I’ve embarked on a foray into educational research, and it’s not coming so easily to me. I’ve been thinking about the reasons why.
First off, I’ve become a little lazy (There! I’ve said it!) when it comes to reading articles with long words and few animated gifs. Plus, working online brings a constant reminder that there is something more immediately satisfying going on next door, evidence of which can be found from checking my Google history.
But more than that, and even more shaming, I just don’t believe. I don’t believe in educational science, not in the way I believe in chemistry, or biology, or the less quantum parts of physics.
It’s not that I think the writers are wrong, not exactly. It’s more that I don’t think their statements are immutably true. I think the problem has something to do with how quickly the pendulum swings in educational theory. It’s a little like the way one experiences fashion. At first one sees that wide-legged pants are good and can’t imagine how people could even conceive of narrow-legged ones; later, though, one is converted to tapered pants, and regrets the error of one’s ways. When you get to my age, and have experienced at least three of these cycles, you start to sense that maybe there is not One True Pant.* I can observe similar patterns in how we see error correction, or grammar instruction. It’s a little challenging to accept an educational fact as empirically proven when just last year similar evidence seemed to be proving the direct opposite. You just don’t see those physics papers: “You know the big deal we made about gravity last year? Actually, it’s not really a thing.“
So yes, I think that a lot of educational theories are myths, but that’s not necessarily a criticism. Generally when one encounters the word myth online, it appears at the head of a listicle, usually one detailing the dangerous and pig-headed beliefs of one’s ideological opponents. Not all myths, however, are dangerous and stupid. Myths are an inescapable part of who we are. That becomes obvious when we go back to the original meaning of myth: a story we tell ourselves to make sense or our world.
We still have myths, stories we tell ourselves. Each sub-culture has its own guiding stories. Take the myth of the ESL teacher, a selfless individual of unplumbed patience. The first contact of New Canadians, the teacher embodies warmth and tolerance and sets the tone for the immigrant’s experience of the new country. Is there a grain of truth there? Definitely. Is it universally true? Of course not. We were often bitter or judgey or condescending. Even when we tried our hardest, we didn’t always succeed in making Newcomers feel welcome and secure. Still, that myth is the story that got me out of bed for 18 years.
So we need our myths. Every great pedagogical insight is a story of who we are and what we do as teachers. The communicative classroom is a beautiful story; transformative learning is a beautiful story; Chomsky’s Universal Grammar is a beautiful story. Are they empirically verifiable? I’m not convinced, but reading each of them opened up my mind, making me see the world, and my classroom, in a new way.
One example that springs to mind is the concept of Multiple Intelligences. There have been recent articles refuting the claims of Howard Gardner. It turns out that neurology does not exactly bear out the claims about different brain structures being specifically related to different learning styles. But did you really believe that? Seriously? Come on, didn’t you think it was maybe more complicated than that? If neurology were really that clear-cut, wouldn’t we all be walking around with bionic brains right now?
But does the idea of Multiple Intelligences help us be better teachers? I think it does. It encourages us to acknowledge that different people are good at different things and pushes us to design lessons that incorporate more than one kind of thinking. The onus is placed on the teacher to find the meeting place where the student’s set of skills intersect with the course material.
I have seen firsthand how well such strategies can work. A tutoring student of mine struggled painfully with Grade 12 English until he read John Krakauer’s Into Thin Air. The pragmatic style of the text spoke to him somehow. His final project was a scale model of Everest with the paths of different climbers mapped on. As he explained the action to his classmates, the book came alive to him; at the same time, his social confidence blossomed. Had he not had access to that text and that mode of expression, he would not have been able to find that part of himself that was to develop into a reader and a thinker. Was his brain lighting up in different places than mine? I hardly think it’s that simple. The fact remains, though, that a book and activity that engaged his spatial sense broke through reading barriers where other kinds of assignments would have failed.
Does the idea of Multiple Intelligences extend beyond the classroom? In my experience, it does. Simple schoolhouse intelligence alone does not always make for a productive worker or a relatable officemate. You may have a colleague who composes and sings topical parodies of popular songs , or one who produces a beautiful, realistic chalk drawing of a different animal each morning, or one who manages to defuse any tense moment by saying the one thing that can make everybody laugh. All these employees are at least as valuable as the one who is kind of good at remembering a lot of stuff.
In other words, we all have different strengths and different things to offer. Stated like that, it appears trite and banal. What Gardner’s theory does, though, is take an idea that was there all along, form it into something beautiful and compelling, and then present it to us as a model for how to conduct our lives.
That is what myths do, and that is why we need them.
*** You might be offended by my comparison of your research with fashion. If so, three things a) we do not share a set of priorities b) perhaps you are taking your own work a little too seriously c) haven’t you read the news? offending people is so in right now.