Monday, May 12, 2014

Referencing outdated research

I recently had to attend a speed awareness course (I know, I know - you're all paragons of driving virtue).

The delivery method for the course was chalk-and-talk with endless PowerPoint slides, almost all of which contained a list of bullet points. The instructors did their level best to make it interesting, and - to be fair - there was some solid content. But I can't help feeling that it might be time to explore some alternative delivery approaches. Perhaps this is a post for another day, but right now, I digress.

If you know anything about me, especially if you've read my recent post, you'll know how my brain imploded when one instructor tried to explain the psychology behind speeding in terms of the whole left brain/right brain thing. You'll be proud of me, though, because I didn't immediately challenge him to a duel. :)

I know I've only recently touched on this point, but it really set me to thinking. When all's said and done, this was a course about road safety. Imagine how their credibility would be damaged if they cited traffic ordinance that was as outdated as the left brain/right brain concept. Why do we put so much effort into one and not make the slightest effort about the other?

The company I work for provides (among other things) training in various safety-critical fields: working at height, working with high voltage, working in confined spaces, hazardous agents in the workplace, for example (and those are just the ones that pop into my head - there are hordes of others). Imagine if we trotted out outdated safety equipment, or cited outdated safety precautions. The results could be devastating!

The people who work in these areas make it their business to keep up to date with the latest information and legislation. They wouldn't dream of doing otherwise.

Why is it then, that there isn't the same level of commitment to keeping up with the research about how learning itself works? Why is it okay to trot out research that is decades old and out of date? To cite pop-psychology as if it were solid fact? To quote urban legends as 'evidence' that 'prove' the point you're trying to make?

Why isn't the learning world beating a path to Itiel Dror's door (for example)? Or Mo Costandi's? Or (while he was alive) John Geake's? In his presentations, Itiel often mentions how learning providers will feature a picture of a brain in their materials at various exhibitions. And when he asks how the product they're selling relates to the brain, the vendors are stumped. They know little about the brain, other than that learning happens there somehow or another.

I have to question the ethics of this. In other fields, professionals keep up with emerging research on pain of dire consequence: structural engineers, microbiologists, burn specialists, aerospace engineers, surgeons... and the world holds them to account. Why are we being allowed to get away with it?


Kate Hargreaves said...

Hi Karyn
I love your post and totally agree with it. I think that one of the things that gets in the way of being totally up to date is finding out which 'truths' are no longer valid. I was doing some research recently for a post about 'the half life of facts' and it's a real challenge to know where to start uncovering what is old, outdated and blatantly wrong!


Karyn Romeis said...

It is indeed a challenge, Kate. But if we're charging people for our services, we need to put in the effort, I reckon.