One of the most important “interaction” lessons we humans must learn (though there’s plenty of evidence that some of us never do), is that if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Get-rich-quick ruses and “short-cut” rags-to-riches stories and multi-level marketing or pyramid schemes abound. How does this relate to the education world? Certainly we can argue the role popular media plays in twisting or at least misrepresenting research, especially as it pertains to education. In fact, perfectly good research aside, when something is taken out of context or applied to widgets when it was developed for doodads, it is probably going to fail or break or not quite fit. (For an entertaining and thought-provoking review on Nicholas Carr’s book The Shallows, check out Paul Morsink’s post.)
Another striking case is Gardner’s multiple intelligences. A positive result of his research is that teachers are at least thinking about the various ways a student can exhibit learning, but his theory “has not received wide acceptance in the scientific community” (Woolfolk, 2007, p. 114). In fact, “there is not yet strong research evidence that adopting a multiple intelligences approach will enhance learning” (p. 116). Yet, one can find teachers who will argue until they’re blue in the face that it is completely appropriate to “include every ‘intelligence’ in every lesson, no matter how inappropriate” (p. 115). Ultimately, the lesson we must learn is that nothing, not brain research, not intelligence theory, not technology, nothing is the panacea that we’re looking for. There is no magic pill. There is no one-size-fits-all. And if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
On the flip side, there is strong evidence that if we actually look at the research, assess the “applicability of study conclusions to one’s own situation” (Firestone 1993), and carefully apply those strands that are appropriate for generalization, we may be able to affect change, impact schools, and provide learning for all students. We just have to be mindful of misrepresented research (I was especially appalled to learn that our very own government participates in perpetrating conclusions that the original research would never support – or that such misrepresentations could be the “scientific centerpiece for the May 2, 2000 White House Conference on Teenagers” (Bruer, 2002, pg. 1033).) and diligently work to restore truth.
Finally, the more educators understand about intelligence, the more likely we are to recognize its diverse indicators, craft lessons that enhance thinking processes, and scaffold exercises to build such abilities as emotional intelligence. My bias, of course, is my belief in the incremental view of ability, and that “knowledge can be increased and thus ability can be improved” (Woolfolk, 2007, p. 389). As teachers, we know that in order to effectively teach our lessons, in order for students to feel safe and nurtured and motivated to learn, we must attend to issues of classroom management. By explicitly teaching our students to manage their emotions through focusing their energy, persisting, controlling impulses, and delaying immediate gratification, we accomplish several goals. First, a natural by-product is that we are allowed to teach. Secondly, students who learn these skills are more likely to succeed in school, as well as “life outside the classroom” (p. 117). Finally, we are helping to create citizens of a democratic-republic who have the capacity to take part in a participatory government. Since “cognitive skills, like any other skills, are always improveable [sic],” it is our responsibility to move students along the continuum, to stretch their abilities, to encourage and challenge them. Thus, schools have the task of utilizing research to ensure learning for all students.
Of course, it also seems to me that many of the different teaching strategies, tools, and materials that are developed to help students who are labeled one way or another are actually the very strategies, tools, and materials that can help all students learn, though perhaps in varying degrees. When such strategies are adopted into the mainstream curriculum, students who feel part of the “other” or nonmainstream culture see less stigma attached to the tool or strategy, and are less likely to abandon it since “some assistive technology can create a stigmatizing effect given the student will stand out in the classroom from its use” (Bouck, 2010, pg. 96). Ultimately, isn’t our job as educators of our future leaders to promote thinking, empathy, engagement, and, most importantly, independence? Although Bouck (2010) speaks specifically of technology in relation to disabilities, we can think more broadly of all that we do as educators when we realize that while what and how we teach may “have…limitations, they grant access and, more importantly, independence in controlling one’s own learning and knowledge acquisition” (pg. 99). Isn’t that the whole point?