Monday, January 04, 2010

Gross errors pass as 'research'

The New Year starts with yet another crass, unscientific and misleading rash of stories in the press and on television, worrying parents about children’s speech and development. The usual suspect ‘technology’ is reported as guilty without any supporting evidence. “Children spend too much time in front of the television and computer games…” opens the Guardian piece with a picture of a games’ controller. The Daily Mail headline shouts, “The youngsters who struggle to speak because their parents let them to watch too much TV”. Yet the so-called “research” with “evidence” is a YouGov survey which proves absolutely nothing about causes, and is rather hazy on whether there’s a problem at all.

Jean Gross has been busily back tracking after the press and television picked up on the story, as there is no evidence at all that technology or any other causes are at work here. She readily admits that the proposed cause, being “exposed to screens of all kinds” is no more than “anecdotal evidence”. As she had to admit under questioning today on the BBC, “nobody actually knows whether it is getting worse or not….it’s all anecdotal evidence”. This is not bad science, it’s speculative, personal opinion put out by so-called experts who confuse ‘anecdotes’ with ‘evidence’. It’s appalling behaviour by people in a position of power who should know better. I’d sack her on the spot.

Jean Gross

So who is Jean Gross? She's the government’s Communication Champion. Jean seems like a sensible sort, but she’s an expert, not in communication in general, but in special needs in primary schools. In other words, she sees the world through a dysfunctional lens. She’s also a Director of the Every Child a Reader organisation, a partnership between charities, business and the Government which funds the controversial Reading Recovery scheme. At a cost of £2000-£2500 a year per child this is a very expensive scheme and had been roundly criticised for being far too expensive, resulting in short-term effects not sustained in the long-term. The scheme has its origins in New Zealand and has been rolled out in Australia, but is now being abandoned there, on the back of evaluative research. Literacy expert Kevin Wheldall from Macquarie University Special Education Centre, has looked at the research from 1992 onwards and said, "The logic of employing Reading Recovery as a solution for pupils who have struggled to learn to read following phonics instruction is almost wilfully perverse – a triumph of hope over experience. These are precisely the children for whom Reading Recovery works least well." Critics point out that this money would be better spent on the wider use of phonics teaching, which is woeful in many primary schools.

Class bias?

There really is a debate and research agenda in this area, but as long as the vacuum is filled with shameless and deceptive commentators like Sue palmer, Aric Sigman and Jean Gross, who jump to speculative conclusions without supporting evidence, the muddier the issues become. They trot out the usual platitudes about TV and technology being bad while reading to your children is good. The problem is that these people make top dollar from book sales to worried parents or as pseudo-professionals in the field.

The ‘elephant’ in the room, of course, is the working parents’ issue. Technology is an easy target for commentators, who don’t want to raise the obvious fact that families in which both parents work are likely to spend considerably less time in face to face communication with their children. This is a sort of class-based bias, as many of these experts have full-time jobs packing their kids off to packed nurseries, rather than doing what they preach, namely spending loads of time ‘talking to their children’.


Unknown said...

I remember when the fashion was to say that TV made children violent. There was one burke who wanted to ban cartoons like Tom and Jerry.

The children of that generation are now mainly adults. I wonder whether they worry/complain about how much time children are spending playing computer games.

Kim Thomas said...

My thoughts on reading the stories about tv were the same as yours. The reason some children are slow to talk is not because they watch tv (which, after all, is full of people talking), but because their parents don't talk to them.

I also wonder whether these people have watched children watching tv. In my experience, kids who watch tv tend to do so interactively - dancing along to the Teletubbies, incorporating the characters in their own play and so on. I think a fairly crucial distinction is whether the children are watching programmes that are designed for children or whether they're watching any old rubbish that happens to be on.

Donald Clark said...

There is in fact lots of good evidence from studies on Sesame Street etc that show considerable educational advantages for certain TV programmes. I have certainly seen my own children laugh, sing, count, speak and intearct with good children's TV programmes. It would seem that the only valid form of entertainment for the chattering classes is reading Narnia and nursery tales to their children.

Unknown said...

Dear mr. Clark,

I've read your post with full interest. I'd like to ask you some questions about this mrs. Gross, the survey and your opinion.
This is because we're Dutch students fact-checking newsitems and I am doing some research about this survey.
Could you please reply or mail me?
Michiel Bouwman

Unknown said...

I used to wish I could get mine to shut up!

Janet Clarey said...

*Do* families in which both parents work spend considerably less time in face to face communication with their children? Is that an anecdotal or evidence-based statement?

Donald Clark said...

Good question - this is what the research needs to uncover, rather than simply pinning the blame on things middle-class people like/don't like.

The fact that both parents are simply 'not there' seems like a reasonable hypothesis to test, as it's easy to isolate this variable. Other techniques can be used to measure f2f time.

Fiona Healy O'Neill said...

And your response is scientifically valid?

This is a case in semantics. There is quite extensive research to prove that the amount of time spent in face to face communication with parents in the early years increases speech, language and communication skills. As you are so proficient in judging research, there is of course no need for me to reference it as you have so neatly assumed Gross's comments to be inaccurate.

Time spent in front of the television is time that is not spent in face-to-face interactions.

The Hart and Risley (1995) study suggests that your hypothesis that speech and language deficits relate to working parents is a lazy one. This study involved 2 1/2 years of intense observation of the language of 42 families throughout Kansas City. Specifically, they looked at household language use in three different settings: 1) professional families; 2) working class; 3) welfare families. Hart and Risley gathered an enormous amount of data during the study and subsequent longitudinal follow-ups to come up with an often cited 30 million word gap between the vocabularies of welfare and professional families by age three. This number came from the data that showed welfare children heard, on average, 616 words per hour, while children from professional families (essentially children with college educated parents) heard 2153 words per hour. The longitudinal research in the following years demonstrated a high correlation between vocabulary size at age three and language test scores at ages nine and ten in areas of vocabulary, listening, syntax, and reading comprehension. Professional families worked too. Welfare families worked least (obviously). So not likely to relate simply to parents working out of the home, I would say. In My Opinion.

Donald Clark said...

Slow down Fiona! The main oint in my post was to point to the fatuous behaviour of the leader in the field making claims on the back of a small YouGov poll - and she did.

The US Department of Education's monumental study called the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study (ECLS), debunked common myths about parenting. According to the ECLS, the eight factors that correlate most highly to school test scores were related to who the kids parents were (high education, high socio-economic background, mother 30 or older at the birth of first child, involvement in the PTA, child has many books at home) as opposed to what they did (move to better neighbourhood, bring the kid to museums, spanking, television viewing, or reading to one's kids). In other words, during the early years of a child, nature (which purportedly exerts 50% influence on personality) triumphed over nurture (the other 50%).

This study is bigger, deeper and covers more variables than the tiny 42families that Hart and Risley looked at. It took 20,000 kids and their parents and it asked them an enormous range of questions and it starts at a very young age, three or four years old, and follows them so far through to third grade. What they set out to understand is: What variables in a child's background help predict how they're going to do on standardized tests? And what they found was that variables such as income and parental education, that all of those variables turn out to be quite important in terms of predicting whether kids will do well in school or not. But a whole other range of variables about parenting style, about whether you spank your kids, whether you let them watch TV, even whether you read to them, it turns out that we can't find any evidence that those kind of specific types of interactions are important for how your kids turn out. Judith Harris won no en do prizes for her wonderful research in this area as shown in The Nurture Assumption.

And what's with the rudeness and 'In My Opinion stuff - lighten up!