make, even when there is little or no likelihood of any evidence being available.

This brings me to reflect on a recent comment by American satirist Stephen Colbert who talked about “truthiness” in politics, and how it was often corrupting decisions and undermining people’s understanding of evidence and fact. As an example he spoke of the manner in which politicians and the Murdoch media in the US were able to create “truthiness” around the rationale to invade Iraq, when in fact there was absolutely little or no evidence to support it. On the surface it “sounded” right, it sounded like the truth.

And so it is across the education conversation, in fact probably in more profound and prolific ways. How many people needed to see robust, research based evidence before they believed the No Child Left Behind regime would “increase student achievement,” even when there was in fact significant evidence to the contrary? How many people believe that our young people should have their learning opportunities dictated to them by the date they were born, rather than any measure of competence, confidence or interest?

How many people simply take something as fact, because it sounds right? And in education, how much of that has been at the root of many poor decisions for way too long.

Image credits: Steve

2 thoughts on “Truthiness and the Education Conversation”

  1. Maha B

    Wow. I never looked at it that way. I think what I am hearing is that:
    A. We often look for evidence that innovation is working but rarely look for evidence that what we traditionally do at school works; so for example if an institution is interested in trying blended learning, they need to prove “quality” is being met, when actually whatever the status quo is, is assumed to be good enough without having to prove itself; kind of a “truthiness”
    B. some cases (like NCLB?) have clear evidence against them but people continue to support them (though, to be fair, the NCLB details didn’t “sound” like a good idea to many people who are educators rather than policy makers, evidence or no evidence).

    So now I am nodding my head at the truthiness argument, at the “not all good decisions are based on evidence” and the “evidence should trump truthiness” and wondering… Where do we go from here? It is a judgment of how to evaluate the credibility of non-evidence and how that stacks up against evidence? Because evidence itself has an illusion of objectivity and integrity when it can be politicized, biased, poorly designed, poorly interpreted, etc.

  2. Jon F

    I agree with this notion of truthiness being a challenge to get beyond. I think a big issue is also the fact that so many generations have grown up in the system we have that it gives a sense that this is what has always been.

    As far as the research ends goes, I have been reading a bunch of Daniel Pink and Alfie Kohn and always walk away from that feeling the research pushers is away from what we currently have in place. A move towards more student autonomy, less direct instruction and more supportive forms of assessment than arbitrary grades seem to be what research points to.

    Thanks for sharing this.

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