Current Reading

This blog is primarily for me to blog my responses to books that I'm reading. Sometimes I blog about other stuff too, though.

I'm currently reading The Demon in Democracy: Totalitarian Temptations in Free Societies by Polish philosopher Ryszard Legutko.

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Saturday, September 8, 2018

Educational research and the promise of easy fixes

This article from Psychology Today discusses the necessity, temptation, and challenge of interpreting data.  It discusses a study that found a correlation between students' attitudes towards math and their performance in math.  While the study could not establish whether strong performance leads to positive attitudes (i.e. people like something that they do well at) or positive attitudes lead to strong performance (they push ahead and succeed because they are confident), and while the authors did acknowledge that, they nonetheless gave an optimistic take on their data.
This is a correlational study. As the authors say in their penultimate paragraph: "We could not determine the direction of causal influences between positive attitude and math achievement because of the cross-sectional nature of our study (see, however, Table S10 in the Supplemental Material)."  
Yet they also say, in the very next paragraph: "In conclusion, our study demonstrates, for the first time, that PAM in children has a unique and significant effect on math achievement independent of general cognitive abilities and that this relation is mediated by the MTL memory system." In fact, the title of the article is "Positive Attitude Toward Math Supports Early Academic Success: Behavioral Evidence and Neurocognitive Mechanisms."  
The words "effect" and "supports" are causal language. They are saying that positive attitude causes math success. Here's why that's great news: Change a kid's attitude and you'll make them better at math. Thus dawns another glorious sunrise in correlationville.  
This study does not demonstrate causation. It doesn't involve an intervention. These optimistic conclusions should not be taken at face value because there are other, equally valid, ways to look at the data.
The article goes on to note that there are significant stakes in how we interpret findings like this:
The optimist is going to invest funds into improving attitudes to create a positive cycle. The pessimist is going to give extra math help to kids who are struggling at a young age to prevent a negative cycle. 
I take the pessimistic view, and not just because of my personality.  Frankly, I think the pessimistic view can lead to more effective interventions.  If you believe that attitude is everything then you actually get to be kind of lazy.  It doesn't matter how long a problem has been allowed to fester, you can always step in at any point and start promoting positive attitude and things will improve.  On the other hand, if attitude alone isn't enough, then in order to produce good outcomes in a cumulative subject like math you really need to get it right from the start. You need to push on kids (and parents!) from a very early age. It's the only way to fix things.

We want to believe the optimistic take on psychology research, because it promises that small nudges, simple interventions, changes in attitude, etc. are all it will take to fix stubborn problems. Some of this point was made when I was reading Lee Jussim's book on bias research:  If stubborn problems in society are just the result of our biases rather than the lasting marks of inequality, at any point we can turn it around by just making different decisions.  But if disparities arise from failure to prepare people properly and equitably from an early age then we have a much bigger problem, one that we cannot simply wish away.