An earlier version of this essay appears in educational Horizons (Summer 2010)

The Pop-Psych Schoolhouse:
Educational Reform Mired in (Inspired by?) Scientific Misconception

Edward G. Rozycki, Ed. D.

Many of the great myths of popular psychology not only mislead us about human nature, but can also lead us to make unwise decisions in our everyday lives.-- Lilienfeld, et. al. 50 Great Myths...xiv [1]

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edited 2/28/16

Psychological Myths and Scientific Misconceptions

It is ironic that much of what passes for scientific knowledge in schooling practice, in teacher preparation programs and in educational policy development receives strong criticism by many researchers in psychology. In their recent book, 50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology. Shattering Widespread Misconceptions about Human Behavior, Lilienfeld, Lynn, Ruscio and Beyerstein undercut fifty notions which are a major part of not only traditional educational theory and practice, but of many of the reform movements pushing enthusiastically[2] for change in today's public schools.

What is a psychological myth? Lilienfeld, et al, characterize it in this way: A psychological myth is

1. a widely held belief that blatantly contradicts psychological research; or,

2. an exaggeration or distortion of claims that contain a kernel of truth.[3]

Psychological myths generate a host of scientific misconceptions about human beings which infect both the theory and practice of American public schooling.

What are scientific misconceptions? They

a. are stable and often strongly held beliefs about the world;

b. are contradicted by well-established evidence;

c. influence what people understand the world; and,

d. must be corrected to achieve accurate knowledge. [4]

In what follows I will consider ten of Lilienfeld's, et alia, "myths," numbered as in the book, and give a short formulation of the objection to it. I will then follow this with a consideration where and how they might affect educational practice. The myths I will consider are:

#2. Some people are left-brained, others are right-brained.

#7. Adolescence is inevitably a time of psychological turmoil.

#11. Human memory works like an accurate recording device of our experience.

#15. Intelligence tests are biased against certain groups of people.

#18. Students learn best when teaching styles are matched to their learning styles

#31. Raising children similarly leads to similarities in their adult personalities.

#32. The fact that a trait is heritable means we can't change it.

#33. Low self-esteem is a major cause of psychological problems.

#37. Psychiatric labels cause harm by stigmatizing people.

#47. Expert judgment and intuition are the best means of making clinical decisions.

I am not going to recapitulate arguments for each item above as these can be found in the book. Rather I will group them and explain how they relate to educational practice and policy.

Educational Impact Groupings

The first group of items rest on the same concern, fairness:[5] schools are supposed to provide each and every student with, as it is formulated in many states, a "thorough and efficient" education. Differences among groups are taken to indicate inequities, e.g. the perceived achievement gap, as it is called, among White, African American, Latino and Asian students indicates a moral and legal fault of the school. However, if the ethnic categories are ill-defined, the "gap" is an illusion.[6]

But many other sets of categories have been offered to account for the differences in student achievement. Here are some of them. (Page numbers in Lilienfeld, et al, are given at the end of the paragraph in parenthesis.)

#2. Some people are left-brained, others are right-brained. The problem with this claim is that all functions of the normal brain seem to be shared to some extent with both halves. More importantly, there is no evidence that hemispheric differentiation can be trained. Nor is there reason that, for optimal functioning, it should be. (p. 28)

#15. Intelligence tests are biased against certain groups of people. This is counterindicated by the fact that IQ tests do not underpredict the performance of women and minorities. In addition, although individual items show DIF, differential item functioning, for different groups, for the test as a whole the direction of the bias in DIF items is inconsistent. (p. 86)

#18. Students learn best when teaching styles are matched to their learning styles. There is no consensus on what indicates a learning style. LS inventories are unreliable and invalid. The advice on how teachers might match their teaching style to the LS of students is inconsistent and weak. (pp. 94-96)

#32. The fact that a trait is heritable means we can't change it. To the contrary, many traits, like IQ, vary substantially in hereditability over the lifespan of the individual. They vary also in their susceptibility to change via environmental factors. (p. 160)

#33. Low self-esteem is a major cause of psychological problems. Self-esteem is minimally related to interpersonal success, poor mental health, and drug abuse. Although it correlates somewhat with school success, it doesn't seem to cause it. (p. 164)

#37. Psychiatric labels cause harm by stigmatizing people. Knowledge of diagnostic labels, for example, in retardation in children, can actually help adults who work with them accept the sometimes abnormal behavior that may accompany their condition. (p. 181)

These six myths all rest on reasonable concern for fairness, a worry that due to no fault of their own, for their merely being different, -- being "special" -- certain students are biased against by the school environment, its culture and its curriculum. Now, bias may exist, but there are three problems here. The first is to determine on what basis there is a bias. The second is to determine if it is undesirable; after all, sports tend to bias in terms of physical endowments. The third issue is what methods school personnel have at their disposal, if any, that we know can counteract an undesirable bias.

