Educating the Educated

There are a lot of beliefs surrounding education and the learning process. Some of which have persisted for many long years. Well after a far longer lifespan than they deserved, I am here to deconstruct the myths surrounding education and hopefully educate a little on the process of education.

Learning Styles

There is a prevailing myth still being touted as scientific fact that people have different ‘styles’ of learning. The three styles purported are visual, auditory and kinaesthetic learners. The idea is that if you can tailor teaching to these styles, the type of learner associated will learn better. The problem is that there is absolutely no scientific evidence that different people learn in different ways (1). In fact, the most recent neuroscience research shows that people all learn in fundamentally the same ways. There are different ways of learning, but the truth is that we all can learn equally through each method.

It seems the real difference is in our choice on whether to be attentive. You might choose to pay more attention when something is being taught in a specific way, but that’s not because your brain is wired up a different way to other people. Research has shown that people providing the same level of attention to information they are being taught show the same level of retention regardless of the style of teaching and their own perceived ‘learning style’. In other words, saying “I need things taught in a certain way because that’s how I learn” is wrong. What you really mean is “I only choose to pay attention to things taught in a certain way. I could learn equally well from any teaching style, but I am selective in where I place my attention.”

Hemispherical Learning

Another myth that doesn’t seem to want to die is the idea of people being left or right-brained. That one hemisphere of the brain is more dominant in particular people and that explains why some people are more prone to creative pursuits or more intellectual ones. Again, this is a void of any scientific research to support this (2). While it is true there are certain areas of the brain that have more of a role in different cognitive tasks, both hemispheres of the brain are involved in every process. The idea that someone can be right hemisphere dominant completely goes against the current working model that the brain is a distributed processing unit.

In fact, in cases where people have damaged one hemisphere, the brain tends to redirect processing to undamaged areas of the brain. This re-designation of brain matter is referred to in neuroscience as brain plasticity, the idea that the brain can change the way it is organised throughout its lifetime. If someone were truly right or left-brained, this brain plasticity would be impossible because specific tasks would have to be allocated only to the hemisphere it belongs to.

Hydration

This one is part myth, part truth. The kernel of truth at the bottom of it is thus: severe levels of dehydration have been shown to have an effect on brain structure and efficacy. The myth that grew from this, however, is that drinking less than 6-8 glass of water per day will have a negative effect on your ability to learn. This simply isn’t the case (3). While the recommended amount of water a person should intake during the day is up for debate and is different across different countries (much like the recommended amount of fruit and veg, five here in the UK, but eleven in Japan), a proportion of the water we intake during the day happens via eating food.

Sugar Rush

Now this is a myth that just will never die. While it isn’t specifically related to the learning process and education, it does merit a mention here. The myth is that when given food or drink with a high sugar content, children become hyperactive and find it difficult to concentrate. The connection to education is that this makes it difficult to children to focus on learning. Again, this myth has no basis in scientific fact (4). A double blind experiment found that the only factor that had an influence on children’s hyperactivity was the belief of the parents that the children had been given sugar, not the actual sugar content of the food itself. Basically, the parents expected the children to be hyperactive, so they were. In groups where the parents were told the snacks were sugar-free, the parents expected no hyperactivity and thus none occurred. All of this was regardless of the actual sugar content of the food.

Pens Down

Assessments are a staple of the education system. One sit down exam or perhaps a single piece of coursework that is supposed to show how well you understand the thing you have been taught. Seems like a good system, an easy way to evaluate how much of the subject you have retained, right? Except that learning is a continual process and anyone who has actually sat an exam knows the moment when you see a question that you know you know, but can’t remember well enough. Our education system teaches us that it’s because we didn’t study hard enough, whereas modern neuroscience tells us learning is a continual process and is not a linear experience of simply adding new facts (5).

While assessments and coursework are a fantastically efficient way of grading a large number of students within a specified framework, they are actually pretty useless at accurately gauging a students ability to retain the information they have been taught.

Speed Learning

Boost your brain power with our brain training program! You’ve seen statements like that before, right? The promise that your brain will become quicker and stronger overall by doing some basic exercises that will strengthen those ‘brain muscles’ and increase your cognitive power. Well, in case you haven’t been paying attention, this too is a myth. The brain doesn’t work like a muscle, it doesn’t keep the same structure and simply improve performance (6). The brain has a pretty fluid architecture and is constantly reorganising itself, something called Brain Plasticity, and pretty much means brain training can’t work. Trying to select the correct answer from a sea of words before a timer runs out doesn’t actually boost your brains ability to comprehend language, it merely increases your speed at selecting the correct answer from a sea of words.

