In these pages I have repeatedly argued against alleged evidence that “lecture doesn’t work.” But I don’t do this because I believe in teaching by lecturing. In fact I don’t. But there is an important distinction to keep in mind here, namely that between:
1. Arguing against arguments against lecture.
2. Believing that lecture is a great way to teach.
I do 1 only. But some people mistake it for 2. And that is precisely one of the core problems of mathematics education research: the conflation of what one believes and what one believes the evidence shows.
In science, the evidence determines the conclusions. It follows that, in science, one cannot look at someone’s conclusions and infer what their ideological beliefs are. Some people look at my arguments against arguments against lecture and think to themselves: “This Viktor guy is evidently a great believer in lecture; what strange anti-progressive views he has.” This kind of attitude is incompatible with science. My arguments are about the relation between evidence and conclusions. This is an objective matter. If you believe that educational research adheres to basic principles of science it makes no sense to infer anything about my personal convictions from these objective matters of fact.
Or rather, if there is any scientific conclusion to be drawn it is that if I defend lecture then I must hate lecture. Let me explain why.
Probably at least 95% of all published mathematics education research ends up “proving” what the authors already believed before conducting the study. Furthermore, all mathematics education researchers have virtually the exact same beliefs. There is an unmistakable and undeniable “party line” that everyone but the most ludicrous crackpot adheres to.
Theoretically, it could be, of course, that they are all right. Maybe they all believe this because they looked at the evidence with an open mind and it turns out that evidence simply points overwhelmingly to these beliefs.
Alternatively, this state of affairs could be the result of a self-reinforcing spiral of confirmation bias. The mechanism for this might go somewhat as follows. A party line becomes established due to a combination of empirical and ideological factors, the precise separation of which is not clearly observed. Research reinforcing the party line is judged as credible, the reasons for this being again some opaque mixture of empirical and ideological factors, with each factor reinforcing the other: since each factor is associated with “the truth” they each convey credibility, all the more so when they confirm each other. In this way the party line has soon generated a snowballing amount of research in support for itself.
Meanwhile, evidence or arguments to the contrary are treated with great suspicion. Since the party line was adopted for both empirical and ideological reasons, anyone who offers empirical evidence against it is automatically suspected of also being ideologically against it. Such a person will soon be seen as a weird anomaly. And even if his papers stick to empirical data and no one refutes those findings, he is likely to be weeded out of the research world on sociological grounds. Academics very rarely, if ever, hire people who are their ideological opponents.
This mechanism explains how consensus on a party line can very easily emerge in a research community due to sociological rather than evidentiary reasons.
To avoid party-line brainwashing one must therefore be especially eager to refute precisely that evidence that seems to show precisely what you want to believe. Thus, for example, if you believe lecture is bad, you must make every effort to try to argue that the evidence shows that lecture is good. If instead you only want to see evidence that confirms the party line, as virtually all education researchers do, then your research will be worthless anti-scientific crap, as much educational research is.
So I do not defend lecture because I believe in lecture. I defend lecture because I don’t believe in it. And so should you if you want mathematics education to be a science rather than an ideological echo-chamber.
Another important distinction in this regard is that between:
A. Saying that one is of the opinion that lecture is often an inefficient means of teaching.
B. Saying that scientific evidence proves that lecture is often an inefficient means of teaching.
I subscribe to A but not to B. Yes, lecture doesn’t work, that’s often true. I stand for this opinion. But I am aware that this is an opinion, not a fact. That means that I am open to other points of view, and that I am prepared to debate the matter in an open court.
Advocates of B, however, feel that “lecture doesn’t work” is not an opinion but rather a fact. That is to say, it not something open to discussion. It is a veritable article of faith.
Thus B is very inviting to those who are drawn to sect-like thinking. It is sweet to the naive and those who are inclined to follow unthinkingly, because it gives you a ready-made dogma and belief-system, and a social structure of rewards if you join the herd as a card-carrying member. And it is sweet to cowards and anti-intellectuals because it gives you a justification for ignoring anyone who disagrees with you: such a person is simply ignorant of “the facts” and can be dismissed without having to engage with his thought in any way.
Arguing against cherished beliefs is an antidote to such insularity. And that is why I do it. Not to create insularity around a different belief, but to destroy insularity altogether.