Being Open-Minded to University Bias

Jonah Lehrer has another excellent piece at Wired on some recent work by psychologists at the University of Michigan, University of Toronto and Harvard University on the inabilities of some students to focus and a surprising correlation this inability has with creativity and achievement.

The University of Michigan study is more of a survey and finds that U of M students who have been labeled with ADHD are more likely to have won awards at science fairs or juried art shows. That is pretty cool to read, especially since so many of my own students have been labeled with ADHD.

Then there is another study by the University of Toronto and Harvard University which Lehrer cites, and it is even more good news for the easily distracted. They find that students who struggle to ignore irrelevant distractions, such as air conditioners and other noises, are seven times more likely to be rated as “creative achievers.”

Lehrer writes:

Here’s where the data get interesting: Those undergrads who had a tougher time ignoring unrelated stuff were also seven times more likely to be rated as “eminent creative achievers” based on their previous accomplishments. (The association was particularly strong among distractible students with high IQs.)

As someone who teaches students who would never leave their homes without their cell-phones and iPods and laptops, this sounds like great news. My highly distracted students seem to be award winners with enormous creative potential. I cannot wait to tell them. Hopefully they will show up to class on Monday.

As usual, my students are not in these studies nor are they anywhere near the vast majority of studies that come out of universities. When these universities run studies on their students, they are working with students who have adapted very well to the demands of their surrounding even when they are easily distracted. In fact, the students who are easily distracted might even have higher I.Q.s than the average university students they are being compared to.

Lehrer is quite clear about the shortcomings of this research and its selection process, and he points this out in parentheses at the bottom of the article:

(It’s also worth pointing out that these studies all involve college students, which doesn’t tell us anything about those kids with ADHD who fail to graduate from high school. Distraction might be a cognitive luxury that not everyone can afford.)

And that is the problem. But it is a far bigger problem than I think Lehrer is aware of.

Lehrer is more attuned to the issue of bias in the studies than most, but even he gives little more than a parenthetical remark on this significant problem with so much research coming out of universities. Far, far too often universities study their own students and spend little effort considering how different these students are from the average students coming out of high school and struggling through college.

The kids with ADHD who fail to be graduated are not the exception to be dismissed and ignored but very well might be the majority. To take them out of the study is wrong, very wrong. In fact, the study is not just dealing with the kids who were graduated from high school but those who passed highly selective entrance requirements to get into these competitive universities. For U of M and Harvard to tell us how creative distracted students are is like Cindy Crawford telling us how lovely moles are, especially when they are on your face.

In one sense, this is no big deal. I could just ignore these studies and show up on Monday no worse for wear. But that is not how it works.

These studies are frequently covered in the news or are disseminated though graduate schools and other places where educators are educated. They are written about at numerous blogs and make their ways into e-books that are read on iPads and Kindles by the well-washed masses on their way to UCs and Ivy League schools. In short, these studies and their flawed conclusions become the common knowledge that people with power and influence know, but they end up having little to do with the common college student who never won an art show or a science fair and is instead struggling to get off academic probation and wondering if he should have stayed at the pizza delivery job.

This problem with selection bias in these university studies reminds me of the early dyslexia research that showed how intelligent people with dyslexia really are. There were some initial studies showing that people with dyslexia had higher I.Q.s than average folks. This research was cut down when more comprehensive research showed I.Q. really was not a factor either way, but this misconception about the high intelligence of dyslexics has remained and has been promoted by books such as The Gift of Dyslexia. This book and its conclusions are still being promoted by a select group of people who have been quite successful with their dyslexia.

In both cases, the majority of students are being left to look at themselves as being stupid for not being able to keep up, let alone win the art contests and science fairs. These students do not just lack the abilities to make it at the University of Michigan or Harvard University, but carry with them a good deal of emotional baggage from years of struggling and failing.

Maybe, just maybe, some of those highly creative graduates of these highly competitive universities could start paying attention to people outside of their highly successful circles.


About Joseph Pendleton

I am the Reading Specialist--Basic Skills at Victor Valley College. I teach the reading courses in the English Department and the basic English grammar courses in the Basic Skills Department. My primary interests as a teacher is in how students retain the information and skills we teach them. View all posts by Joseph Pendleton

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