Teaching research methods to undergraduate students makes me pay attention to new and noteworthy studies. The New York Times published today an article on a study by Chabris and Hart that tested success hypotheses proposed by popular book authors (see the article here "How Not to Explain Success" http://nyti.ms/1Skwywe). One of the reasons why psychology is often at the forefront of important (meaningful, potentially policy-changing) findings, is its allegiance to systematic empirical hypotheses testing. The potential use of psychological research tools to dispel catchy, establishment-maintining ideals, can help us support more effective policies. Research is also a tool of accountability and, as it is used by these authors, does its job by holding popular press authors to evidence -that pesky caveat- that may or may not support their ideas. Of course, research is not the miraculous solution to all of our doubts and conundrums, but we know no better way to advance our kind. Kudos to these researchers.
As heard this morning on NPR (http://n.pr/1Fd3sbh), many school-aged children fail to drink a healthy amount of water. Listed among the reasons for this, is the quality of plumbing in old school buildings, usually located in urban areas. Attention to the physical quality of school buildings is a matter that has urgency at many leves. The intimate and multiple connections between our behavior and
To the Editor:
Re “What’s the Point of a Professor?,” by Mark Bauerlein (Sunday Review, May 10):
College students need not revere professors, and I am very glad that they do not want to become our disciples.
Students have many sources of knowledge and are free to come to my office for advice. I encourage that. But most of my students have jobs; many of them are also breadwinners for their families.
Those idyllic ’60s that the writer mentions are very different from today. We should not talk about the role of professors without mentioning that about three-quarters of current professors are part-time (adjunct) faculty who do not have the time or the resources to leave their door open and require students to come to their office hours. At best they have shared offices; at worst they need to run to their next class, often at a different campus. Class sizes are also larger than ever, making one-on-one contact even harder.
While I agree that being available and being a mentor to students is essential to the role of the professor, I disagree with the picture painted in this article. Things are more complicated than simply alluding to the cheapening of a liberal education. There are economic reasons that need to be taken into account. And in the Internet age the role of the professor has changed from being the source of information to a guide who encourages students to be savvy consumers of information.
The writer is a full-time lecturer at the College of Staten Island, CUNY.
This bit of news caught my attention this morning:
Kids, Allergies And A Possible Downside To Squeaky Clean Dishes
This is a story on a study linking the use of dishwashing machines to an increase in allergies in Swedish children. One of many attempts to understand whether the "Hygiene Hypothesis" withstands empirical testing. Aside of the technicalities of how research is done and how results are sometimes incomplete or non-conclusive, I want to call attention -once again- to how hard can it be to study P-E interactions. This type of research can be long and cumbersome if it attempts to be accurate (not unlike the title of this post!).
Studies that try to connect environmental variables (use of dishwasher) with health outcomes (allergies) tend to be limited and its findings partial and inconclusive. One reason for that is the difficulty to conduct research that looks at people-environment interactions in a more complex manner. There are a few reasons that I can think of for that.
First, when looking at the interaction between people and the social, physical, political, and geographical environments in which they spend time, there are many variables that need to be accounted for somehow, either to control for them or to see how they vary. This makes the creation of neat, uncomplicated, research, the kind that would fit in a university lab or provide a catchy headline, difficult.
Second, the funding needed to conduct such research is also difficult to attain. Funders like to see that their support produces short-term, high-impact research. In many cases complex research will take time, not only to be conducted and analyzed, but just in its formulation process. Uncompensated time is demanded from researchers that may be in different fields and institutions.
Third, disciplinary, partial views of people-environment relations are constantly reinforced. Prescribed additions to existing research are often rewarded in the shape of academic nepotism, tenure-track positions, and other power positions in academic societies. The estate of complex research is less clear.
Fourth, the practical and theoretical knowledge necessary for the analysis of complex data has for long lived in highly specialized fields. There is little access to the skills set required to look at data that is interrelated and that obviously covaries. Only at specific graduate school programs, with long-standing complex interests (think environmental public health) can that research event take place.
