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When Can You Trust the Experts: How to Tell Good Science from Bad in Education 1st Edition

32 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-1118130278
ISBN-10: 1118130278
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Editorial Reviews


"Parents increasingly come face-to-face with important educational decisions that they feel ill prepared to make. Whether they are choosing among schools, math programs or early interventions for a learning disability, this book will help them figure out which options are backed by the best science. (Recommended)"—Scientific American

"By my bedtable is Dan Willingham's new book, When Can You Trust the Experts?... This is help we all can use, from one of the most sensible guys around."—John Merrow, The Huffington Post

"A brilliant new book... Willingham presents a 'short cut' to assessing the value of a given idea—a set of four steps that will be useful to anyone sizing up an unfamiliar concept.  I’ve read Willingham’s book and I recommend it highly!"—Annie Murphy Paul

From the Inside Flap

Along with some potentially worthy ideas, the last fifty years have encapsulated a flood of educational quackery and nostrums. The innovation and implementation continues, while teachers, administrators, and policymakers have a hard time separating the wheat from the chaff. What makes this so difficult for individuals in the American educational system? They're on their own. There is no research team to evaluate every new idea. But there is pressure to effect change through these innovations.

In When Can You Trust the Experts? Daniel Willingham offers a solution for those who must sift through the information overload and discern which of the latest educational models, programs, and approaches are worthy of their attention. Willingham provides a reliable shortcut comprising four steps. For each step he offers an explanation of why the principle works by referring back to the rules for what constitutes good science. Willingham's easy-to-apply process consists of:

  1. Strip it. Clear away the verbiage and look at the actual claim. What exactly is the claim suggesting a teacher should do, and what outcome is promised?
  2. Trace it. Who created this idea, and what have others said about it? It's common to believe something because an authority confirms it, and this is often a reasonable thing to do. In education research, however, this can be a weak indicator of truth.
  3. Analyze it. Why are you being asked to believe the claim is true? What evidence is offered, and how does the claim square with your own experience?
  4. Should I do it? You're not going to adopt every educational program that is scientifically backed, and it may make sense to adopt one that has not been scientifically evaluated.

When Can You Trust the Experts? offers parents, teachers, administrators, and policymakers the tools they need to ask tougher questions, think more logically about why an intervention might or might not work, and ultimately make more informed decisions.


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 272 pages
  • Publisher: Jossey-Bass; 1 edition (July 24, 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1118130278
  • ISBN-13: 978-1118130278
  • Product Dimensions: 6.3 x 1 x 9.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (32 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #175,357 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

DANIEL T. WILLINGHAM is professor of psychology at the University of Virginia. His bestselling first book, "Why Don't Students Like School?" (Jossey-Bass, 2009), was hailed as "a triumph" by The Washington Post and "brilliant analysis" by The Wall Street Journal, recommended by scores of magazines and blogs, and translated into many languages. His most recent book, "When Can You Trust the Experts?" (Jossey-Bass, 2012), was named recommended reading by Nature and Scientific American and made CHOICE's list of Outstanding Academic Titles for 2013. Willingham writes a regular column called "Ask the Cognitive Scientist" for the American Federation of Teachers' magazine, American Educator, and blogs frequently for He is a fellow of the American Psychological Association, and of the Association for Psychological Science.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

18 of 20 people found the following review helpful By Gracie TOP 1000 REVIEWER on September 26, 2012
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
I have homeschooled my kids for years. I have read more books on educational philosophy, psychology, trends, and methods than I care to remember. Most of them are completely useless.

The homeschooling world is absolutely over run by curriculum, programs, methods, gurus, and philosophies. You could spend a lifetime and a fortune sorting it all out. Believe me, a lot of homeschoolers have tried.

This book gives you a clear path through the claims and hyperbole. Even as I strive to teach critical thinking to my kids, I am aware that I need to constantly be working on that myself. This book is a fantastic exercise in applying critical thinking to educational theory.

Not everything in this book translates well to the homeschool world. But enough content does to make this a very worth while read before you get suckered in at the next curriculum fair or homeschool conference.

