Math + Just-So Storytelling

Last week I read a great article titled How Scientists Fool Themselves – And How They Can Stop.  It’s not a short read, but I think that it’s a “must-read” for all people connected to education (parents, staff, administration, everyone).

My favourite part of the post is when Regina Nuzzo writes about “Just-So Storytelling”:

"As data-analysis results are being compiled and interpreted, researchers often fall prey to just-so storytelling — a fallacy named after the Rudyard Kipling tales that give whimsical explanations for things such as how the leopard got its spots. The problem is that post-hoc stories can be concocted to justify anything and everything — and so end up truly explaining nothing. Baggerly says that he has seen such stories in genetics studies, when an analysis implicates a huge number of genes in a particular trait or outcome. ‘It’s akin to a Rorschach test,’ he said at the bioinformatics conference. Researchers will find a story, he says, ‘whether it’s there or not. The problem is that occasionally it ain’t real.’”

In fact Just-So Storytelling was the only thing that I could think about when I saw a news release from our school board yesterday:


*click here to read the whole release.

I worry that we’re not measuring what we’re teaching accurately.  

Stanford Math guru Jo Boaler makes a very keen observation in her book What’s Math Got To Do with It?: “The best thing that multiple-choice tests show is a student’s ability to perform a multiple-choice test.” I would extend this idea…  The best thing that an EQAO test can show us is a student’s ability to perform an EQAO test.

Over the past five years, Ontario’s Ministry of Education has published many, many beautiful monographs around new, research-driven ways to teach mathematics (here are some).  The math that the Ministry is encouraging Ontario Educators to engage in is reflective of changes in the world around us.  Our own TCDSB initiatives around math and technology, inquiry-based learning, and co-teaching in math classes embody many of these ministry-endorsed, research-driven practices.  They also make sense in a world that increasingly values communication and knowledge-building.

These initiatives will make our students better mathematicians.  Unfortunately, EQAO will not show that improvement.  We’re all telling ourselves stories if we think that these initiatives will result in higher scores.  In fact I would argue that the more we veer away from drill and kill, and sit-down-and-shut-up learning, the worse our scores will get.

So we have to make a choice: either we continue to grow and watch our scores drop, or we regress for the sake of EQAO scores.


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