The lack of an evidence base for teaching and learning: fads, myths, legends, ideology and wishful thinking

Stephen Dinham

It is admirable and expected that teachers will want their students to learn, but a problem arises when strategies and resources are adopted that in some cases have weak, unproven, or disproved effects, on student learning. Teachers and other educators need to be what I term ‘critical consumers of research’ in their selection of such approaches, but this is a challenge when time and knowledge are in short supply and ‘quick fixes’ to student learning, often advocated by various vested and/or commercial interests, are attractive. In other cases some approaches are an ideological position on how learning and the world should be, in the views of some.

Discovery learning and constructivism

One such belief and approach is that of ‘discovery learning’ and its allied concept, ‘constructivism’. It has become an article of faith for some that it is ‘better’ if students can discover and construct their own learning.

Writing in the American Psychologist, Mayer reviewed the research evidence and commented:

“The debate about discovery has been replayed many times in education, but each time, the research evidence has favoured a guided approach to learning. … Today’s proponents of discovery methods, who claim to draw their support from constructivist philosophy, are making inroads into educational practice. Yet a dispassionate review of the relevant research literatures shows that discovery-based practice is not as effective as guided discovery.”1

However, unguided discovery learning, problem based learning, inquiry and constructivism are popular with many teachers and are common strategies in many classrooms, with students receiving little or no guidance as to the content, scope or standards required for satisfactory completion of a task. A variation is social constructivism where students work in small groups trying to discover what they need to know. Hattie found that problem based learning has an effect size of only 0.15, whereas direct instruction, where the teacher is clear about his or her intentions and orchestrates the learning of the students accordingly, has an effect size of 0.59.2 This is not to say that we don’t want students to engage in problem solving or inquiry, just that such activities are most effective when students have been given a solid foundation of knowledge, skills and understanding that they can then apply to problems.3

Mayer concluded from his analysis that:

As constructivism has become the dominant view of how students learn, it may seem obvious to equate active learning with active methods of instruction. Thus, educators who wish to use constructivist methods of instruction are often encouraged to focus on discovery learning – in which students are free to work in a learning environment with little or no guidance. Under the banner of social constructivism, the call for discovery learning remains, but with a modest shift in form – students are expected to work in groups in a learning environment with little or no guidance. … The research … shows that the formula constructivism = hands-on activity is a formula for educational disaster.4

Ken Rowe and I noted in a review of middle schooling for the New Zealand Ministry of Education:

Whereas constructivism is an established, legitimate theory of learning and knowing … it is not a theory of teaching. This has particular relevance for effective pedagogy during the middle years, especially given the strong advocacy in middle school teaching for ‘hands-on’, ‘action-oriented’, constructivist learning activities.5

In highlighting the inappropriateness of constructivism as an operational theory of teaching, Wilson commented:

We largely ignore generations of professional experience and knowledge in favour of a slick postmodern theoretical approach, most often characterised by the misuse of the notion of constructivism.6

This is not the full extent of the fads and fashions, however. There is a raft of other approaches for which a research evidence base is either lacking or non-supportive. These include learning styles (see following), ‘neuro-linguistic programming’, multiple intelligences, ‘thinking hats’, brain exercise, emotional intelligence, the ‘Mozart effect’, so-called 21st century curriculum and associated skills, and ‘digital natives’.7

Learning styles

The notion of the existence of learning styles has been around since the 1970s, with there now being more than 70 extant models ranging from early childhood to higher education. It has become a vast, lucrative industry with inventories, manuals, video resources, in-service packages, websites, publications and workshops.

However psychologists and neuroscientists agree there is little efficacy for these models, which rest on dubious evidential grounds. Of the very many publications supporting the existence and use of learning styles in teaching, most have not been subject to peer review. Hattie has noted that ‘It is hard not to be sceptical about these learning preference claims’.8

Stahl has commented:

I work with a lot of different schools and listen to a lot of teachers talk. Nowhere have I seen a greater conflict between ‘craft knowledge’ or what teachers know (or at least think they know) and ‘academic knowledge’ or what researchers know (or at least think they know) than in the area of learning styles. … The whole notion seems fairly intuitive. People are different. Certainly different people might learn differently from each other. It makes sense.9

However, there is a distinct lack of empirical support for the existence of learning styles:

The reason researchers roll their eyes at learning styles is the utter failure to find that assessing children’s learning styles and matching to instructional methods has any effect on their learning.10

The authors of an extensive review of the research evidence for learning styles concluded:

Although the literature on learning styles is enormous, very few studies have even used an experimental methodology capable of testing the validity of learning styles applied to education. Moreover, of those that did use an appropriate method, several found results that flatly contradict the popular meshing hypothesis.

