Navigating the Scylla and Charybdis of Research in Education

Teaching children according to their individual ‘learning style’ does not achieve better results,” reports Sally Weale, “and should be ditched by schools in favour of evidence-based practice, according to leading scientists.”

Narrowly about learning styles, but more broadly about the decade’s long tension over what research counts, this argument plays out incessantly in education. Notably in the U.S., calls for scientific teaching, research-based practices, and evidence-based policy have their roots in John Dewey’s progressivism, and then have been intensified throughout the accountability era begun in the 1980s and codified in No Child Left Behind (NCLB) in 2001.

For about a century, education has simultaneously claimed to be driven by science and research while also being criticized for failing to use our research base and being trapped in fads.

This debunking of learning styles, then, is old hat; consider Lou LaBrant lamenting in 1947: “A brief consideration will indicate reasons for the considerable gap between the research currently available and the utilization of that research in school programs and methods.”

And the problem rests with the Scylla and Charybdis of research: on one side, educators must resist the tyranny of a narrow definition of what counts as evidence (the so-called hard view grounded in experimental and quasi-experimental studies), and on the other, educators must resist the trendy and often reductive (lazy) extrapolations of research (within which we may place learning styles).

Let me offer here two powerful examples that I believe address this tension: the poverty materials of Ruby Payne and the “word gap” narrative.

In the wake of federal mandates in NCLB that required public schools to identify and then address the so-called achievement gap, Ruby Payne capitalized on an opportunity to provide schools with manageable workbooks and workshops.

However, after many schools and districts across the U.S. purchased Payne’s materials and seminars, scholars on social class and race began to unmask that Payne was peddling stereotypes, not providing evidence-based claims about children and families in poverty (scholarship debunking Payne as well as the Teachers College Record exchange can be found here).

The Payne phenomenon (one that continues despite her poverty characterizations being thoroughly discredited) reveals several problems with calling for education to be research-based.

First, and possibly most significantly, educational practices are far too influenced by the marketing of materials and the incessant training and re-training of teachers in the field. That market influence and dynamic is made robust since K-12 education is far more bureaucratic than scholarly.

The market influence necessarily creates the need for “new” and manageable, characteristics that often supersede the validity of those materials.

Payne’s success has been built on her self-promotion, not her expertise in poverty. Please note that when critics called her out for lacking research in her work, she immediately began building a case for how student test scores were affected when faculty were trained in her materials—a bait-and-switch of types of evidence; Payne was unable or unwilling to confront that her materials are classist and racist, refuted by the best scholarship on class and race.

Like Payne’s framework of poverty, the “word gap” has remained a robust narrative in the media and education; the claim argues literacy is quantifiable (more words equal greater literacy, and then social classes are correlated strongly with vocabulary; thus, affluent/more words with greater literacy than impoverished/fewer words).

Both Payne’s stereotypes about people in poverty and the “word gap” argument share an essential problem: they are compelling because they feed into popular beliefs that are contradicted by scholarship.

The “word gap” phenomenon, however, is interesting since it relies on essentially one study (by Hart and Risley) that everyone cites (citing research is a powerful appeal)—while ignoring, as with Payne, that a significant body of scholars have debunked the study.

Educators and education, then, are confronted with a real dilemma. Yes, scientific evidence and research are essential to the field of teaching and learning, but what science and research count is fraught with land mines.

From learning styles to Payne’s framework and the “word gap,” advocates and critics both march out evidence, research.

And, for more examples, the current popularity of “grit” and growth mindset research fall into the exact same traps. “Grit” comes with the label of “MacArthur Genius,” and both are all the rage (as has been Payne) in teacher training—despite ample evidence that “grit” and growth mindset are deeply flawed by racist and classist assumptions, and then horribly misapplied in a wide range of educational setting.

In short, education has been a victim for a century of the TED Talk-ification of science and research.

That means education often embraces faulty research (compelling because it matches beliefs/stereotypes/myths, is well marketed, and/or is easily implemented) and routinely oversimplifies and overgeneralizes (the silver-bullet approach) credible research to the point that it too becomes flawed.

By contrast, scholars work slowly and are moored in peer-review—all of which helps resist the corrosive allure of the market as well as the need to be accessible to lay people.

This, I believe, is at the root of LaBrant’s lament about the gap between what science and research reveal and what educators practice.

