The Iatrogenic Classroom Fallacy


In the early 1960’s, educators for various reasons were heard to say, “You can’t measure the learning that really happens in a classroom until at least 50 years later.” Variations of the “You can’t measure…” argument can still be heard and read today.

Those who use this view assert that the most important learning in classrooms occurs as an unnamed, unplanned, but welcomed by-product of classroom activity. Such learning, they argue, defies measurement as it happens.

Experimental behavioral and social scientists start with the assumption that if it exists, they can measure it. They might summarize the “can’t measure” statements as an iatrogenic classroom fallacy. This term refers to the broken association between what is intended and what occurs.

Physicians refer to iatrogenic results or conditions in medical practice as caused by what physicians do during diagnosis or treatment while treating another condition. In their own way, parishioners during the middle ages used the term hocus pocus to refer to the more general condition of not understanding what clergy were saying as they spoke in Latin during Mass.

For educators, the disconnect between what occurs in classrooms and measured results highlights differences between what does result and what is possible to result from lessons. The assertion of can’t-measure has been refuted by a growing body of reports of controlled experiments in and out of classrooms during the past century. The body of these reports appears sufficient to have established an empirical standard that all learners can learn all lessons taught. Educators have the choice of whether or not to adjust their lessons to meet this standard.

This standard fills the 50 year gap with forecasts of how alumni will likely participate in society. It sustains the legacy from the 1960’s that a rising tide (teach all students) raises all boats (so they may participate as fully as they can in society).