We conclude therefore, that at present, there is no adequate evidence base to justify incorporating learning styles assessments into general educational practice.11

Yet as Scott has observed:

Failure to find evidence for the utility of tailoring instruction to individuals’ learning styles has not prevented this term from being a perennial inclusion in discussions about and recommendations on pedagogy. It also continues to influence what teachers do in their day-to-day work. Practitioners from preschool to university level attempt to apply the theory in classrooms, administering the unreliable tests, criticised by so many, to their students, using the results as a guide to classroom practice and encouraging or requiring students to apply the results to understanding, controlling and explaining their own learning.12

References to learning styles still abound in many curriculum documents at system and school level, despite the lack of evidence for their existence. When I have pointed this out to educators, the usual response is that it ‘doesn’t matter’. However, it does matter, because of the problems and harm that can be caused by the categorisation, labelling and limiting of learning experiences of students through the continued belief in and application of so-called learning styles. Would we tolerate doctors continuing to use a disproved, harmful treatment?

Multiple intelligences

Bennett exposed the lack of evidence for many of these educational fads and the harm they can do.13 Unfortunately, these approaches are popular, particularly in primary schools, and are often thrown together in what Howard Gardner of ‘multiple intelligences’ (MI) fame terms ‘dazzling promiscuity’. In fairness to Gardner, he is highly critical of how his work has been reified and misused in education:

I learned that an entire state in Australia had adapted an education programme based in part on MI theory. The more I learned about this programme, the less comfortable I was. … much of it was a mishmash of practices, with neither scientific foundation nor clinical warrant. Left-brain and right-brain contrasts, sensory learning styles, ‘neuro-linguistic programming’, and MI approaches commingled with dazzling promiscuity.14

Myers-Briggs, etc?

Another form of categorisation occurs through the use of various forms of personality tests sometimes administered to students. The danger lies with how the results of such tests are used and whether this use engenders ‘entity thinking’ or fixed mindsets in students15 and stereotyping and fixed, inappropriate expectations for students held by teachers. Paul has commented:

Millions of people worldwide take personality tests each year to direct their education, to decide on a career, to determine if they’ll be hired, to join the armed forces, and to settle legal disputes. ... the sheer number of tests administered obscures a simple fact: they don’t work. Most personality tests are seriously flawed, and sometimes unequivocally wrong. They fail the field’s own standards of validity and reliability.16

‘Neuromyths’

There is much information and misinformation about the brain and learning. Dekker and colleagues tested some of the ‘neuromyths’ held by teachers – which they define as beliefs ‘loosely based on scientific facts’ - and the possible effects of these on teachers and their teaching:

A large observational survey design was used to assess general knowledge of the brain and neuromyths. The sample comprised 242 primary and secondary school teachers who were interested in the neuroscience of learning. … Participants completed an online survey containing 32 statements about the brain and its influence on learning, of which 15 were neuromyths. … Results showed that on average, teachers believed 49% of the neuromyths, particularly myths related to commercialized educational programs. …

These findings suggest that teachers who are enthusiastic about the possible application of neuroscience findings in the classroom find it difficult to distinguish pseudoscience from scientific facts.17

Harm can be done

As Stahl18, Bennett19 and others have noted, these approaches are intrinsically appealing but the fact is, learning is not so simple. Aside from wasting teachers’ and students’ time and schools’ money, the real cost of dabbling with such unsupported strategies, is that students are not being taught what they need to know, coupled with the harm caused by arbitrary, invalid labelling, categorisation and stereotyping. Through such practices students can come to see their abilities as fixed or limited, something Carol Dweck has termed ‘entity thinking’20 (see below). This can powerfully constrain future learning. Those convinced that they have a natural, innate talent for something will be disappointed when they come to expect success without effort, whilst those who believe they don’t have a talent for something may be put off from even trying.

I have noted previously that “...one of the most damaging things we can do to people is to put them into categories and treat them accordingly.”21

Hattie found that not labelling students has a large effect size of 0.61 for student learning22, yet categorisation is something approaches such as learning styles, thinking hats, multiple intelligences, personality types and so forth, are predicated on.

Entity versus malleable theory of intelligence

Carol Dweck identified and refuted a number of harmful, invalid beliefs about students and schooling:

  1. The belief that students with high ability are more likely to display mastery-oriented qualities …
  2. The belief that success in school directly fosters mastery-oriented qualities …
  3. The belief that praise, particularly praising a student’s intelligence, encourages mastery-oriented qualities …
  4. The belief that students’ confidence in their intelligence is the key to mastery-oriented qualities.23

Dweck goes on to contrast ‘two frameworks for understanding intelligence and achievement’:

  • The theory of fixed intelligence - Some people believe that their intelligence is a fixed trait. They have a certain amount of it and that’s that. We call this an ‘entity theory’ of intelligence because intelligence is portrayed as an entity that dwells within us that we can’t change.
  • The theory of malleable intelligence - other people have a very different definition of intelligence. For them intelligence is not a fixed trait that they simply possess, but something they can cultivate through learning. We call this an ‘incremental theory’ of intelligence because intelligence is portrayed as something that can be increased through one’s efforts.24

The concepts of entity intelligence and its counterpart, malleable intelligence, have great significance to teaching and learning. One implication is that we need to avoid giving students the view that their ability is fixed. This applies equally whether they are currently able to perform at a high level, or a low level, in any area or subject.

Telling someone they are a ‘natural’ at something can be equally harmful as telling someone they are ‘hopeless’. I will wager that everyone reading this has at some time been given a message that they are no good at something. Whether we are talking about sport, music, mathematics, languages or any other area, such a belief can powerfully constrain future success in that area of endeavour and create a barrier to further participation and improvement.

The implication for teaching is we need to concentrate on communicating to students how their current performance on any task or in any subject compares to the standard expected. This must be accompanied by constructive feedback to help them understand what is required to improve their learning and performance.

Thus it is important to carefully consider how and what we communicate to students about their achievements. We need to concentrate on what they can do at a particular time and not give a message that their ability is fixed for ever.

What about self-esteem?

Research shows that student self-esteem or self-concept can have moderate or greater effects on student learning.25

Some educators have been convinced therefore, that if self-esteem can be boosted to higher levels, this will result in enhanced learning, a classic case of ‘putting the cart before the horse’ or confusing cause and effect. Conversely it is thought that any form of criticism, correction or failure will harm students’ self-esteem and thus learning, and should therefore be avoided. The downside of this is that students can gain an inflated view of their capacities which can lead to the entity thinking mentioned previously.26 I’ve observed schools where no one receives a ‘bad’ or failing mark, red pens are not used to correct work because ‘red is an angry colour’, and ‘merit’ certificates are thrown around like confetti for meeting normal expectations such as sitting quietly when eating one’s lunch. In short, rampant, devalued, ‘positive reinforcement’ abounds.

However the best way to legitimately boost self-esteem is for students to receive regular constructive, developmental feedback, something known to have one of the most powerful effects on learning.27 If students can see and feel themselves achieving, even in small increments, this can then lead to an increase in self-concept/esteem that sets up a cycle for further improvement. However, empty, inauthentic, unwarranted praise ultimately hampers both learning and self-esteem.28

Authentic achievement, no matter how small, is thus the best way to engender self-concept and self-esteem. This can then serve as a foundation for further achievement. When students have their self-esteem boosted artificially in inauthentic ways, on the other hand, they can be confused about their actual ability and the air can quickly come out of the self-esteem balloon when they hit the wide world and meet real-life challenges.29 Unwarranted self-esteem boosting works against building perseverance and resilience in students, qualities necessary to meet challenges in schooling and later life.30

Final Comment: what do students think?

A key point to consider: have students been asked what they think of all this, especially the various uses of categorisation? Their answers will be instructive. In my experience, students will put up with such methods, even when they know them to be invalid. There are many students who have been very successful in various areas out of school (music, sport, drama, for example), yet were not considered to possess such ability within school because of judgements made by teachers. Some young people are also late developers, and this development can be hindered by their negative experiences in school.

This article is drawn from Dinham, S. (2016). Leading Learning and Teaching. Melbourne: ACER Press. (Chapter 2). In the book Stephen Dinham also canvasses those strategies and approaches that have been found to have the greatest impact on student learning.

Notes

1 Mayer, R. (2004). ‘Should there be a three-strikes rule against pure Discovery Learning?’, American Psychologist, 59(1) , pp. 14-19. (p. 18)

2 Hattie, J. (2012). Visible Learning for Teachers. London: Routledge. (pp. 251, 253)

3 Ayres, P.; Dinham, S. & Sawyer, W. (2004). ‘Effective Teaching in the Context of a Grade 12 High Stakes External Examination in New South Wales, Australia’, British Educational Research Journal, 30 (1), pp. 141-165.

4 Mayer, R. (2004), p. 17; see also Kirschner , P.; Sweller, J. & Clark, R. (2006). ‘Why Minimal Guidance During Instruction Does Not Work: An Analysis of the Failure of Constructivist, Discovery, Problem-Based, Experiential, and Inquiry-Based Teaching’, Educational Psychologist, 41(2), pp. 75-86.

5 Dinham, S. & Rowe, K. (2007). Teaching and Learning in Middle Schooling A review of the literature - A Report to the New Zealand Ministry of Education. Camberwell: ACER. (p. 58)

6 Wilson, B. (2005). ‘Unlocking potential’, paper presented at the 2005 Australian and New Zealand School of Government (AZSOG) conference, The University of Sydney, 29th September, pp. 2-3.

7 See for example Bennett, T. (2013). Teacher Proof – Why research in education doesn’t always mean what it claims, and what you can do about it. Milton Park: Routledge.; Scott, C. (2015). Learn to Teach: Teach to Learn. Port Melbourne: Cambridge University Press.

8 Hattie, J. (2009). Visible learning: A synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses relating to achievement. London: Routledge. (p. 197)

9 Stahl, S. (1999). ’Different Strokes for Different Folks? A critique of learning styles’, American Educator, Fall, pp. 1-5. (p. 1)

10 Stahl, S. (1999), p. 1.

11 Pashler, H.; McDaniel, M.; Rohrer, D. & Bjork, R. (2008). ‘Learning Styles – Concepts and Evidence, Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 9(3), pp. 105-119. (p. 105)

12 Scott, C. (2010). ‘The Enduring Appeal of ‘Learning Styles’’, Australian Journal of Education, 54(1), pp. 5-17. (p. 8)

13 Bennett, T. (2013).

14 Gardner, H., cited in Demos (2004). About Learning: Report of the Learning Working Group. London: Demos. (p. 15)

15 Dweck, C. (2000). Self-Theories - Their Role in Motivation, Personality and Development. Philadelphia, PA: Psychology Press.

16 Paul, A. (2004). The Cult of Personality: How Personality Tests Are Leading Us to Miseducate Our Children, Mismanage Our Companies, and Misunderstand Ourselves. New York, NY: Free Press.

17 Dekker, S.; Lee, N.; Howard-Jones, P. & Jolles, J. (2012). ‘Neuromyths in education: Prevalence and predictors of misconceptions among teachers’, Frontiers in Psychology, 3(429), pp.1-8. (p. 1)

18 Stahl, S. (1999).

19 Bennett, T. (2013).

20 Dweck, C. (2000).

21 Dinham, S. (2008). How to get your School Moving and Improving: An evidence-based approach. Melbourne: ACER Press. ( p. 1)

22 Hattie, J. (2012), p. 251.

23 Dweck, C. (2000), pp. 1-2.

24 Dweck, C. (2000), pp. 2-3.

25 Hattie, J. (2012), p. 252.

26 Dweck, C. (2000).

27 Dinham, S. (2008). ‘Feedback on Feedback’, Teacher, May, pp. 20-23; .Hattie, J. (2012), pp. 115-137.

28 Scott, C. & Dinham, S. (2005). ‘Parenting, teaching and self-esteem’, Australian Educational Leader, 27(1), pp. 28-30; Dinham, S. & Scott, C. (2007). ‘Parenting, Teaching and Leadership Styles’, The Australian Educational Leader, 29(1), pp. 30-32, 45.

29 Dinham, S. (2010). ‘The Perils of Self-esteem Boosting’, Leadership in Focus, Summer, 20, pp. 23-25.

30 Stewart, D.; Sun, J.; Patterson, C.; Lemerle, K. & Hardie, M. (2004). ‘Promoting and Building Resilience in Primary School Communities: Evidence from a Comprehensive ‘Health Promoting School’ Approach’, International Journal of Mental Health Promotion, 6(3), pp. 26-33.

Stephen Dinham is Professor of Instructional Leadership and Associate Dean (Strategic Partnerships) in the Melbourne Graduate School of Education, the University of Melbourne. He has over 40 years of experience as a teacher, university academic, researcher, writer and consultant. He has conducted a wide range of research projects in multiple areas of education including leadership and change, effective pedagogy, student achievement, teaching standards and teachers’ professional development.

This article appears in Professional Voice 11.3 What works (and what doesn't).