So today, as we think the role of dishwashers in our lives, let's also remember that the solution to the lack of complexity in research can be addressed in a less obvious way: Educating those who consume research news. The establishment of a class of citizens who are scientifically savvy. People ready to consume scientific research and understand it both in terms of its scientific value and in the larger context of social life. When readers of news and research reports are better prepared to ask relevant questions, piece together seemingly disconnected areas of research, and create their own answers and practical solutions; that day, we will not only be able to see studies and their true relevance, but we will also live in a better society (one that understands why we need to immunize our children).
This is why I am motivated to go teach each day, because I have believe that the future of life in the planet lies on the preparation of young people and their ability to understand and use science. After all, we are living in a time in which massive amounts of data are produced. Someone (besides the NSA) should analyze it!
PS: I may be wrong about one of more things in this post. I welcome corrections and alternative views.
On a widely read NY Times article, Richard A. Friedman advocates for a "natural" fix for ADHD (http://nyti.ms/1t88b8b). The diagnosis of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder has been on the rise and coincides with the development of a more sedentary way of life. The development of ubiquitous technological tools seems to contribute to sedentary children spending more time on the couch than running outdoors. That and the fear of the outdoors (where children can be hit by a car, kidnapped, or other many real and overestimated risks).
The article, overall, exposes the disconnection between the "solutions" that we find for the "problems" we diagnose. The previous quotes are meant to signal that perhaps we are viewing the whole issue the wrong way. For decades environmental psychology has advocated for the de-clinicalization of mental issues and for the consideration of the intricate and dynamic interaction between people and environment. The most popular solution for ADHD has been at the individual level, medicating and modifying certain ways in which the child might be not performing well at school. This is the classic medical model that psychology uses. However, if the issue of ADHD is viewed from an ecological perspective, in which we do not consider only the individual but also the different settings in which his/her behavior takes place, then the "treatments" could be multiple. This is what Friedman proposes in his article. This position would force us to think about what needs to be modified at school, at home, in our neighborhoods. The routines of children (and adults as well!) would have to be redesigned to allow for exploration, manipulation, and creation. The benefit of this approach -I believe- outweigh its potential impracticality. We would have to consider what some theoreticians call "equifinality" and accept that there might be more than one way to achieve similar outcomes. If our desire as a society is to create new generations that pursue their own interests and make use of their diverse skills, then we would have to figure out ways to relax our expectations of performance in cookie-cutter tasks or tests. And of course, I am not saying that children learn in "different ways" because we know that we all use skills like memorization and rehearsal to learn. However, many of us might activate those learning skills in different ways. This poses a challenge to those of us who teach and want to create rich learning environments. We would have to come up with pedagogical experiences that present opportunities to all. But it also means that we would have to look at how educational monies are spent. Perhaps we need less test and testing materials and more playgrounds and outdoor classrooms. Perhaps.
Warming up an already warm June night, an article on the Chronicle of Higher Education called "Replication Crisis in Psychology Research Turns Ugly and Odd" * attempts to fuel the discussion of replicability and the whole endeavor of scientific research in psychology. The only problem is that this article does not fuel the discussion so much as it fuels feelings about it. It reads a bit too much like gossip.
The main argument about whether social psychological experiments can and should be replicated is terribly important in current times when information travels fast -faster than reflection-. Although this piece brings to fore many issues, one that is often absent from the conversation on replicability is that pesky variable: The environment. Careful thought about environmental variables that might affect results and their replicability in different settings is rarely the subject of any of these debates. It is assumed that anything that is worth studying can be measured in a lab. Almost forty five years ago Harold Proshansky wrote about the methodological challenges of the emerging science of environmental psychology:
"What lies at fault in its studies of complex human problems are the many untenable assumptions that are made about the nature and meaning of human behavior and experience. At the roots of these assumptions is the view of the individual as another "object" to be studied. His or her behavior and experience can be dealt with in terms of discrete components or properties that can be isolated, studied under pure conditions, and eventually be quantified" (Proshansky, 1970).
And it is at this point where I feel deeply concerned about the legacy of great thinkers in environmental psychology and environmental social sciences. The future that they envisioned for their field, did not come to fruition. Psychologists did not join the more complex view of people and environments. It is too complicated. Not having clear quantifiable findings makes things that matter to researchers harder: Publishing, getting grants, getting tenure, having popular soundbites on the media or in social networks. Of course there are some places where amazing research happens (I am thinking of the Graduate Center of CUNY or Cornell's College of Human Ecology), but these places are rare and these researchers would not consider themselves -and are not considered by their colleagues- traditional or mainstream psychologists.
