There are lots of very common theories about education that you’ve likely heard. For example, you may have heard that creative people use the right side of their brain, or that some people learn better when they see the material and others learn better when hearing it.
But is any of that true?
TIP’s researchers are here to answer.
We spoke with Director of Research Matthew Makel and Research Scientist Jill Adelson about those theories, how science corrects the record, and more.
Are there any examples in psychology and gifted education?
Matt: This idea of learning styles is that some people are visual learners, and others are auditory learners or bodily kinesthetic learners. I also recently heard it for the first time as being called ear learners and eye learners.
There’s a paper that looked at two hundred different studies that tested this idea and could find no evidence supporting the idea that when a person is in their learning style they learn more.
Jill: This is so ubiquitous that in some teachers’ prep programs, teachers are taught to differentiate and modify lesson plans so that they meet a visual learning style versus an auditory learning style. It’s being transmitted down into practice.
Matt: This isn’t to be confused with having learning preference. People may like being in one environment or another, but that’s not necessarily associated with learning better. I have a food preference, but that doesn’t make that food healthier for me when I eat it.
Jill: I’d say another one that we see trickling down in the classrooms and learning centers is multiple intelligences.
This is Howard Gardner’s idea that we have again different ways that we learn and take in the world. He has visual spacial in there. And music. It’s been expanded to nine different kinds of intelligence now.
The research is not supportive of his theory, and this does not have any application in the classroom.
Matt: I feel bad, because we all have such a strong desire to find effective ways of teaching or learning, that when we see something that sounds appealing to us, it’s very easy to latch on to it and say, “That’s what I’m going to do.”
One of the underlying purposes of the scientific method is to prevent us from doing what seems superficially appealing to us. A lot of things that can make sense aren’t necessarily accurate, and that’s what we want science for, to differentiate those two.
Are there any others?
Jill: Something else that isn’t necessarily a theory, but is something that has been perpetuated through time, is the gifted learner versus bright child idea.
Someone published a list saying this is what a gifted child looks like and this is what a bright child looks like. Despite there not being any research evidence that differentiates different types of children, this is one of the most common documents you see in gifted education. It has been posted on websites, it has been in books, it has been handed out in professional developments, and it’s not research-based at all.
The worst part of it, for me, is the idea that it takes a bright child eight to ten repetitions to get something and a gifted child one to two repetitions. That goes against everything we want as gifted researchers or educators, where we want kids challenged.
Matt: There’s a very popular idea that goes back to at least to the 1970s that there are left-brained and right-brained people, and that in the left brain, they’re very analytical, whereas right-brained people are very creative, free thinkers.
There’s no evidence that there are left-brained or right-brained people. There’s actually also a bunch of evidence that creative performance isn’t home in the right brain, and analytical performance isn’t home in the left brain. There’s no piece of that that has any research evidence. We’ve known that there’s no evidence supporting those ideas since before I was born, and yet you still hear about them all the time.
I’ve also heard the Meyers-Briggs personality test is questionable.
Matt: Meyers-Briggs is probably the most famous personality test. There’s sixteen different types, and I believe it’s actually based on the ideas of Carl Jung.
But the tests aren’t consistent. If it’s really a measure of personality, there should be some degree of consistency across time, but there’s not. Also, it doesn’t actually measure things that others would view as, Oh, yes, that’s how I would rate that person.
That’s too bad because there is a very strongly research-supported idea about personality called the Big Five, which in some ways looks a little similar to Meyers-Briggs. It actually has a huge body of research supporting that model, yet it is nowhere near as famous as the Meyers-Briggs.
If there is no evidence for these theories, how did they become so popular?
Jill: Part of it is the packaging of it. There’s a book and then it becomes a workbook for teachers. It’s getting out there ahead of the evidence, even though evidence has now been around for a very long time. It gets that popularity. The research is not getting out there in those same ways.
Matt: And there’s actually a lot of evidence demonstrating that humans don’t make their decisions based on evidence. Stories are far more effective at changing people’s beliefs and behaviors than actual data are. A lot of these different ideas are pretty compelling stories.
There’s actually been a formal term to describe these ideas that keep sticking around, but can’t be put away despite an abundance of evidence. They’re called zombies. The technical term is zombies.
How are you and other scientists trying to correct the record on these theories?
Jill: The first is obviously getting evidence. We may find out that it’s not research supported, but the theory does have some kind of grounding to it in reality.
Actually getting the evidence out is the harder part as scientists, and getting it out in a way that people can absorb it and take it in. We see people trying to get word out through blog posts and videos. I know Gifted Child Quarterly [which Jill edits] did a whole issue on some of the myths and what the evidence actually says about them.
We have professional development opportunities, and these things that talk about multiple intelligence and learning styles. Why do we not have one on what the research says? We’re trying to get all these tools into people’s hands, but I think it would be good to also go to teachers and say, “There are some things you can set aside. Do these eighty different things, but these three? Ignore them. Just take them out of your toolbox.”
Sometimes in the history of science, a theory does have a lot of evidence but is still replaced by a better theory—like when Einstein’s physics replaced Newton’s. How does that happen?
Matt: The morbid answer is a quote from Max Planck, the German scientist, who famously said that science advances one funeral at a time. There’s actually some evidence behind that: when a famous star person from a field passes away, within several years there is really a shift in the field’s direction.
More positively, I think there’s an incremental approach. We are building on existing theories through better measurements.
Jill: I feel like in our field, one way we see things shift is if you can get multiple researchers from different areas who approach the same theory. If we can start to see other people approach it and do research that can help move it forward or shift it.
Matt: We’re in such an applied field that when the world changes, that can almost necessitate a big change in research assumptions. If education policy were to change, our field would be very reactive to that. In other fields, like physics or biology, that may not necessarily be quite as true.