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Hansonian Education? 7/9
why don't education interventions matter more?
Recent study, Pelham et al: The Effect Of Stimulant Medication On The Learning Of Academic Curricula In Children With ADHD.
It’s gotten popular buzz as “scientists have found medication has no detectable impact on how much children with ADHD learn in the classroom” and “Medication alone has no impact on learning”. This probably comes as a surprise if you’ve ever worked with stimulants, ADHD patients, or classrooms, so let’s take a look.
In the short run, students do better, but in the long run the difference fades out. That happens with many educational interventions. I have often stated what I call The Null Hypothesis, which is that educational interventions do not make a significant, long-term difference. Careful studies typically find little or no effect, even in the short run. But even if a study shows an effect in the short run, it often fades out a few years later.
I assume that a big cause of fade-out is that people’s brains revert to their long-term capacity. Helping someone do better on a test is temporary. But that does not improve their long-term ability to perform tasks.
Robin Hanson found similarly disquieting results for health care spending. He summaries many studies in which two identical populations are compared, with one population receiving “better” medical care (more spending on procedures) and the other receiving less: the average outcomes do not end up different. Since some medical procedures obviously help, he hypothesized that in the aggregate these must be canceled out by procedures that cause unintended harm. I call the harmful procedures “Hansonian medicine.”
Similarly, there may be educational interventions that help some students but harm others. Maybe medications that are prescribed for ADHD help some students but harm other students somehow. So in the aggregate, the results are minimal, especially in the long run.
Probably every form of education you can name might make a slight positive difference for some students and a slight negative difference for others.