Douglas Reeves Pushes Back on Educational Folklore

Douglas Reeves Pushes Back on Educational Folklore


From the Marshall Memo #448

In this iconoclastic American School Board Journal article, author/consultant Douglas Reeves notes that a number of strongly-held opinions are folklore – they’re not backed up by facts. “Critical thinking is not criticism,” he says. “Rather, it is the capacity of a person to distinguish claims from evidence.” Here are some examples of claims that don’t stand up to critical scrutiny:

Continuous praise will boost students’ self-esteem. “The ‘everybody-gets-a-trophy!’ school of thought does not make students confident, but renders them cynical,” says Reeves. “When students play video games, they receive honest and immediate feedback that is not filtered by sympathy or earnest intentions… Students build self-esteem through the confidence acquired as their work improves their results.” Carol Dweck says educators must intentionally foster the “growth mindset”, which prepares people to see frustration, criticism, and failure as opportunities to learn. (See Memos 350, 319, 206, and 144 for previous articles by Dweck.)

Fs and zeroes teach students about the real world. In fact, says Reeves, the evidence is that punishing students with low grades “leads to lower performance, lower compliance, and a poorer work ethic… When confronted by students whose work is absent, late, or inadequate, the best answer is not the F or zero, but consequences that result in improved performance.” (See Reeves’s earlier articles on this subject in Memos 363, 302, 236, and 223.)

Students are our customers. This sounds right, but there’s a crucial difference, says Reeves: “While customers demand immediate satisfaction, students must learn delayed gratification. I have never had a student thank me in the short term for my demands for rigor, for my requirements to revise work, or for my expectations that they work to a higher level than they thought possible.” The payoff comes later, when students return to thank teachers for having high expectations and believing in them. 

Schools must adapt to students’ visual, auditory, or kinesthetic learning styles. The problem with this logical-sounding theory is that: (a) researchers have found that labeling students with various learning styles is inconsistent and inaccurate, and (b) teaching to learning styles is no more effective than not doing so. (See Daniel Willingham’s articles in Memo 423 and 95 for more on this.)

Data will help teachers make better decisions. Billions of dollars have been spent on generating data on student achievement, says Reeves. “Unfortunately, the availability of data is irrelevant without critical thinking skills.” Too many educators engage in wishful thinking and don’t make effective use of the data in front of them.

Systemic change requires five to seven years. “The ‘five-year’ excuse is the last refuge of consultants who are better at making plans and recommendations than at follow-through and implementation,” says Reeves. Short-term wins are possible – even essential – according to new books by Michael Fullan and John Kotter. 

“Claims vs. Evidence” by Douglas Reeves in American School Board Journal, September 2012 (Vol. 199, #9, p. 36-37),; Reeves can be reached at


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Comment by Joe Beckmann on September 2, 2012 at 6:46pm

Most of these points are easy to accept and only amend nuances of discord. The one I would question the most is why you challenge "data will help teachers make better decisions." And the question is what do you mean by "data?" Test scores are derivative data; attendance and documentation of real engagement - questions raised, answered, and improved, observations in and out of class, and timeliness, creative solutions, etc. - are all real and collectable data, and most surely do help teachers make better decisions. In regular treatments to prevent failure, students with erratic behavior, evidencing poor time management, or who just wanted more help were given access to peer tutors, a counselor and a teacher. That access resulted in change in grade retention from 25% to 5% in two years. And, from the Chicago School Indicators, we know that grade retention is the largest single contributor to eventual dropout behavior. Surely this proves BOTH that data make a difference, and that systemic change can happen reasonably fast.

On that issue of change, incidentally, it depends dramatically on how old the kids are. The younger they are the faster change can occur, since they're less bound by patterns of former failure. It may also make a difference that teachers involved move from school to school more or less frequently, that Principals also turnover, etc. Time is not a constant measure, in other words, and "it depends."





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