As a critical educator also committed to evidence-based practices, I can offer some suggestions that allow policy makers and classroom practitioners a way to navigate between the Scylla and Charybdis of research in education:

  • Resist choosing between hard and soft definitions of research. Quantitative and qualitative data have value because in education we should be aware of valid generalizations while also anticipating and being able to address outliers. “Never” and “always” tend to fail us, then. Teaching is about both addressing classrooms of students and each student in that class.
  • Beware heavily marketed programs. Simply put, any research conveniently reduced to a packaged program is either questionable or over-simplified research; our classrooms should not use either.
  • Simultaneously trust your instincts as a practitioner (what has worked, what has failed) while being vigilant to back away from your personal assumptions in order to interrogate your prejudices and beliefs.
  • Do your own literature reviews. The first response by educators to top-down mandates and adopted programs or required workshops is to investigate. The Internet makes this process quite manageable, and healthy skepticism is a powerful tool of any professional.
  • Remain grounded in how messy and unpredictable teaching and learning are as human endeavors. There are no silver bullets, and there likely is nothing new (educational research in the U.S. is a solid century old and much of what we claim to know now—as “new”—we knew many decades ago as well).
  • Reject the mantras of business that invade education such as “innovation.” For education to be evidence-based, we must work from a foundation of experience and expertise (the idealizing of the outsider perspective is bogus) as well as clearly and accurately describing and identifying problems so that we may match appropriate solutions to those complex problems.

So what do we do, then, with learning styles (or “grit” and growth mindset)?

We must admit that education has likely oversold and misapplied the concept, but those of us who teach daily are probably not compelled by hard science’s argument it has no value.

If we are practicing learning styles to meet some mandate about learning styles, we have made a huge bureaucratic mistake. If we ignore the evidence of our students that learning occurs along a spectrum, that some practices match better certain students, then we are making a human error.

As teachers, we must captain our own ships, navigating carefully not to crash into either the rock or the hard place. Ultimately, this is about professionalism—knowing the evidence because we have done the work, not because it is a mandate or an adopted program.

We must remain vigilant in our sacred trust to teach students, and in doing so, resist distracting allegiances to “scientific,” “research,” “evidence,” and especially “programs” to the exclusion of those students.

See Also

Progressivism and Whole Language: A Reader


7 thoughts on “Navigating the Scylla and Charybdis of Research in Education”

  1. Great post, Paul. I was hoping you could explain a little more about this: “Notably in the U.S., calls for scientific teaching, research-based practices, and evidence-based policy have their roots in John Dewey’s progressivism”

    As embarrassing as this is to admit, I’m not familiar with the intersections of Dewey and education’s history of positivism/scientific research.


  2. I really enjoyed this article, Paul. The waters are difficult for teachers to navigate, but I think approaching packaged materials and bureaucratic mandates with a certain degree of skepticism is a good place to start. Treating students as human and as individuals is also important. Genuine research can be inaccessible to teachers because of the academic language and lack of apparent translation into practices. I guess this is why some of the packaged interpretations become popular. The research needs to be for the teachers’ (and students’) benefit, not to simply promote an academic’s position.

  3. Had this tab open for days and finally got back to it. Such a good expression of something’s that has bothered me for a long while. Not to mention my favorite metaphor for walking a middle path.

    The learning styles discussion in particular is a place where I’ve seen the university education folks heap scorn on K-12 teachers who have liked that idea. As if ‘no research to support that’ is equivalent to ‘you are mistaken about what you have noticed about your students.’

    Research by its nature seeks to control variables and teaching by its nature is extraordinarily complex and messy and full of uncontrolled variables. Not the least of which is the teacher themselves. We university folks need to be more respecting of practice. I value what we find, but as a part of an understanding that needs to be rooted in situation.

    So, thanks! If only we had some research to encourage researchers to be careful about research.

  4. I am glad to see that this is a global phenomenon. I was wondering where the headlines about ‘learning styles’ were coming from here in Australia. They seem to arrive out of the blue and the media make much of the opportunity to tell teachers that they are stupid, again. There is some irony in that the ‘silver bullet’ spruikers are just like the ‘university people’ who have their own ‘silver bullet’, evidence-based practice to push. In all of this teachers are positioned to be a bunch of agentless and inexperienced amateurs.

  5. Thank you for this post. As a previous responder put it, you’ve articulated very compellingly what is on many of us practitioners’ minds. Everything we do should always be primarily informed by our genuine, worked-hard-for, rich knowledge of our students, beyond any ivory tower prescriptions of what counts as evidence.

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