Other techniques like Neuro-Linguistic Programming and Hypnosis often claim to be able to give the same benefits, increased cognition and an increase to the speed at which you learn new things. While there are countless examples of people perceiving such a benefit, it isn’t because the brain has boosted its learning potential. The brain cannot be trained to learn things more efficiently. The brain is already pretty efficient, take a look at the development of babies and you’ll see the ridiculous speed at which the brain can learn new skills. What these techniques actually do is change your attitudes to learning and increase your attention toward it and your willingness to achieve. The actual speed you learn doesn’t change, but the time you spend trying and the level of attention you provide might.

On a non-educational side note, a good rule of thumb is that if something is offering you some kind of shortcut or quick fix: it probably isn’t true. Learning a new skill, starting a new career, training for a triathlon; there aren’t shortcuts to achievement, but there are ways to boost your commitment to achieve. The end result might be the same for some people, but that doesn’t mean it works the way it presents itself.

Intelligent Beginnings

Intelligence level is inherent and dictated at birth. People cannot improve their level of intelligence past a predetermined point. Ok, you know the format by now, this too is a myth. For a start, it’s a question for philosophy what exactly constitutes ‘intelligence’ so actually grading a persons intelligence is difficult. It’s generally accepted that the Intelligence-Quotient (IQ) is a poor way of testing a persons intelligence, but the proposed models of different ‘intelligence areas’ also seems to be flawed. The brain doesn’t compartmentalise cognition in the same way we try to categorise its processes. What we might consider a purely visual task (like reading) actually involved multiple different areas of the brain (such as visual, phonological and sociological areas of the brain, in the example of reading).

When it comes to having a predetermined intelligence level, I’m going to bring up the same term from neuroscience once again: brain plasticity. The brain is constantly able to change and adapt its architecture to improve itself in all areas. This simple fact means that intelligence cannot be something inherent and static from birth. The brain will constantly find ways to improve itself and the perceived level of intelligence (however you choose to measure it) will fluctuate accordingly.

It’s all about the strategy

Studying strategies. This is my technique for revision and it’s always done well for me. There’s a belief that finding one study method that works for you and really sticking to it will give a consistency to your learning and help to encourage you to retain more information. Fourth time its appeared so far, but brain plasticity is the reason why this myth is exactly that: a myth. As the brain changes and develops, the methods you may have used at high school might no longer work as efficiently when you reach university. Different subjects might be better studied under different conditions. You brain is an incredibly complex and ever-changing system that doesn’t fit into our preconceived notions of routine.

In fact, most studies show that taking two or three different approaches to learning the same subject matter boosts retention more than spending the same amount of time on a single system. This is because different parts of the brain will absorb information in different ways, and depending on attention levels, are each capable of retaining information. The best understanding for why using multiple studying methods is effective comes down to attention. Changing the method of study helps to keep your attention focused and prevents you from shutting off and becoming distracted.

Demonstration Frustration

This is the one that messed me up the most while researching this article. Any of us who have been in a science class have seen a demonstration of some kind of another. Usually in a physics lab, the teacher will stand at the front and show you the experiment, then explain the results. You would think that this would aid in your understanding and help you to retain the information, right? Apparently that isn’t the case. Eric Mazur (7) ran an experiment in which he tested whether seeing a demonstration actually improved his students ability to get the correct answers when tested on the same subject matter later. What he found was that the success rate among his students actually decreased when they had seen a demonstration vs when they hadn’t.

The theory behind this is that human memory is intrinsically flawed (a topic for another post at some point). He found that many students who gave the incorrect answer directly referenced the demonstration as evidence of their flawed understanding, showing that their memory of the demonstration served to reinforce their preconceived (and flawed) understanding of the subject matter. In effect, they remembered the demonstration in a way that supported what they thought, rather than in a way that maintained the actual results of the demonstration.


Sources

(1) – The Myth of Learning Styles – Cedar R Reiner [https://www.researchgate.net/publication/249039450_The_Myth_of_Learning_Styles](2) – NeuroMyth 6 The Right Brain/Left Brain Myth – OECD [http://www.oecd.org/edu/ceri/neuromyth6.htm]

(3) – Hydration Myths – University of Florida [http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/fy1409]

(4) – Does Sugar Really Make Children Hyper? – Yale Scientific [http://www.yalescientific.org/2010/09/mythbusters-does-sugar-really-make-children-hyper/]

(5) – Neuroscience and Education: Myths and Messages – Paul A Howard-Jones [http://www.educationalneuroscience.org.uk/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2016/01/Howard-Jones-Neuromyth-nature14.pdf]

(6) – Brain Training: Exposing the Myth Behind Cognitive-Enhancement Games – New Statesman [http://www.newstatesman.com/culture/games/2016/06/brain-training-exposing-myth-behind-cognitive-enhancement-games]

(7) – Observing demos hurts learning, and confusion is a sign of understanding – Eric Mazur [https://computinged.wordpress.com/2011/08/17/eric-mazurs-keynote-at-icer-2011-observing-demos-hurts-learning-and-confusion-is-a-sign-of-understanding/]

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