Things I don’t Believe

The definition of belief, if I may borrow from, is

an opinion or conviction, confidence in the truth or existence of something not immediately susceptible to rigorous proof.

Belief is part of human nature. We hold all kinds of beliefs, from the spiritual to the mundane. But as a scientist, I am aware that we cannot, as it were, ignore the man behind the curtain. Certainties, particularly absolute certainties, merit further examination. And many of the things that we hold as true and even self-evident in education are based on studies that in other fields might only be classified as “interesting” or “preliminary”. Of course, since these things are believed to be true, they are unassailable. Some might find that questioning these things is tantamount to heresy. So let me go over a few of these beliefs, so that you can know that you are not alone if you don’t believe either:

Multiple intelligences

This is Gardner’s conjecture that there are eight, and possibly more, distinct intelligences. Namely: Spatial, Linguistic, Logical-mathematical, Bodily-kinesthetic, Musical, Interpersonal, Intrapersonal, and Naturalistic. Admittedly, this idea strikes a chord – we can probably all think of people we know who are math geniuses, but interpersonal incompetents, or musical geniuses who trip over their own feet. But do talents, skills, and abilities necessarily mean the same thing as intelligence? There really is no evidence or reason for re-defining intelligence in this way, other than the feel-good sense that everyone is good at something. [update – following this article in the Washington Post, I now see that Gardner’s idea of multiple intelligences is NOT what is often described in educational literature. So I can accept Gardner’s model, and reject the edubabble interpretation of it, as does Gardner himself]

Which brings my next non-belief:

Everyone is good at something

We as human beings are a vastly diverse bunch. Some of us are exceptionally good at many things, some exceptionally good at one or two related things, and some of us are really not terribly good at much at all. It feels good to think and say that everyone has a talent, something they can excel at, but that simply doesn’t fly. Everyone has strengths – I’ll buy that. But a strength means only that the skill or ability is stronger relative to the person’s other abilities. Frankly, sometimes it seems to me that claiming everyone has a talent is just self-reassurance, granting others an as yet unidentified skill to feel less “guilty” at being more capable, rather than accepting people for who they are, not for who they might be.

Anyone can be anything they want

This is mostly an echo of the previous point, but I also want to relay something Sir Ken Robinson discussed in The Element. He mentioned talking with a professional musician, a keyboard player, and saying that he would love to play the keyboard that well. To which the musician replied, “No, you just love the idea of playing keyboards. If you’d really love to play them, you’d be doing it.” Doing something well requires hard work, dedication, and passion. Just wanting it isn’t enough. And rather than facilitating and perpetuating the idea that anyone can be anything they want (when what they say they want might just be a passing whim), I think we need to be able to have serious discussions with children, students, young adults, and their parents about their strengths and interests, and help them find what they are really passionate about.

Learning styles

This ties back to Multiple Intelligences. The idea is that there are multiple modalities of learning – visual, auditory, kinesthetic, and that matching the instructional modality to the student’s modality will maximize student learning. The premise is almost certainly correct, but the conclusion is based on nothing. Many educators believe the idea of learning styles implicitly, and yet a simple scan of Wikipedia shows that most actual studies reveal no benefit from matching teaching styles to learning styles. There is, however, benefit in matching the teaching style to the modality of the subject matter – believe me, it is much easier to learn anatomy with a visual atlas, rather than a wordy textbook. I am reminded of the quote (though the origin of the quote is in dispute): “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.”


Small Group Cooperative Learning. Remember that? There are dozens of educational formats that have been touted as the “best” way to learn. From what I can tell, they all seem to have a few simple things in common: very specific structure, a clear set of rules, and scads of time spent preparing the lessons (often participants in the investigation are given release time to develop the experimental material). Maybe what we need is not more fads, but more prep time for teachers.

Brain-based learning

It drives me nuts every time I hear that. I mean, as opposed to what, spleen-based learning? Calling something “brain-based” gives an idea some cred, as if there is genuine research behind it, when often it is sketchy edubable conclusions drawn from the legitimate research of others. My students have figured this out too – by calling anything “quantum” it makes it automatically sound sciency.

