One of my favorite episodes of This American Life is an old one, called "A Little Bit of Knowledge." The show talks about how easy it is to carry around misunderstandings and misconceptions, not even knowing we don’t have the story right, until in an embarrassing instant, our misconception is revealed. My favorite example was of a young, professional woman asking casually at a party if unicorns were endangered or extinct.
Misconceptions and partial understandings in social sciences and education are usually less amusing and far less clear-cut, but they abound. I’ve recently run across a few “truths” that are less than fully accurate. Here’s a sampling:
“Don’t count on your fingers” is a common admonition to students. I was exposed to this misconception as recently as a few weeks ago when I attended a presentation on Number Talks. “Counting on fingers is very inefficient,” the presenter told us. “By the time a student is in third or fourth grade, they should not be using their fingers.” But Jo Boaler (a mathematician and researcher at Stanford) tells us the opposite is true: “Stopping students from using their fingers when they count could, according to the new brain research, be akin to halting their mathematical development. Fingers are probably one of our most useful visual aids, and the finger area of our brain is used well into adulthood. The need for and importance of finger perception could even be the reason that pianists, and other musicians, often display higher mathematical understanding than people who don’t learn a musical instrument.”
Here’s another: The Marshmallow Experiment was a social science experiment conducted in the 1960s and 70s that examined young children’s ability to delay gratification. The original children were looked at years later and those who were able to delay gratification when they were young were found to be more successful later in school. The experiment became widely known in popular culture and is referred to often in education circles. (I have to admit, I’ve occasionally thought about a student, “Oh yeah, they’d definitely eat the marshmallow immediately.”)
But newer research from the University of Rochester and New York University suggests that the ability to delay gratification isn’t what’s bringing about later success. The University of Rochester study demonstrates that some kids don’t delay gratification for entirely rational reasons – for example, their experiences in the world may have shown them that if they don’t eat it now, they might not get any marshmallows at all. And the NYU study (with far more children than the original study) controlled for other factors – like the economic and educational situations of the families – and found little evidence that the ability to delay gratification was a major factor in longer term success in school. I don’t think these newer studies negate the value of a little impulse control, but turns out, we have to understand students’ environments and life experiences if we want to help them develop it.
And another: For many years, we’ve heard that children growing up in poverty have heard thirty million fewer words spoken to them by their third birthdays. This belief is based on the work of researchers Betty Hart and Todd Risely from more than forty years ago. But their original study – which looked at only forty-two families – has not been replicated. Along with a very small sample size, they did not consider that families living under the poverty line may have been intimidated by the presence of a researcher with a clipboard in their homes writing down their every word. In 2017, a new study (Gilkerson, et al) with ten times the number of participants and a much less intrusive way of recording conversations found a “gap” but it was much, much smaller. A 2018 study (Sperry, Sperry, & Miller) was similarly unable to repeat the original findings. They noted that there is “substantial variation in vocabulary environments within each socioeconomic stratum” and suggested that the way verbal environments were defined could “disproportionately underestimate the number of words to which low‐income children are exposed.” The 30-million-word gap study was helpful in bringing about increased funding for programs that were undeniably great and needed, but it may have left us with inaccurate (patronizing?) views of some families along the way.
Ah, grit! Who among us hasn’t been exposed to the virtue that is grit? But Alfie Kohn (a debunker of many a so-called truth including the value of homework) has this interesting and compelling perspective on grit: “The most impressive educational activists are those who struggle to replace a system geared to memorizing facts and taking tests with one dedicated to exploring ideas. They’re committed to a collaborative approach to schooling that learners will find more engaging. By contrast, those enamored of grit look at the same status quo and ask: How can we get kids to put up with it?” In the same article Kohn notes that “people who are passionate about what they’re doing tend to need a lot less self-discipline to stick with it.” Boy, that really rings true. Again, nothing wrong with the ability to persevere, but it does seem the task ought to be worthy of perseverance before we judge the kid for a lack of grittiness.
So, those are a few of the articles I read over a two-week period that caused me to stop for a moment and consider and reconsider some things I’ve heard and accepted to be true. None of the misconceptions in these articles is as clear-cut as the unicorn. Self-control, grit, and word gaps are not imaginary; it’s just that reality is often more complex than sound bites and brief news clips can convey. The tricky question is how can we be better at knowing when we are walking around with “a little bit of knowledge”?
Are there any myths and misconceptions you can help to debunk? Add them to the comments on our Facebook page or tweet them to @AstraInnovate.
If you are interested in reading more about any of the topics above, here are a few links to get you started:
·This American Life (There are more than 600 episodes of This American Life out there. If you have not been listening, either on NPR or via podcast, you are missing out. The episode, "Fiasco," is another old favorite. Seriously, listen to it and tell me you don’t laugh out loud.)