Notes on the new NAS STEM education report

The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine—a major lobby organisation in Washington—recently released a big report on STEM education. It seems to be basically a rehash of the usual opinions of education researchers. The tone of it is representative of the field, and in my opinion problematic. It looks at education in very black and white terms: there is traditional teaching, which is bad and only espoused by irrational reactionaries, and then there the progressive teaching espoused by edu-people, which mountains of research has proven to be The One And Only Right Way To Teach. Consequently, the way to improve education is to force everyone to adhere to the Right Way and steamroller anyone foolish enough to oppose it.

In my opinion, the field would be better off if it was open for debate and diverging viewpoints, instead of simplistically insisting that there is only one Right Way that no rational person could possibly disagree with. But the world of educational research and policy prefers the latter framing.

Edu-people are an ideologically homogenous group. They have very definite opinions on what is right and wrong in education, and virtually no one in the field ever disagrees on these core beliefs. 99 times out of a hundred their research confirms these opinions that they already held. This is either because they are brilliant and objectively right, or because they are biased and shield themselves from alternative viewpoints and critical thought because of the echo-chamber uniformity in the field. To tell which, we should look at the quality of their research, as I have done in many cases. From such investigations I have concluded that, in my view, we would do well to regard educational research with suspicion to say the least. But anyone with such opinions cannot get into the world of edu-people so the consensus stands.

A number of STEM faculty share my sceptical view of educational research. The way edu-people deal with such opposition rubs me the wrong way and only gives me all the more reason to be apprehensive about their claims.

For one thing, edu-people constantly refer to their own opinions as fact. They don’t say “we believe” but rather “research shows”. One phrase they have devised to this end is “evidence-based”. This phrase is repeated manically hundreds of times in the report. Instead of saying “that person has a different view of teaching than me”, edu-people say “that person’s views are not evidence-based”. It is hardly the hallmark of objectivity and open-mindedness to systematically use such a blatantly value-laden yet ostensibly factual term to refer to one’s own opinions.

It makes one wonder whether a statement such as the following is not basically tautological: “In the committee’s view, improving the quality of undergraduate STEM education will require wider use of evidence-based STEM educational practices and programs.” (1-7) Since “evidence-based practices” is effectively code for “our opinions”, the statement basically reads: in the committee’s view, more people need to agree with the committee.

Or put it this way: among the many critics of the edu-people consensus, has anyone ever said: “I don’t agree with you because I don’t think evidence should be taken into account when making instructional and policy decisions.” Of course not, that would be ridiculous. Yet edu-people insist on such a framing, hammered home with hundreds of repetitions of such phraseology. We may want to ask ourselves why edu-people are so attached to this rhetoric, by which they imply that anyone opposed to them must be ignorant of evidence.

Let’s keep this meaning of “evidence-based” in mind when we read the following quote from the report:

“A growing body of research indicates that many dimensions of current departmental and institutional cultures in higher education pose barriers to educators’ adoption of evidence-based educational practices.” (3-12)

Translation: Our opinions have still not achieved complete hegemony. To fix this we have spent a lot of time analysing why.

“A well-established norm in some STEM departments [is that of] allowing each individual instructor full control over his or her course. … One recent analysis found that the University of Colorado-Boulder science education initiative made little progress in shifting ownership of course content from individual instructors to the departmental level because of this dimension of departmental culture.” (3-12) Thankfully, Michigan State University offers an encouraging model where “leadership … from the provost” led to “increased coordination of instructional and assessment practices.” (3-13)

Translation: There is too much democracy and decentralised power in academia. Our sect is in control of administrative positions, but our power is not yet great enough to force everyone to agree with us, though soon we hope to achieve this goal.

Professors being in control of course content is apparently an evil that cannot be eradicated soon enough. Apparently it is better if a provost—a career bureaucrat—is in charge and bosses around the professors who are the actual experts in the field. That’s apparently what “evidence-based” “best practices” demand. I do not see the rationale for this insistence on uniformity, other than the one I have inferred in my translation. Or do these people also wish to replace all local small businesses with a McDonald’s and a Walmart, by the same logic?

The curious emphasis on instructional homogeneity is perhaps all the more jarring when juxtaposed with another perennial edu-slogan: “instructor diversity provides educational benefits to all students” (4-10); indeed, “the benefits of instructor diversity are clearly demonstrated by available research” (4-11). It serves edu-people well that the term “diversity” has been emptied of any meaning but the modern politicised one, for else this would square poorly with their explicitly announced intent to eradicate diversity of pedagogical approaches among instructors.