What the arguments of Lilienfeld and company press toward is that "specialness" is not a matter of left or right-brainedness, of unique learning styles, or of unchangeable, because hereditary, characteristics. Such "characteristics" have not been proven to exist. And even if they were not the subject of unresolved controversy, we would still have no reliable "cures" for the "diseases."

Low self-esteem is compatible with substantial success; as is high self-esteem with failure and criminality. The worry that diagnostic "labels" harm people so intensely that educators must avoid the phrase "handicapped students" in favor of "students with handicaps" has no replicable research to support it.

Uniformity

In many countries a major concern supporting the development of state-sponsored education was to create a more uniform population suited to centralized control. State-sponsored schools became the instruments for developing a national language, generally favoring the dialects of the politically powerful groups or deriving from important literature, e.g. translations of the Bible, or famous poetry, e.g. Dante's Divine Comedy.

During the 20th Century in many parts of the United States, the K-12 curriculum was reorganized: where there had been two school types, elementary, from grades one to eight, and high school, from grades nine to twelve, a third type was introduced. This was the junior high school covering grades seven through nine, leaving the elementary schools with grades 1 to 6, and the high school with grades 10 to 12. The justification? Adolescence was supposed to be a unique, universal and stressful period of life requiring a uniform environment to help the student transition to young adulthood. Students of the similar type require similar treatment both for the sake of equity and of efficiency.

Let's consider two myths dealing with uniformity:

#7. Adolescence is inevitably a time of psychological turmoil. Only about 20% of teenagers undergo pronounced turmoil. Adolescent angst is the exception rather than the rule. (p. 51)

#31. Raising children similarly leads to similarities in their adult personalities. Twin studies indicate both that similar environments may have little influence on producing similar effects on personality development; and that dissimilar environments may have little influence on producing dissimilar effects on individuals where there is a strong hereditary influence, as in identical twins raised apart. (p. 153)

So, what is the middle school all about? The organizational adaptation is based on a postulated, unavoidable Sturm und Drang period of life that supposedly inflicts itself on every adolescent. No such thing, say Lilienfeld and company.

Does raising children similarly lead to similarities in their adult personalities? Not so, say Lilienfeld et al. The very idea that uniformity in schooling guarantees quality as well as equality is unsupported by consistent research findings. The hope that uniformly organized schooling will produce graduates who share cultural, political and ideological values is not supported empirically.

One can hardly avoid looking askance at educators who preach diversity in the schools yet insist on uniformity in the results: consider the so-called achievement gap. The great American ethnic salad is fed into the grinder of public education and both its supporters and opponents seem to expect that only vanilla cookies will come out.

The Infallibility of Authority

A broadly promulgated cultural myth is that as one gains expertise, one's potential for mistakes diminishes. On the other hand, fallibility undermines the expert's authority.

#11. Human memory works like an accurate recording device of our experience. False memories, mis-recalled experiences and the like are now commonly known to affect even would-be "eye-witnesses." (p. 65)

#47. Expert judgment and intuition are the best means of making clinical decisions. "Mechanical," i.e. formulaic, decision aids have been found to improve results even among experienced professionals compared with those who do not use them. (p. 227)[7]

Neither human memory nor even expert judgment and intuition are highly reliable instruments for determining fact. Yet in our schools little more than these capacities, memory, judgment and intuition are focused on for enhanced development. The curriculum up through college and into graduate school inculcates theories and procedures that eschew using tools [8] and that presume exaggerated capacities for abstraction in would-be future practitioners. Except in the sciences and engineering, we train for practical incompetence.

This is serious when we consider that parents today are inundated from many sources with the claim that a college education for their children is a minimum for achieving a comfortable, middle class life. On what basis college graduates merit higher incomes than tradespeople is never made clear. And many college aspirants, who can barely handle algebra, cannot fix a dripping faucet, either.

Faith-Based Education?

Are public schools, ultimately, then just another kind of faith-based education? Is the line between secular and sacred imaginary?

No, and no. Let's expand on this. The claims we have been examining about human psychology are disconfirmable; that is, we can agree on and muster evidence that weighs in against them. Basic religious claims tend not to be of this sort. Consider this next example.

On the TV show, The Naked Archeologist [9], host Simcha Jacobovici interviews a devotee, call him D, of a religious leader, MS, who claimed when he as alive to be both Messiah and immortal. The interviewer asked D how he handled the fact that MS died.

D replied, "Simple. I know that he did not die. MS is alive although he has left us for a while."

"What evidence do you have for this?" pressed the interviewer.

"Let's get something straight," responded D. "MS is a prophet. Prophets always tell the truth."

"I get it," said the interviewer. "And since MS told you he was Messiah and immortal, you believe it to be so. But how do you know he was a prophet."

With a dismissive wave of his hand toward a wall full of books, D replied, "Read those books and learn!"

Actually, it is unclear whether this is or is not bad argument. In its form, it is what any devotee of any faith, secular or religious might say. (Compare the claim, "The Universe consists only of material objects; nothing more," with "God is a non-material being.") It is also the kind of argument that any teacher, whether or not in public school, would use on a student whose state of knowledge is not believed to be up to handling the complications of the theory involved.

