Television education in the early 1960s is today recognized to be a failed “reform.” However, at the time, it was the technological rage. And there was educational “research” to “prove” it. And anyone who disparaged this futuristic vision was a bad old traditionalist who was just holding off the inevitable.
I know the real situation because I was a high school sophomore in 1961-62, just when televised education was temporarily entering the mainstream of American education. There were no satellites or fiber optics. Airplanes flew overhead to broadcast educational television programs. “Classroom of the Air” and “Continental Classroom” were the wave of the future.
My biology teacher, Mr. Kinney, was excited to schedule advanced biology at 8:00am in the morning in order to synchronize with the new televised biology course from Ann Arbor, Michigan. I sat front row, right in front of the conventional-sized black-and-white TV—the best view in the room. On the first day, Mr. Kinney turned on the set and at exactly 8:00am, the test pattern disappeared and the biology program came on. Despite a nice photo of the recently-understood mitochondrion, the coarse lines and uninspired narration revealed that this was no classroom version of “Gunsmoke.” It was deadening.
Not five minutes into the program, Mr. Kinney looked at us, scanning our expressions that confirmed what he also now understood. He turned the set off, and the rest of the year was back to regular class and labwork. “Maybe there will be some scenes we can use, but this isn’t going to work,” he concluded. And we all agreed. He was a good teacher. It would be a good advanced biology class, but not on television. A few years later, the rest of the schools across the country also gave up on televised instruction.
Today, I pulled off my shelf “Teaching by Television, A Report from the Ford Foundation and the Fund for the Advancement of Education” published in 1959. And there were pages of data showing how superior television education was when compared to regular classroom teaching. How can that be?
Over the last 60 years, I have seen dozens of educational reforms fail. And every one of them had plenty of educational “research” to support the reform. The television “data” showed TV was “better” by a ratio of 68 good to 42 bad. It was a survey of how technology can impress. My teacher and classmates could see it was inferior in a few minutes. But these surveys could not.
For some educational “research,” there may be a Westinghouse effect, sometimes called the Hawthorne effect because it was discovered at their Hawthorne Works factory. Back in the 1920s, they measured production before and after installing better lighting, and worker performance went up. But when they switched back to the old lighting, performance went up again! Just the mere fact of trying something new can lead workers, or students, to perform better, not because the new method is better but because the subjects know they are in an experiment.
But I am afraid that innocent factor does not explain most of the problems with educational research. For the last 30 years, I have solicited and read the masters theses and doctoral dissertations of Kansas graduates in biology and education in order to inform my colleagues in Kansas classrooms. I rapidly became aware of a discrepancy. While nearly all of the biology research conclusions matched the results of their experiments, about 70 percent of the education conclusions actually contradicted their results!
Similar to the television study, education is so fad-driven that there is a great desire on the part of the investigator to get what they are looking for. Sometimes they “beg the question” by structuring the survey to get the results they want. But often they explain away results that are actually contradictory. Their major professor in education is not going to be happy if they contradict the reform-of-the-day that their professor is preaching. Therefore, many research papers conclude a larger number was needed or provide another excuse, or simply conclude in contradiction to their findings.
Yes, nearly all of our educational reforms that have failed in the classroom, had research to back them up. —Bad research! And education is a field that has a bad case of amnesia. It forgets what works. And it forgets what doesn’t work. The same problems we had with television education, exist today with online education. They forgot the real lessons from the 1960s.