The XXI century has been here for a while, it is time to place more value, attention, and resources on research that does not oversimplify the complexity of human nature. We owe it to all of those XX century thinkers who dared to go beyond the establishment.
* This article was accessible to the general public at the time that I read it, it is now only available to subscribers of the Chronicle of Higher Education, hopefully readers of this blog will have institutional subscriptions and can access it.
Proshansky, H. (1970). Environmental Psychology: A Methodological Orientation. In Harold M. Proshansky, William H. Ittleson & Leanne G. Rivling (Eds.) Environmental Psychology. People and Their Physical Settings, 2nd Edition. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.
A study of kindergarden classroom walls had its 15 minutes of fame last week. Many people pitched in online (in the New York Times site as well as other sites) about how important it is to post things on the walls to make a classroom feel more like "home". Other people agreed with the main finding of the study; that walls should be less cluttered to contribute to students' focus on the task at hand.
Absent from the conversation was one important aspect highlighted by the researchers on the study's abstract. The study looked at "many displays that are not relevant to ongoing instruction" (Fisher, Godwin, Seltman, 2014). In other words they looked at items displayed on classroom walls that were not related to whatever teachers were teaching. And this key issue, the function of the things that are posted on classroom walls, was not discussed during last week. Why do teachers choose to display certain things and not others? What is the function of displays in classroom walls?
Emotional attachment seemed to be an important factor in determining whether a classroom was effective or not to its users. Children needing to feel "at home" was considered important for many. Aesthetics also played a part in that some people would prefer less cluttered environments, others would like to see more things up on the walls. It is not clear, though, what is the purpose or the intention of the things posted in classroom walls. Here is where the issue of function is relevant. If de-cluttering walls, as the study suggests, contributes to the students' ability to remain focused, it is conceivable that what is posted on classroom walls could contribute to whatever students' are learning. Teachers' use of their classroom -the physical environment- as one of the many parts of pedagogy, is what needs to be addressed. Professional development sessions should not only make teachers aware of this important element of their daily teaching efforts, but also provide guidance in the use of their classroom walls just as much as they are instructed on how to use technology. Overburdened teachers might have a hard time changing displays in their classrooms, but it might be a good use of their time if it is a contributing element to the teaching of their curriculum. Students could participate posting content that they will be working on or content that they have worked on.
I have talked to architects and teachers who were figuring out what are the elements that need to be included in a classroom. We know that natural light, cleanliness, and appropriate acoustics contribute to a good and efficient classroom. But also the agency of teachers, their ability to use the physical environment of the classroom is very important in creating better pedagogical moments and contribute to effective teaching.
In schools were there is enough budgeted money for the physical environment teachers can and do amazing things with their classrooms. Elements like movable chairs and desks or walls can make it easier for teachers to adjust their classroom to their lesson. On the contrary, in schools that are poorly funded and have to make do with less resources, students and teachers can feel the oppression of the physical environment being a constant source of distraction, not only because of what is posted on the walls, but also because of more basic issues like safety, cleanliness, and lack of adequate spaces.
I think we are "not there yet" regarding the knowledge of what should and should not be in a classroom wall. I do venture to say that whatever we decide about this, needs to be in support of teachers and their efforts. Classrooms should afford teachers resources that contribute to rich experiences for students, where students can also engage and be participants in their own education.
There is a new and unique resource that shows the comprehensive, yet consistent, view of environmental social science. This reader, which is bound to be a widely used textbook, is described below:
"The People, Place, and Space Reader brings together the excerpted writings of scholars, designers, and activists from a variety of fields upon which we draw in our teaching and research to make sense of the makings and meanings of the world we inhabit. They help us to understand the relationships between people and the environment at all scales, and to consider the active roles individuals, groups, and social structures play in creating the environments in which people live, work, and play." (excerpt from the introduction)
Visit the site to learn more about the many areas the reader covers.
Valkiria Durán-Narucki, Ph.D. (a.k.a. Valky)
Old posts can be found at: