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31 October 2007

Scientific illiteracy

Novel educational techniques such as phonics may be trendy but where is the proof that they do any g

By James Medhurst

There is currently a television advertisement in which, for reasons that are not entirely clear, the daughter of Suggs from Madness is revising for her exams. Her brother asks her a question about omega-3 and she complains, “That’s not on the curriculum.” It then goes on to make some extremely dubious health claims about, of all things, fish fingers.

It does not mention the obvious reason why omega-3 is not on the curriculum, which is that the exaggerated assertions made about it have not stood up to any sort of scientific scrutiny. It has even been tried as a treatment for autism although success has only been reported by those who have not conducted controlled scientific trials.

Fortunately, most intelligent people have a refreshing scepticism about this sort of thing. However, there is rather less examination of radical claims made about trendy educational techniques such as phonics.

Last week, Channel 4 ran a series of programmes which suggested that illiteracy could be completely eliminated by the use of phonics. I consider this a disability issue because the channel last year, as part of its Dispatches thread, made the highly questionable claim that dyslexia is a myth which can be cured by effective teaching. It was argued that the much cheaper but more mundane methods we currently use to give dyslexic children a fighting chance, such as providing more time in exams, are entirely superfluous.

This is dangerous nonsense. Phonics is a perfectly adequate way of teaching children to read, at least in part because it is more intensive than other techniques, but to state that it ought to be used for all children in all situations is simply wrong. Even some supporters acknowledge that it is more effective for boys than it is for girls, who often prefer a less mechanical approach.

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As with omega-3, the beliefs about phonics are founded on personal experience. Parents and teachers try them and they seem to work. However, this is no way of doing science. New methods are often pursued more intensively than the ones they replace, which have gone stale, and so expectations are raised.

As a result, children are encouraged more and their successes receive more attention. This is the placebo effect by proxy and the only way to control for these variables is to use the experimental method. Some scientific studies of phonics have had promising results in the first few months but there have been few long-term trials.

What is known is that the effects of many similar intensive methods tend to diminish over time, once the programme is completed, and students return to the level of their peers. Such a study has not been conducted by the supporters of phonics, or possibly it has just remained unpublished because they were not happy with the outcome.

Many people find the idea that disability could be eliminated by genetic engineering to be abhorrent but fewer seem to be concerned by attempts to equalise the population through psychological means. Just as a Communist dictatorship is often regarded more favourably than a fascist one, the pseudo-scientific logic of Stalin, and his henchman Trofim Lysenko, is never given quite as short a shrift as that of Hitler.

Fortunately, the scientific evidence is equally clear that neither approach has the remotest possibility of success.

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