What Dr Fox teaches us about the importance of subject knowledge

//What Dr Fox teaches us about the importance of subject knowledge

In 1970, psychologists and psychiatrists were invited to a lecture on “Mathematical Game Theory as Applied to Physician Education.” The lecture, supposedly given by Dr Myron L. Fox, a graduate of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine and a student of the great John van Neumann, was actually given by an actor who knew nothing about either Game Theory or Physical Education.The audience of MDs and PhDs were in fact unwitting subjects in a study conducted by Donald Naftulin, John Ware, and Frank Donnelly on ‘educational seduction’. They were divided into two groups; one group was given a lecture by an actual scientist about something relevant and interesting, the other group listened to Dr Fox pedal his nonsense. In the first experiment, Dr Fox was instructed to lecture in as boring a monotone as he could manage. The two groups were then tested on how much they had retained and, surprise surprise, the group lectured by the scientist had learned more.

In a second experiment, Dr Fox went to town, using the full range of his thespian skills; he had his audience laughing, concentrating and nodding along. Even though the content of the lecture was absolute pap, filled with what Deborah Merritt describes as, “double talk, neologisms, non sequiturs, and contradictory statements,”  students rated the lecture as just as interesting and valid as that given by a genuine expert. This phenomenon – that a charismatic speaker could fool a knowledgeable into believing any old rubbish was in fact meaningful and worthwhile – became known as the Dr Fox Effect.

Dr Fox bamboozled three separate audiences of professional and graduate students. Merritt, in a critique of student surveys used to evaluate lecturers said, “Despite the emptiness of his lecture, fifty-five psychiatrists, psychologists, educators, graduate students, and other professionals produced evaluations of Dr. Fox that were overwhelmingly positive. … The disturbing feature of the Dr. Fox study, as the experimenters noted, is that Fox’s nonverbal behaviors so completely masked a meaningless, jargon-filled, and confused presentation.”

Now, although other researchers have confirmed the existence of the Dr Fox Effect it appears that although people in the audience rate a good speaker in a positively, regardless of what they say, little actual learning take place unless the speaker possesses considerable subject knowledge. Psychologists Eyal Peer and Elisha Babad replicated the original study in 2012 but added an additional question to the questionnaire people who attended the lecture were given. The question asked whether audience members felt they’d actually learned anything. The results were interesting: even students those who evaluated Dr. Fox as a highly effective speaker were aware that they had learned nothing from the lecture.

So, what does this tell us about effective teaching in schools? There’s a commonly held belief in education that a good teacher can teach anything well (an assumption I critique in this post) and that subject knowledge, whilst not without value, is clearly less important than the pedagogic skills of the teacher. The argument suggests that it is much better for teachers to focus on acquiring and practising generic teaching skills than on developing subject knowledge.

Although students may well enjoy engaging lessons and motivating speakers, these things don’t actually seem to make a lot of difference to learning. In the Sutton Trust report What Makes Great Teaching, Rob Coe and colleagues identify the six most important and best evidenced qualities that underpin great teaching and, top of their list, is (pedagogical) content knowledge:

The most effective teachers have deep knowledge of the subjects they teach, and when teachers’ knowledge falls below a certain level it is a significant impediment to students’ learning. As well as a strong understanding of the material being taught, teachers must also understand the ways students think about the content, be able to evaluate the thinking behind students’ own methods, and identify students’ common misconceptions.

This isn’t to say that teaching skills are unimportant, but there is evidence that such skills may be innate. Strauss, Ziv and Stein have found that five-year-olds already have pretty well-developed teaching skills and routinely demonstrate what they want other children to do, give specific directions and verbal explanations, ask questions to check understanding, explicitly talk about the teaching skills they use and are responsive to the needs of those being taught. This isn’t to say that these skills can’t be further honed, but it does suggest that we may be spending too much time teaching teachers to do things they’ve been able to do since early childhood.

If we value ‘pedagogy’ over subject knowledge we may be falling victim to the Dr Fox Effect. Of course an effective, charismatic speaker is preferable to a tedious old windbag, but if teachers aren’t genuine experts in their subjects, students won’t learn much of value.

2016-09-04T19:23:11+00:00

26 Comments

  1. chemistrypoet September 4, 2016 at 5:26 pm - Reply

    One of the lecturers at University would arrive at the lecture with his words already written out on an overhead acetate roll (this was before computer systems), which he would gradually unroll – we would write down what he had written. I can’t even remember if he said anything. Strangely, these were fascinating, hour long lectures. Reflecting on this, it is clear that they were so effective because he was a world leader in what he did (organometallic chemistry), and the content was the thing. We wanted to understand the area, and he clearly knew it better than most, and his writing was very clear. The ony attempt at being engaging, I think, was that he had written out each new paragraph in a different colour.

  2. James September 4, 2016 at 5:29 pm - Reply

    Hi. Interesting post as usual, thanks. What makes a genuine expert?

  3. julietgreen September 4, 2016 at 5:56 pm - Reply

    I knew this as a child. I was never a fan of the all-singing, all-dancing teacher-performer. I wanted the teacher to have better subject knowledge than I did.

  4. Pedro September 4, 2016 at 6:38 pm - Reply

    Actually, when I first heard about this study a couple of years ago it forced me into a bit of introspection, as I can also be a song & dance kind of public speaker. It forced me to be even more careful with the things I say on stage.

