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Learning to Stop Teaching Learning Myths

Are you a right-brained visual learner who wishes they could use more than 10% of their brain? We have some good news for you: you can stop worrying.

Myths take root in our culture like weeds. By the time we’ve pulled up a handful, our communal landscape is already infested with them. As the school year begins, I feel a duty to stamp out resistant myths about learning. These fictions, simple and comforting, may feel legit but scientific research shows that our intuitions about how the brain works can often fall short of reality.

Myth: you’re either left-brained or right-brained

Our brain is indeed divided into two halves connected by a bridge called the corpus callosum. The claim is that the right half of the brain is where all of creativity takes place and the left half of the brain is reserved for the analytical, science-y stuff. Therefore, someone who is very creative is said to be “right-brained” because the right side of their brain is dominant. This claim is not true but there is a morsel of factuality buried in there. Some functions of the brain do involve one half more than the other: for example, language tends to involve more areas on the left side of the brain for people who are right-handed (and vice versa for the left-handed). Research in the 1960s into people with severe epilepsy who had their corpus callosum surgically severed may have planted the seed of the myth of left- and right-brain dominance, but we know that on average no one half of the brain dominates, regardless of our personality. Over 1,000 children, teenagers and young adults had their brains scanned to look at their connectivity. While there were pockets or “hubs” of activity in the left half and other hubs in the right half, the participants could not be said to show an overall dominance of either side. As the senior author of the study told the LiveScience website, “creativity is no more processed in the right hemisphere than the left." In an age of increased polarization, I find it reassuring to find out that at least one way we have of splitting ourselves into groups is actually false.

Myth: everyone has a learning style

Are you a visual, auditory, reading or kinesthetic learner? According to the VARK framework, most of us fit into one of these firm categories (although I am apparently “multimodal” according to the official VARK questionnaire), and many teachers believe this classification is true. But a review of the evidence in 2008 discovered no evidence to back this up, and subsequent studies have provided clues to the contrary. People may prefer to learn by reading versus watching a video, but there is no good evidence that teaching that is tailored to their preference results in better learning. In fact, in a study that asked students to choose their own study methods, nearly 70% of them did not use the study technique recommended by their VARK score. Those who did, however, did not do better in terms of their grade. The best way to learn a new activity may actually depend on the type of activity. It’s hard to become good at dancing merely from reading books about it, but an entire industry has emerged to convince teachers and students that learning style is critical when in fact it is not.

Myth: people remember 10% of what they read and 30% of what they see

You may have seen colourful pyramids claiming that remembering is tied to specific senses and activities: people, we are told, remember 10% of what they read, 20% of what they hear, 30% of what they see, 50% of what they see and hear, 70% of what they say and write, and 90% of what they do. This is referred to as Edgar Dale’s Cone of Experience. We would all do well not to remember any of this. How this magical formula came about is the fascinating story of an unholy marriage between a theoretical model and a myth with a murky origin. On the one hand, there is renowned professor of education Edgar Dale who, in 1946, attempted to organize different types of human experiences by how concrete or abstract they were. The pyramid starts at the bottom with direct experiences, which are very real, and finishes at the top with abstract visual symbols and verbal experiences. Meanwhile, and unrelated to Dale’s pyramid, the idea that we remember only specific fractions of what we learn depending on how it is taught to us emerges around the beginning of the 20th century and morphs in the telling. Only a fraction of what we hear, we are told, is remembered, from 2/10s (1913) to 10% (1914) back to 2/10s (1920). There is in fact a fascinating timeline that documents this history, with the merging of these percentages with Dale’s cone occurring in the 1970s. Academics began publishing refutations of this myth in 2002. It turns out there is no science behind these numbers but that hasn’t stopped consulting firms, schools, and state agencies from using them to lend credibility to their services.

Reality: learning is complicated

The human brain is complex, and boiling down learning into cute numbers or hard categories is tempting. There are strategies, however, that have been shown to be effective when trying to learn. Studying in multiple blocks is generally better than simply cramming before an exam. Quizzing yourself so that you have to actively retrieve the information from your brain is more beneficial than passively rereading the material. And switching between topics while studying, and changing the order in which these topics are revisited next time, can help the brain make new connections and strengthen learning.

But if you find yourself in need of a brain extension and wish you could tap into the 90% of your noggin you are not using, I’m sorry to have to say this to you, but that’s yet another myth.

Take-home message:
- While some activities in the brain tend to involve one half of the brain more than the other, we cannot divide humans into “left-brained” and “right-brained.”
- The idea that each student has a specific learning style and that teachers need to cater to them is not supported by scientific evidence.
- Simplistic ideas about how much we remember of what we see and hear are not based in rigorous studies despite being commonly used in training material.


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