A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. This popular saying, widely attributed to 18th-century philosopher Alexander Pope, warns us of the perils of assuming we know more about something than we actually do.
For example, doctors know all too well the problem of patients who refuse to listen to their advice and instead rely on Google to self-diagnose their medical conditions. In most cases, it would be better if patients stayed off the internet and trusted their doctor’s professional judgment. Few patients can match a doctor’s medical knowledge, no matter how much time they spend on the internet.
However, while easy access to medical information can be problematic in the hands of patients, it is powerful in the hands of doctors. That’s because doctors have the medical background knowledge necessary to make sense of the expansive information on the internet. Doctors can readily tell the difference between legitimate medical information and quackery. They also have the necessary expertise to determine what treatment options are relevant to each patient’s situation.
Doctors are not the only professionals who benefit from easy access to knowledge on the internet. Teachers can now go online and explore the evidence for and against various teaching methods. Not only that, but social media platforms enable teachers to directly connect with other teachers and share their expertise. Twitter has become the platform of choice for thousands of teachers around the world.
A teacher with a Twitter account and a decent number of followers can now post a question on an educational topic and receive dozens of answers within hours or even minutes. This means that teachers who are skeptical of their school principal’s latest initiative can take to Twitter to find out whether there is any evidence supporting the initiative. No longer do they simply have to take their employer’s word for it.
As a case in point, many school administrators push the progressive ideas of Jo Boaler, an education professor at Stanford University, forcing teachers to consider her advice. Boaler is a prominent advocate of discovery math and an opponent of traditional methods of teaching. Her latest book, “Limitless Mind: Learn, Lead, and Live Without Barriers,” advances the “growth mindset” theory recently popularized by her Stanford colleague Carol Dweck. “Limitless Mind” asserts that any student can learn anything and, like many other self-help books, it regales readers with numerous uplifting stories of success.
It should come as little surprise that school administrators are buying copies of Boaler’s book to hand out to their teachers. No doubt many teachers will be reading Boaler’s book as part of a regular staff in-service study. The not-so-subtle message to teachers is that Boaler’s ideas are evidence-based and should be adopted by teachers for classroom instruction.
Fortunately, teachers have access to much-needed information. Last month, Daniel Ansari, a cognitive neuroscience professor at Western University, wrote a detailed review of Boaler’s book for “Education Next,” a well-known education journal. In this review, Ansari observed that “while the book’s content is a mile wide, its substance is little more than an inch deep.” Relying on his extensive expertise in cognitive neuroscience, he points out that Boaler’s book “uses outdated studies and overstates the effects of the interventions.”
In past years, few teachers would have read Ansari’s review since most did not have easy access to academic journals. Things are different now. Within hours of the review being published, teachers posted and reposted it to their various social media networks. Now, any teacher who wishes to challenge Boaler’s theories can read and share Ansari’s critical review with anyone they wish.
Because Twitter is such a widely used platform, it provides a forum where authors can respond to their critics. In this case, Boaler tweeted a one-sentence response to Ansari’s review in which she derided him for misspelling her name and suggested that his review should not be taken seriously. Ansari responded on Twitter by pointing out that the spelling error in the title was the publisher’s mistake and that he had actually spelled her name correctly in his review.
Tellingly, Boaler provided no further response to Ansari’s concerns or to the many teachers around the world who asked her to respond to the substantive criticisms in Ansari’s review. In other words, Boaler’s attempt to discredit Ansari by pointing out a spelling error fell flat. The fact that Boaler appears to have no answer to Ansari’s devastating criticisms seems to indicate that school administrators should reconsider their bulk orders of “Limitless Mind.”
Social media has led to tremendous empowerment for classroom teachers over the last decade. As we head into a new decade, we can expect to see even more teachers make good use of this tool. In the hands of teachers, a lot of knowledge could prove to be a powerful thing indeed.
Michael Zwaagstra is a public high school teacher and author of “A Sage on the Stage: Common Sense Reflections on Teaching and Learning.”
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.