Engagement can always overcome distraction

I teach high school. My students, for the most part, are terrific, well intentioned, hard-working, motivated, charming young men and women. But there is so much more going on in their lives that is so much more attractive than much of the curriculum, that no matter how much of a dog-and-pony show I put on, there will always be distractions – boyfriends, girlfriends, new bands, new videos, new games, new gadgets, who’s having a party on Friday night, what’s for lunch, what’s that squirrel doing… There is no way to guarantee 100% engagement, and those that expect it of themselves or others are being unrealistic. Enough engagement to keep most of the class mostly on task most of the time is about the best most of us can hope for.

The “right” way to teach

If there was one, we’d have robots to do it. Teaching is an art, not a formula.


One of my hobbies is astrophotography. The image on the banner above is one of mine. One of the ways to reduce the noise in the image is to average multiple images. For that, averaging is great. But that is multiple samples of the same thing at the same time. A student changes over time, as does the subject matter. Using an average to determine a student’s achievement level combines completely different things from different times. Like me “averaging” an image of the Andromeda galaxy and the Hercules Globular Cluster. Not a useful exercise.

Gender differences

Much has been made of this – and yet it seems that the most stringent, controlled research concludes that there are no real genetic gender-specific behavioural differences. Sure, there are plenty of physical and physiological differences, but everything we see behaviourally as gender difference is pretty much societally established. So maybe they do behave differently, but that behavior is not intrinsic, and should not be treated as such.


I’m a nerd. I love technology. But the mere presence of technology in a classroom does not suddenly make everything perfect. Technology is a medium to accomplish a task, and it’s use in the classroom requires substantial training in order to be effective. Many years ago I was the Network Admin (and the only computer literate staff member) of a small private school. When I arrived I was told with some pride that the school had allocated $80,000 for the purchase of computers, a server, and network hardware. When I asked about the software budget, I was greeted with a blank stare.


People who promote the fads listed here. Oh, they exist. I just don’t think they are actual experts.

“Merit” pay

C’mon folks, who wouldn’t like a few extra dollars? But really, teachers rarely go into teaching for the money. If you want to reward teachers, give them a happy, healthy, helpful, supportive environment in which to work, without the stress of feeling like frontline soldiers in the war on ignorance. Forget merit pay, all studies have shown is that merit pay decreases creativity. No, try just being nice for a change.

Everything has to be applicanle to the real world

I hear this one often. Make it relevant, make it meaningful, show students what they can do with it, how they can apply it. Well, some foundational information must be learned that may have no immediate use. It is part of the puzzle, but a necessary part. And some knowledge, particularly in senior courses, may be beautiful because it is theoretical, and as yet have no practical purpose. But then, much of pure research in the Sciences is not about the practical use, but about learning new things and expanding our understanding of the universe. If you don’t want to learn those things, don’t take those courses (see anyone can be anything they want, above).

I think that’s it for now. It’s late, and I’m tired. I would like to emphasize that with the items listed above; not believing is not the same as disbelieving. Many of those ideas have some validity, but they have become Truths, rather than simply ideas. They do not face the scrutiny they deserve.

Perhaps I have one more. I do not believe I got any work done this evening…

9 thoughts on “Things I don’t Believe

  1. Sean Grainger

    Cheers. I like your angle.
    Re. beliefs, it’s so interesting to me that (and your scientist within will understand this) that much of what science has purported to validate was based first on nothing but a “belief.” The science of astronomy is a good example. Without any preliminary proof, much of what we claim to know about our vast cosmic wilderness was first based on nothing but the vision into the unknown of some pretty real folks just “wondering.”
    That being said, I could not agree with you more about the “experts” in education, and in particular education reform. Humility Deficit Disorder is alive and well in education land, and Twitter elevates the egos of some at a fever pitch.
    We need more grassroots thinkers, critical folks like yourself that step away from the bandwagon understanding that it’s just not as simple as the “new” vs. the “old” in education.