  5. […] In 1970, psychologists and psychiatrists were invited to a lecture on “Mathematical Game Theory as Applied to Physician Education.” The lecture, supposedly given by Dr Myron L. Fox, a graduate of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine and a student of the great John van Neumann, was actually given by an actor who knew nothing about  […]

  6. bocks1 September 4, 2016 at 7:13 pm - Reply

    Great subject knowledge undoubtedly improves the potential for learning through the pedagogy of a skilled (and charismatic?) teacher. However, learning will rarely be optimal with an uncharismatic ‘expert’ unless the learner is skilled (heutogogy).

    It’s a timeworn dichotomy for school leaders but I’d rather have the better (more engaging and open to question) teacher who can foster the higher order learner skills than the more knowledgeable bore. Learning is the winner.

    • David Didau September 4, 2016 at 7:16 pm - Reply

      What we’d rather is often at odds with what’s most effective.

  7. Assessment | Pearltrees September 4, 2016 at 10:18 pm - Reply

    […] investigation into the sawtooth effect in gcse as and a level assessments. What Dr Fox teaches us about the importance of subject knowledge. In 1970, psychologists and psychiatrists were invited to a lecture on “Mathematical Game Theory […]

  8. Robert Craigen September 5, 2016 at 1:52 am - Reply

    You’ve hit a nail on the head here, David. A year ago the Manitoba Ministry of Education’s Certification Branch, concerned about the lack of mathematical knowledge in elementary school teachers (who could be shown to be unknowledgeable in the basic material they were supposed to be teaching … let alone anything more advanced) and in response (I think) to concerns about this expressed by the higher academic community, introduced a new rule that every student of education, prior to being certified, must take 6 credit hours of mathematics at university (that’s the equivalent of two one-hour courses). Note *math* courses, not *pedagogy* courses that purport to show how to teach math.

    The Education schools across the province went apoplectic. This, they argued, would severely harm candidate teachers’ preparation to teach math.

    My wife, a Jr High School math teacher, had taken the equivalent of most (3 years) of an Honours Math degree in her teaching program in the 1970s. When she passed away in 2010 from cancer, her friends and relatives funded an endowment to create a scholarship in her name for students with the equivalent of at least 3 years of a math major program with a stated intention to teach public school.

    Part of accepting such a scholarship an official offering is to get approval and input from the faculty offices in affected programs. So the scholarship description was floated for the Dean’s office in our Faculty of Education. The Donor Relations office was told, in no uncertain terms, that the faculty did not support such a scholarship designed to encourage the taking of university math courses — and they regarded it as misguided.

    Two professors of “Mathematics Education” in the faculties of education here in manitoba have each published “scholarly” articles purporting to argue that it is counterproductive for students of education to take math courses from actual mathematicians because “mathematicians don’t understand math the way we want it to be taught”.

    This is a real issue.

    • Doug Mann December 31, 2016 at 11:07 pm - Reply

      I do think the Fox Effect is real, but a lot of the debate surrounding evaluations is confused because commentators are talking about several different things:

      1. Do charismatic speakers get better evaluations? Yes.
      2. Do charismatic speakers increase learning? This is an entirely different thing, and is much harder to evaluate. When I was a student, I don’t remember learning more in classes where the professor was charming or told lots of jokes.
      3. What exactly do evaluations measure? Student learning, or student satisfaction? These could be polar opposites.
      4. What is the purpose of higher education? To keep students happy? To make them learn valuable things? Or to make them better citizens? These are three separate goals.

      Not surprisingly, there is no question on the evaluations at my school to the effect “how much did you learn in this class?” But there are several on how students felt about the experience of taking the course. So consumerism transferred to the university.

  9. Robert Craigen September 5, 2016 at 1:55 am - Reply

    Let’s not sell tedious old windbags short. I enjoy engaging teachers as much as anyone else, but I’ve appreciated my share of old windbags too!

  10. monkrob September 5, 2016 at 5:56 am - Reply

    My mind immediately went to Sir Ken’s “Do Schools Kill Creativity” TED talk when I read, “Dr Fox went to town, using the full range of his thespian skills; he had his audience laughing, concentrating and nodding along. Even though the content of the lecture was absolute pap, filled with what Deborah Merritt describes as, “double talk, neologisms, non sequiturs, and contradictory statements,” students rated the lecture as just as interesting and valid as that given by a genuine expert.”

    Is Sir Ken really Dr Fox?

    • David Didau September 5, 2016 at 11:41 am - Reply

      Haha! You might say so, I couldn’t possible comment 😉

  11. Christine Counsell September 5, 2016 at 8:25 am - Reply

    Terrific post David. Thank you.

  12. […] much do teachers need to know? In my last post I proposed that an effective teacher – one who is warm, friendly and a great speaker – […]

  13. Rufus September 5, 2016 at 1:15 pm - Reply

    ‘pedagogy’ is certainly not what you describe Dr Fox engaging in.

    It seems to me that you have written a post that advocates subject knowledge over ‘performing’.

  14. […] In 1970, psychologists and psychiatrists were invited to a lecture on “Mathematical Game Theory as Applied to Physician Education.” The lecture, supposedly given by Dr Myron L. Fox, a graduate of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine and a student of the great John van Neumann, was actually given by an actor who knew nothing about  […]

  15. […] In 1970, psychologists and psychiatrists were invited to a lecture on “Mathematical Game Theory as Applied to Physician Education.” The lecture, supposedly given by Dr Myron L. Fox, a graduate of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine and a student of the great John van Neumann, was actually given by an actor who knew nothing about  […]

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