Sunday, 6 November 2011

Bad Science, Leonardo, and professional learning

Ben Goldacre, the Guardian's Bad Science columnist, is taking a holiday to write a book!  Not Science Fiction, surely, Ben?  I'm sure it will be worth waiting for, but how the hell will we manage in the meantime without you looking after things in the Truth Dept?

Your sign-off column this weekend is a beautifully succinct series of nuggets of wisdom - the most important one in my view being:

'everyone needs to understand how we know if something is good for us, or bad for us. The basics of evidence-based medicine, of trials, meta-analyses, cohort studies and the like should be taught in schools and waiting rooms.'

I fear this is not what Michael Gove has in mind for the central element of the English Bac....

Also this weekend I listened on the radio to a heart surgeon reminding us that while no one is perfect (so things may go wrong for even the most skilled and experienced practitioners of any craft or occupation), it is still true that when working in highly complex situations which in a real sense are unique every time, then more experienced practitioners, assuming they are working with the best available knowledge, are a better bet than relative novices, however brilliant those novices may be.  He was talking in the context of a discussion about the Leonardo da Vinci exhibition, and suggested that surgeons are researching and learning their craft every time they perform their work, just like Leonardo, who never stopped enquiring into nature, never stopped making descriptive notes and drawings, writing down thoughts and hypotheses, and then testing his new ideas to see what would happen; though with him it was in dozens of different disciplines. This is a perfect description of professional learning: practice on its own doesn't produce learning - it needs to be accompanied by reflection, and probably discussion with colleagues (something Leonardo may not have much opportunity for), but also crucially it needs to be made explicit in the form perhaps of writing, or of drawings, so that it can be returned to, re-evaluated, and repeatedly tested to see if it stands up to scrutiny.  If it survives this examination, then it might be reliable enough to be incorporated into future practice.

There's also a mouth-watering review in today's paper of a book on this topic by Daniel Kahneman, called 'Thinking, fast and slow', enquiring into the processes by which people make decisions, how learning contributes to these processes, and how and why even experts make unaccountable mistakes.  I hope it's out in paperback soon.  Meanwhile here's the link for a terrific TED talk by Kahneman on why we should stop using the word happiness!


  1. thankyouy for your thoughts. We agree that people, whatever profession, do get better with experiance. Experience goes hand in hand with practice and the age old saying goes:'practice makes perfect'.
    Reflection that is not linked to a particular practice maybe simply random thoughts, but when connected to our practice is a way of developing.
    Clloboration is essential for improved pratice because it allows for diverse ideas, thougts and opininos to be shared and we can all learn to think beyond what we think.

    Liza & Kourosh

  2. I do agree that people generally get better at what they do the more experience they have. For example, for me it is much more easir to do what I do. For example, for my teaching, when I have different group of students, at the same level, to teach. I feel more comfertable when I have to teach the other group as I had experienced what I need to do in the previous session. I don't agree that refelction on my own doesn't necessarily lead to improved practice. reflection helps to critically think on what I did good and wrong. So it can lead to improve practice.
    collaboration is essential for improvement as you get chance to share ideas or informations with others. As the other people can bring in new skills and knowldge to share with and you give new skills and knowldge to others.

  3. As a teacher I found that reflecting on owns experience is very important, not just reflecting but also acting on it and learning from it to improve your practice of your subject is also very important. sharing other teachers experience is also important as well as getting others opinion on your reflection because they can bring their experience into yours. Every time you teach you will have differnt experience in terms of different aspects of your teaching for example classroom management, or using of resources etc. so generally I agree that people get better at what they do the more experience they have and reflect on their experience using others to improve.

  4. Thanks for these comments, folks! Of course experience is important, and generally a good thing, but only if the person with the experience has used it well, and is not just a practitioner but a learner too. WE all know of people who have lots of experience as measured in time, but who have maybe got stale, or burned out, whatever the reasons for this, and are no longer good models for younger people coming along. So it not just experience per se that matters, it is the way the practitioner has used their experience to develop their practice continuously.

    Some people as they get more experienced, start taking their expertise for granted - as mentioned in one of my receent posts, they 'start taking themselves too seriously' which can also be a problem, even with very skilled practitioners. It seems to me that the key is that we always are looking for ways to learn and imporve our practice, always trying to take things further, try out new approaches, experimenting, sharing ideas and questions, taking ideas from other fields, always examinign our assumptions. Partly it's about staying energetic, not getting too tired....

    What do you think?


  5. I'm not sure why all your three comments say that you all posted them at 4am....! Mine says 6am, but in fact it's more like 2pm. Another internet mystery....

  6. I do agree strongly, Jay, that practioners are and should be constantly learning and reviewing their methods; even science does not claim to have definitive knowledge; but in all human humility, the process of prodding and reviewing is one that churns excellence. Although I have previous teaching experience under my belt, at the moment there are many lessons that I am teaching for the very first time and I know that there will be multiple angles with which I could have approached the topic - or it strikes me painfully that had I approached my planning earlier I could well have adapted a better and more concise approach for my students. It may even be that I could have collaborated various sources in order to broaden my own approach as opposed to having one selective view on the subject matter. I often feel that whilst teaching, I realise a better approach than what I had initially planned for, when groping around in the darkness of my own presumptions and dabblings.

    Which brings me to the question of the importance and benefit of collaboration for improved practice. You are not alone! So why struggle alone? Talk to friends, talk to colleagues, go online and see what our neighbouring teachers are doing across the globe. Our minds are as vast as the universe is in its immensity, so we only fall short of searching and asking when it comes to ideas. Sharing is caring, and the teaching profession is very much about just that.

    All-in-all, I agree that a practitioner, whatever their profession be will, even unwittingly, improve with growing experience. Reflection alone cannot lead to improved practice any more than simply wishing upon a star would transport me to the land of my dreams! I must think and then work, and as the adage goes, 'if at first you do not succeed, then try, try again!'; try until you are content that if you were on stage before the entirety of the world, you would not feel that your lesson did not fulfil the objectives that you had gleefully scribbled down.

    Hanna (AKA Hina)

  7. Regarding your latest comments, all I'll say is that even as teachers, in truth we remain students in many respects. If we can accept that, everyday will bring with it the sunrise of new experiences and possibilities!