“Our newest prostate specialist … has pioneered a minimally invasive approach that allows him to retain the highest cancer cure rates with the lowest risk of side effects,” reads the ad for Mount Sinai Medical Center in Manhattan. Where’s the evidence? A marketing official for the hospital says that the claims are based on the doctor’s successful operations and patients’ testimonials.
The Federal Trade Commission considering drugmakers’ application for a new medicine would dismiss the doctor’s claims for success and grateful patients’ kind words as no better than a bunch of stories. Such statements would persuade few researchers or policymakers to go to that cancer center, have surgery, and pay lots of money for the treatment. Instead, these ads appeal to the emotions of hope and fear, not rational thinking.
Turn now to a U.S. House of Representatives Education and Labor Committee hearing on “The Future of Learning: How Technology Is Transforming Public Schools.” Congressman George Miller, a veteran legislator and long-time advocate for improved schooling, opened the hearing with the following points. (PDF Miller hearing)
“Research shows that when technology is systematically integrated into classrooms and used by digitally-savvy staff, it can improve teacher effectiveness and student achievement, and reduce the dropout rate….”
“At Stephen Austin Middle School in Bryan Texas where the students were given laptops to help integrate technology tools into their daily instruction. This led to improvement in student achievement in both math and reading….”
“It seems to me that if technology can substantially increase student engagement, raise student achievement and graduation rates, and prepare our students for college and the workforce, then we must do everything we can do to support these types of innovations in all our classrooms.”
None of the above statements I quoted in Congressman Miller’s opening remarks have sufficient evidence that would pass muster for education researchers or the Federal Trade Commission–were the Congressman ever to ask either for their evaluation. The facts are (and have been) that any data showing test score gains after the introduction of new technologies are, at best, correlations, not causal factors. Those above statements, however, could easily be printed as ads for vendors selling laptops and other electronic devices to schools. Like cancer ads, Miller’s words aim for the emotions, not the head. Those who read ads for a cancer center already have the disease and fear death; they seek hope that the center will cure the disease. The experts invited to the House Committee hearings are already true believers and will say what the Chair and champions of more technological aids in classrooms already know to be true in their hearts and want to hear.
Cancer ads run by hospitals and official claims that computers will improve teaching and learning not only have in common appeals to emotions–new technologies in hospitals and schools will cure cancer and raise test scores–but also the infinite confidence that Americans have in innovative technologies and the clever tactics that marketeers use to get each of us to choose their products. Close scrutiny of ads about cancer treatments that will save lives and claims by school officials about the miracle-like qualities of laptops are tasks high school teachers might undertake when they teach critical thinking and educational policymakers should seriously consider when they make decisions. Were such scrutiny undertaken, a self-evident truth would emerge: too much emotional appeal and too little hard thinking hurt those seeking miracles from cancer centers and from schools buying new electronic devices.