    1. ed Post author

      Indeed, imagination is really the first step in Science. Asimov once said:
      “The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not ‘Eureka!’ (I found it!) but ‘Hmm, that’s funny …’
      Many of these Truths (note the capital T…) are interesting, and have merit, and may even be important in a significant way, but they need to be examined, tested, tested, tested, and tested again before we can assert their validity.

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  3. Michal

    You really nailed it – what a full list of things that have “become truths instead of simply ideas.”

    I have been thinking about one but haven’t quite put it in these terms before. What about Test Anxiety? Every year I have students come into my world history class who have test anxiety. When it is time for a test, they should be allowed to go to another room, or they should get more time, or they should be able to take it orally, or if I could just not have tests that would be great. As you say, I think there is some validity to the idea – I’m sure some people become paralyzed under stress and there are certain things we can do to mitigate the fear and allow their knowledge to shine forth. I also think the testing environment we have created is not helpful and focuses on some of the worst parts about testing. However, doesn’t everyone have test anxiety? There are ways to have little low-key assessments that tell me what students are understanding without making a big deal of it. But I think there is value in going through the ordeal of a test. In life don’t we all have to use our knowledge and skills under pressure at times? Instead of giving our students a diagnosis for the fear everyone has and a way out, I think we can find better ways of helping our students cope with pressure and come through stress feeling accomplished. (Of course, the flip side of this is that I don’t believe in high stakes testing. Paradoxes abound).

    1. ed Post author

      The rapid growth in the number of learning disabilities, and the diagnosis thereof, is a whole other category, and a far touchier one. But what concerns me more than over-diagnosis is the fostering of the sense of entitlement for those disabilities to be used as a crutch, rather than something to be worked with, or overcome.

  4. Rob McEntarffer

    Love it! This might be a great exercise for teachers in training – would be interesting to see if their beliefs changed at all during their training.

    I’m definitely not quibbling, but I thought I’d share an aspect to the “multiple intelligences” debate that I find intriguing: I agree with you about Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences idea – I think he’s even backed off the idea (or at least retreated a bit from the crazy stuff other people have done, with good intentions maybe, with his idea). But the concept of different kinds of intelligence is worth considering, I think. Robert Sternberg writes and researches the idea well: he’s done a series of summer workshops for young people in which kids get experiences in his three kinds of intelligence: Analytic, Creative, and Practical. He seems to have good evidence that some kids come in stronger and weaker in the three areas and there may be some benefit to knowing these strengths when figuring out how to teach the kids.

    1. ed Post author

      Please, don’t be reluctant to quibble!
      Thanks for the information on Sternberg. My gut feeling (and read that as “an idea worth pursuing”, not “Belief”) is that Analytic, Creative, and Practical are three facets of the same thing, and their relative strength might have more to do with experience and interest, rather than actual ability. Exercising any of these on an ongoing basis, it seems to me, would lead to strengthening that facet.

  5. Joss Ives

    “Teaching is an art, not a formula”

    I agree that there is no one right way to teach, but I would argue that teaching subjects where you can objectively measure learning/student understanding is more science than art.

    I will use intro college-level physics as an example since this is what I am most familiar with. There are umpteen different curricula and interactive engagement techniques which have been shown to improve student learning over a standard stand-and-deliver lecture style. Within each of those ways to teach, you can apply a scientific process to figure out how to maximize student learning or apply a scientific process to determine how your novel teaching idea compares (in terms of student learning) to other ways of teaching. And the education research is showing that many of these gains in student learning from a given technique are mostly instructor independent, with the differences coming from small differences in implementation.

    Even with affect there are tools, such as the Colorado Learning Attitudes about Science Survey, which allow you to make changes in your classes and measure the affect effect of these changes.

    The idea that you can improve student learning through a process of iteration and measurement is very scientific, but like you said there is no one right way to teach.

    Overall your post got me to step back and consider my own beliefs on many of these ideas, which is fantastic.

    1. ed Post author

      For sure, there are good ways to teach, and bad ways to teach, which means there is a gradient of effectiveness of techniques and practices. But the teacher must determine the best techniques to go with the instructional content, and matched to the dynamic of the students and the classroom (or other learning environment). There are good tools and bad tools, but wielding those tools is an art.


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