What Invisibilia Teaches Us About Schooling

Just this week, NPR launched its newest program, Invisibilia.  Billed as a show that “explores the intangible forces that shape human behavior – things like ideas, beliefs, assumptions and emotions,” it is another in the Radiolab and This American Life mold.  It might not get the listeners that Serial did, but it is a thoughtful addition to the stable.

The inaugural episode is about dark thoughts – the disturbing thought impulses all of us have like imagining jumping in front of a subway train.  For most of us, these thoughts are mere curiosities.  But for a few, dark thoughts plague and haunt, and can ruin lives.

Interesting enough, but what does Invisibilia, Episode One, tell us about schooling?  Lots.

1. First, the Mission of Schooling is Aided by Considering Thoughtful Examples from Other Fields

Schooling, like any complex human endeavour, is a challenge requiring a wide range of skills developed through a wide range of human inquiry: meeting the needs of students relies on psychology, philosophy, neuroscience, social work, and a host of other fields, in addition to subject knowledge.

The practice of schooling is a kind of compound craft.  When teachers are alive to helpful examples outside the schoolhouse, powerful insights can follow.  I make no further conclusions except this: maintaining interests in a diverse set of fields if likely to pay dividends for any classroom teacher.

2. It Establishes the Indescribable Helpfulness of the Helping Professions

An effective set of helping professions – include medicine, social work, psychiatry, and schooling, to name a few – is the mark of a civilized society.   Rightly so.

This particular episode focuses on mental health interventions.  But any teacher could see parallels: teaching is an act of help, first and foremost; some methods work better than others; and our job as teachers, individually and collectively, is to find ways to match the best practices of the field with our individual students (or, in the case of the podcast, patients); and, most important, these professions are, at their best, life changing.  We should not forget that.  Not every day, maybe, and not for every single person, but on the aggregate, yes.

Schooling matters.  Hilarious critiques from the writers of The Simpsons aside, schooling, like the other helping professions have turned human existence from what was often a dreary, dull, or downright awful affair into something remarkable.

3. It Shows that Practice is Often Lacking Evidence

The episode traces the historical development of one helping profession: psychotherapy.  They point out that there have been successive phases of what was considered effective practice.  If you had walked into a therapist’s office in 1950, you would likely have received some version of Freudian therapy.  This therapy might have delved into “root causes” of emotional disturbances; probably, it would have involved fairly long explorations of childhood or family trauma, all in the name of looking for insights.  It took a long time.  And, as it turned out, worked no better than pretty much any other treatment (including no treatment at all; we get a little better with time, anyway).

In the 1960s, Albert Ellis and Aaron Beck, working independently, and finding Freudian therapies unhelpful, developed variations of what would turn out to be Cognitive Behavioural Therapy.  The truly short version: they decided that perhaps instead of searching for root causes, they could instead ask patients to dispute their negative thoughts.  Using inspiration from the ancient Stoics (Seneca, Marcus Aurelius, and Epictetus especially), these two developed a system where patients use reason and evidence to challenge their negative thoughts.  And, as it turned out, it worked – so well, they developed a coherent system of therapy that has helped millions.

Beck and Ellis now reside at the top of the most influential psychologists of all time.  More important, CBT has been validated in thousands of studies and systematic reviews.  It works.  Better than Freudian approaches.

The tale is an example of this maxim: evidence matters.  If we are to improve the lives of people, we need the best treatments, rooted in evidence.  The parallels to schooling could hardly be more obvious.  So many of our most celebrated practices – take, for example, the more complex and esoteric forms of cooperative learning – are rooted in insistence, not evidence.  And others, which have been thoroughly maligned – direct instruction, for example – have been shown in the largest systematic studies to be near the top of the list of effective practice. (See, for example, John Hattie’s work synthesizing 800 meta-analyses of teaching practice).

4. It Shows the Importance of the Research Cycle

Research, especially in social sciences, often proceeds like this: an idea is proffered, it is employed, it is tested, it is refined, it is employed, it is tested, it is refined… The history of treatments for mental health issues reflects this cycle, so do those in medicine, and I would argue the history of schooling does, too.  At least, when it is at its best, it does (and at its worst when it assumes something to be true without good reason).

The point: Treatments in mental health have not reached their zenith, and neither have schooling practices.  Improvements will likely come with a heavy dose of applying the best practices with diligence and care, and on the margins, testing new ideas.  Cognitive behavioural therapy was once one of those new ideas.  With large-scale testing proving its superiority over other forms of talk therapy, it is now the norm.  Until a discovery on the margins has been shown to be superior, which in my view it has not, it offers the best hope to improve people’s lives.

Technical improvements in schooling will come, and we should greet them smilingly. But proceeding with a keen eye for evidence and an understanding that most new research produces results less effective than most current practice will help us from innovating our way to an inferior system.