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Book Review

When Can You Trust the Experts? How to Tell Good Science from Bad in Education

Each year, teachers, administrators, and parents face a barrage of new education software, games, workbooks, and professional development programs purporting to be “based on the latest research.” While some of these products are rooted in solid science, the research behind many others is grossly exaggerated. This new book helps teachers, administrators, and parents separate the wheat from the chaff and determine which new educational approaches are scientifically supported and worth adopting.

Willingham offers a solution for those who must discern which of the latest educational models, programs, and approaches are worthy of their attention. He provides a shortcut comprising four steps. For each step he offers an explanation of why the principle works by referring back to the rules for what constitutes good science. His approach consists of:

1. Strip it. Clear away the verbiage and look at the actual claim. What exactly is the claim suggesting a teacher should do, and what outcome is promised?

2. Trace it. Who created this idea, and what have others said about it? It’s common to believe something because authority confirms it, and this is often a reasonable thing to do. In education research, however, this can be a weak indicator of truth.

3. Analyze it. Why are you being asked to believe the claim is true? What evidence is offered, and how does the claim square with your own experience?

4. Should I do it? You’re not going to adopt every educational program that is scientifically backed, and it may make sense to adopt one that has not been scientifically evaluated.

Every time a new educational idea comes down the pike, teachers are told that “research shows” that this is a sound approach. This book encourages teachers and parents to ask the right questions before new programs are put in place.