Jacobovici did not press on to ask D whether the books he was referring to addressed two very distinct issues:

a. Do prophets always tell the truth? And even if one can find textual support for this claim and reason to accept the text;

b. Was MS a prophet, rather than a false prophet? (A distinction recognized by D.)

Science [10] involves faith but of an importantly different kind from most religious faith. In fact, many scientists underappreciate this distinction, which is why they fall into, for example, either an hasty Coexistence Theory, e.g. a dogmatic belief that "true" religion and science cannot compete or into, again, for example, a dogmatic materialism.[11].

Science, ideally, involves two things. The first is Disconfirmability: articulating and maintaining the (theoretical, at least) possibility that some evidence could arise that would (tend to) disconfirm the propositions that derive from a theory. Criticisms of the type raised by Lillienfeld and company would be somewhat strange in a religious context. Such criticisms would tend to be seen as the expression of a different (or heretical) religious perspective. Lillienfeld's group offers them, however, in the name of "better science," especially as they invoke "empirical research" to bolster their argument.

The second item is a commitment -- not necessarily unique to science -- to pursuing certain kinds of power, e.g. doing things "in the world," usually, a very specific world context.[12]

The interviewer let D off easy. Jacobovici was not interested in pursuing the point, but was merely trying to demonstrate a characteristic common to religious people, especially innovators usually called by their former doctrinal confreres heretics, apostates, infidels or pagans: doctrinal or theoretical enthusiasms generate their own impenetrable circles of justification. (See endnote [2].)

But the mythologizers indirectly criticized by Lilienfeld and company are not looking to be religious innovators. The great majority of them -- let us allow -- may be merely confused, over-enthusiastic, wishful thinkers. There are enough of these to bring a working system to ruin. They are not only teachers, but just as likely, the adminstrators and governing boards of school systems. Of no less importance in the promotion of educational pseudo-science are the manufacturers of "educational products" not the least important of which are programs of school reform, always enthusiastically promoted and thus ever saleable.[13]

 



REFERENCES

[1] Scott O. Lilienfeld, Steven Jay Lynn, John Ruscio & Barry L. Beyerstein. 50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010) p. xiv.

[2] Edward G. Rozycki (2000) "Fat-Free Foods and Schooling Options: The Pathologies of Enthusiasm" available at http://www.newfoundations.com/EGR/FatFree.html

[3] Lilienfeld, et al, p.xiv.

[4] Stover & Saunders (2000) cited in Lilienfeld, et al, p.xiv.

[5] See Gary K. Clabaugh,"Fair Share vs Fair Play: Two Competing Conceptions of Justice" available at http://www.newfoundations.com/Clabaugh/CuttingEdge/Fair%20share.html

[6]Edward G. Rozycki (2000 )"Multiculturalism & The Problems of Immigration" available at MultImm.html

[7] False positive effects are regularly miscalculated by clinicians. See David M. Eddy, "Probabilistic reasoning in clinical medicine: Problems and opportunities" Chapter 18 pp. 249 - 267 in Daniel Kahneman, Paul Slovic & Amos Tversky (eds.) Judgment under uncertainty: Heuristics and biases. Cambridge University Press 1982. See especially pp. 258 - 259. For false positive effect in education see Edward G. Rozycki, "Classification Error in Evaluation Practice: the impact of the 'false positive' on educational practice and policy" available at http://www.newfoundations.com/EGR/FalsePositive.html

[8] See Lauren B. Resnick "Learning in School and Out" Educational Researcher Dec. 1987. In 2010 many schools still undervalue teamwork, and underutilize instruments that reduce error. Abstract problems tend to crowd out hands-on experiences.

[9] The Naked Archaeologist "What Happened to the JC Bunch" 19 September 2008 (Season 2, Episode 18) My reconstruction of the interview is via rough recall using editorial license to compress it for this paper.

[10] For an interesting presentation on the ideal of science in educational context see Lee F. Werth, Ph.D. (2007)"Intelligent Design," "Unintelligent Curriculum" available at http://www.newfoundations.com/RELISSUES/LWerth.html

[11] See criticism of Michael Schermer as exercising a prejudice in the name of science in Edward G. Rozycki (2007) "Religion, Intelligent Design and the Public Schools: serving God to Mammon?" available at http://www.newfoundations.com/EGR/Religion.html

[12] Besides in industry, science is pursued in academia. These contexts substantially affect how practice deviates from the ideal. See Tony Becher, Academic Tribes & Territories: the Cultures of the Disciplines Open University Press.(Bristol, PA: Taylor & Francis, 1989) for an exposition of how tradition, method and context influence "scientific" judgment.

[13] See Edward G. Rozycki, Ed. D. (2009) "Moral Responsibility in the Education Industry: how much can school reform enhance a student's occupational fitness?" available at http://www.newfoundations.com/SchoolResponsibility.htm

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