I would actually very much like the author to write an addendum or revised additions for homeschoolers. We spend more money on books than any other segment of the market. We could use his insight.
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful By J. Green VINE VOICE on September 17, 2012
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
This book is specifically aimed at educators (teachers and administrators, but parents, too) who might be considering "educational software, games, workbooks or other programs" which claim to be "based on the latest research." While some of these products may be based on actual research, many are not. But how can you tell? Willingham discusses the history of science and the role it plays in persuading us and appeals to our biases (especially the "confirmation bias" where we look for "evidence" that supports what we already believe and discard what doesn't support it). Ultimately he outlines and explains four steps:

Strip it and Flip it. Strip the claim down to its essentials and promises: "If I do X, then there is a Y percent chance that Z will happen."
Trace it. Should you take statements by "authorities" at face value?
Analyze it. What evidence is offered? Is there any scientific evidence (from reliable studies) that support or refute the claims?
Should you do it? And how will you measure results, or when do you call it quits?

It's a rather straightforward process that can weed out a lot of programs and help you find (and understand) the kind of research for making better-informed decisions. And while it's geared more toward eduation professionals it's also written plainly enough that parents can use the same processes. I picked it up hoping it could apply to other areas where science is touted. Such issues are certainly beyond the scope of this book, but I think Willingham's method is a good place to start and can be applied in more areas than just education. It's not a long book and Willingham's writing style is easy to follow. But the main idea is to get people thinking for themselves and not be misled by emotional appeals or psuedo-science.
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Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
I wish this were required reading for principals. The No Child Left Behind has left them desperate for anything which will improve student scores. I have a background in science and educational research and have spent many an hour explaining to principals that the newest "fad" in teaching (insert reading method, math program, "brain training" exercises) has no evidence to support effectiveness. They all sound good, and fling about authoritative scientific sounding or alternatively, flowery and romantic statements but lack proof.

Unfortunately, many educational research books delve into all sorts of statistics. Given that many teachers and principals do not have extensive backgrounds in statistics (once had to go in and explain to a principal that students could not "advance to the 100th percentile" from the 99th percentile) these books do little to enlighten.

This books is NOT for educational researchers. This book is for principals, teachers and parents. The author readily admits that his method is a shortcut. Using this method will give the reader a pathway to evaluate the claims of educational products and not simply resort o thinking "well, that sounds good, let's give it a try!" which seems to be the basis for many decision making committees in education.

However, given the lack of time that many parents and teachers have, I wish this book were shorter or came in two versions, the "well developed" version and the "really a shortcut version". Although the explanations of the scientific method and research methods are interesting ( and his beginning a clever way to open your eyes) I worry that the extra length means that some readers will not persevere to the meat of the book, how to evaluate educational claims. I would give it 4.5 stars.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful By Steve Peha on April 13, 2013
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Dan Willngham does great work when it comes to bringing science and education together. His previous book, "Why Students Don't Like School?" is a very accessible and very sensible look at how we teach, why many of the things of we do probably don't work very well, how this effects kids' view of their own schooling, and what science tells us about how we might change things. Now I think he's done us one better by giving us a book that helps us evaluate all the science and pseudo-science we hear about in education.

I think this is significant for two reason: (1) I'm not aware of any book for a non-scientist like me that provides tools I can use every day to evaluate scientific claims about teaching and learning; and (2) Dan is essentially giving us a powerful tool to investigate his own work as a scientist as well. His book, then, not only tells us something about educational research, it tells us something about Dan: that he is truly one of the experts we can trust because he is willing to not only willing to put his own work up for public scrutiny but also to give non-scientists like me the very tool we need to scrutinize his efforts.

I could tell you a ton of things I like about the book. It's full of useful ideas that I have incorporated easily into my own educational practice. But you can read the book and find those things out for yourself.

What I'd really like people to consider is the nature of the person who wrote this book. How many scientist have written books for non-scientists about how to evaluate scientific claims--including their own? I'm sure there are some. But I don't think there are many. And I certainly haven't found one in education that is as thoughtful, as practical, and as fair-minded as this book.
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