The first step to fixing a problem is recognizing you have a problem, and we have a big problem with dogma. Just like our resistance to change, acceptance and perpetuation of systems and ideology that have rested on outdated or even erroneous concepts makes forward progress all but impossible.
Dogma is everywhere; government, medicine, education, the workplace, I don’t have to try hard to find a few good examples that you can relate to. It’s multifactorial: our quest to find answers through studies leads us to create poorly designed experiments; our desire to extract some sort of meaningful information from endeavors encourages reaching for conclusions where nothing valid exists; our continual oversimplification of complex systems into easy-to-digest headlines and seemingly profound or groundbreaking results further distorts our understanding of reality. And the next thing you know, fat is bad, and an entire society is scrambling to reinvent itself and take advantage of widespread acceptance of a mistake.
Not long ago, our local school board began investigating a well-known method of improving student performance: starting school later. You see, when kids get more sleep, they do better. It’s obvious, yes?
When I heard about the discussion, I asked a colleague whose daughter is in private school about the topic: “Oh yes, it’s proven. And that’s a real plus to our progressive administration, as they were able to implement that right away and push the start time back.”
Me: “Does she get more sleep?”
“Not really… she stays up pretty late…”
So I looked back at the “data.” Google it, you can too. But don’t stop on the review articles that make the big claims after compiling findings from multiple sources, you have to go and look directly at the studies themselves.
The primary one is sited over and over, the eye-opening findings providing the irrefutable foundation for further discussion. “Studies show…” or “It’s well known that…” But when you drill down on those regurgitated conclusions, they are not quite as chunky as they were when they originally came up.
Starting off, the conclusion itself – kids do better with more sleep – is so believable that you are probably rolling your eyes at any suggestion that it may not be valid. If it’s a forgone conclusion, then why even bother with all of this? Straight away, any supporting evidence is going to be readily absorbed, where we will naturally find flaws in any data that appears contrary.
What happens next is typically data selection: create a study where you look at a lot of different things, and then pick out that stuff that supports what you already know to be true. The data doesn’t lie! In this particular case, there were a variety of different school systems that participated by moving their start times back to various degrees, and then different metrics were evaluated (grades, attendance, etc.) Well, not all of the school systems showed improvement in all the stuff that was measured. But hey, let’s not get mired in the details, I am sure there is some explanation. Instead, let’s only report the data sets that showed statistically significant results proving our hypothesis.
And that is precisely what they did, and those conclusions become a list of “proven” findings for all to see.
I hate to be the one that breaks it down for you, but that’s not valid.
Finally, we like to extrapolate well beyond what we may (or may not) have proved. In this multi-school system trial (which had to be wicked expensive, by the way), there was one glaring omission: no one bothered to see if the kids actually got more sleep. You would think, since that was the hypothesis going in…
If you don’t believe me, ask around. Ask an educator. Ask an administrator. Ask anyone in any way related to the system and I would bet real cash money they will tell you: later start times are better. Just don’t ask them to tell you how they know.
If you think just a bit about how complex the whole system is, and you mix in what you are trying to accomplish (we will assume for the sake of argument that adequate sleep really is beneficial), you will probably arrive at the same conclusion I do: we really should avoid spending our money and time in vain. Focus on things we can change, fix the things that are truly broken. For Pete’s sake, don’t exhaust precious resources chasing rainbows and unicorns.
And your neighbor that didn’t drink the Kool-Aid? Not wanting to adopt a particular plan to achieve a goal doesn’t mean they don’t want the same thing you do. Instead, it may be they want try another way.
Like suggesting you get your kids to bed earlier.