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.
This issue is about common theories that aren’t actually true. 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.
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: 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, 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.
Are there any others?
Matt: There’s a very popular idea that goes back to at least 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.
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.
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.
What advice do you have for students who want to see through common myths and find the truth?
Matt: If they want to develop this grand theory that radically alters how we understand how the world works, not accepting current thinking might be a necessary part of that endeavor.
Jill: You also have to read the evidence that is out there, so that you’re aware of what evidence do we have about this idea. Then you can question that evidence. You can question that idea and seek your own evidence of a different idea—not even necessarily disproving the original one.
A friend sent me this quote this morning, actually, by Konrad Lorenz. “It is a good morning exercise for a research scientist to discard a pet hypothesis every day before breakfast. It keeps him young.” (I would add, “or her.”)
The idea is that we should be questioning our own assumptions. Again, questioning what we’ve read. Questioning the research. Thinking about testing the research, and the hypotheses that are being made, the assumptions made.