Everything You’ve Ever Been Told About How You Learn Is A Lie

Three myths your teachers told you about how your brain learns, debunked

Schoolhouse Science

Schoolhouse Science Irving Rusinow, NARA via Wikipedia Commons

Ok, the title may be somewhat sensationalized but this article actually poses an interesting investigation into popularly held beliefs about learning styles and challenges many misconceptions about teaching.

By Shaunacy Ferro for Popular Science.

When I was in middle school and high school, teachers loved to impart various tidbits of wisdom about the way students learn during lectures, always couched in such a way as to indicate these were scientifically accepted facts. You know everyone learns differently. Do you think you learn better through words or pictures? Did you know you learn different subjects with different sides of the brain?

Welp, they were wrong. Many of the theories of “brain-based” education, a method of instruction supposedly based on neuroscience, have been largely debunked by rigorous science. Brain-based education studies are usually poorly designed and badly controlled. Nevertheless, myths about how we learn persist in the popular imagination, and, most importantly, in educational materials and references for teachers. Here are just a few things we usually get wrong about the way the brain learns:

1. We Learn Best When Teaching Is Tailored To Our Learning Style

Every child is a beautiful, unique snowflake, as the theory goes, and every individual learns in a slightly different way. Some of us learn best by hearing, others by seeing information displayed as pictures, still others by reading words on a page. One study found that there are more than 70 different learning styles, which usually categorize people into dichotomous types, like visual versus verbal or active versus reflective, or, in the case of the Myers-Briggs test, Introversion Intuition Feeling Judging versus Extraversion Sensing Thinking Perceiving. According to what many psychologists label the learning styles hypothesis, instructors should teach in a way that targets our various learning styles, what’s called “meshing.” Sounds fair enough.

Except for years, the evidence has been mounting that a curriculum tailored toward a specific learning style isn’t any more effective than just, well, teaching.

Hal Pashler, a psychology professor at the University of California, San Diego, led a review study on learning styles in Psychological Science In The Public Interest in 2009. He and his co-authors found little evidence to suggest teaching to a specific learning style improves a person’s education. More precisely, to prove that there’s a learning style that you can teach to, you have to prove that people have a harder time learning if they are taught to a style that is not their style. And few studies even test that hypothesis.

It takes a fairly particular sort of research design to really test whether learning styles really have any utility,” Pashler tells Popular Science. “There are hundreds of articles on learning styles–practically none, a small handful, that used appropriate research design. Their results tend to be negative.”

“The evidence is a great big zero,” Pashler says. Most assessments that identify what a person’s learning style might be are based on self-reported surveys, where people describe how they learn best. But “self report really doesn’t work very well if you’re trying to get into psychological traits,” says Paul A. Kirschner, an educational psychology professor who directs the Learning and Cognition program at the Open University of the Netherlands. People might prefer to learn a certain way–or think they prefer a certain way–but that isn’t necessarily what’s best for them.

The evidence is a great big zero” for learning styles, Pashler says. Given that, “it’s kind of astonishing that people would pursue this notion.”

Furthermore, many assessments of learning styles were created by for-profit companies, which doesn’t always make for the most reliable data. The companies sell tests and educational materials that allow teachers to assess the learning styles of their students. It benefits companies to say their system is an accurate teaching method, since they make money off every student who takes their test.

That’s not to suggest that everything should be taught in the exact same way. The best way to teach something might depend on the nature of the material itself. For example, it would be hard to teach geometry without diagrams or reading and writing without words.

Elizabeth Peterson, a senior lecturer in psychology at New Zealand’s University of Auckland, says that although there may not be consistent data which shows that teaching to someone’s learning style can significantly improve his or her education, that doesn’t mean the theory is completely useless.

“[T]hinking about style and getting teachers to teach about style and parents to think about style isn’t necessarily harmful, it’s what you do with that information,” she says, particularly when it comes to labeling students as one thing or another. “I think it’s quite useful to think about differences and maybe I could try teaching this in a different way in my classroom and see if my students are more interested or invigorated.”

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