Why urban myths about education are so persistent – and how to tackle them

Old school. Vladislav Gajic/www.shutterstock.om

As children across England and Wales go back to school, it’s worrying to think that in many classrooms, teachers will be starting the new term believing in teaching “methods” that have been debunked by research evidence.

One of the most persistent “edumyths” is learning styles – the idea that there are a number of styles of learning, such as visual, aural or kinaesthetic – and that certain children respond better if teaching is directed towards their preferred learning style.

Learning styles have been far too easily accepted by some schools and teachers despite the lack of evidence of their effectiveness. The prevalence of references to learning styles in School Centred Initial Teacher Training (SCITT) programmes from Durham, to Surrey and Cornwall shows how ingrained the concept still is. Despite learning styles being debunked, the concept still forms part of the formal school-based training of a number of teachers across a number of subjects.

So why, in the face of such damning evidence, are edumyths still accepted and used by schools and teachers?

Cat out of the bag

A simple Google search for “learning styles” reveals 5.9m links. Many websites are devoted to it alongside other related educational “approaches” and variations on the theme. Sites provide “testimonials” of effectiveness, but very few provide any solid peer reviewed evidence to back this up.

Studies from the fields of psychology and medical education have shown the futility of learning styles as an effective teaching approach. A systematic and critical review of learning styles catalogued 71 different learning styles models, 13 of which were identified as “major models”. Suffice it to say that, as education scholars Myron Dembo and Keith Howard concluded in a 2007 paper on the use of learning styles in education:

Learning style instruments have not been shown to be valid and reliable, there is no benefit to matching instruction to preferred learning style, and there is no evidence that understanding one’s learning style improves learning and its related outcomes.

Spread of education learning myths

From the ubiquitous Brain Gym that flourished in schools in the late 1980s and early 90s, to the idea that some people use one side of their brain more than the other, or the “fact” that we only use 10% of our brain, exactly how these myths spread is a complex and difficult to understand process.

Who is to blame? Monkey Business Images/www.shutterstock.com

The blame has been laid at the door of university initial teacher training courses, as well as commercial companies, individual “education consultants” and some teachers. Even the Department for Education (DfE) peddled the view that universities promoted “useless” theories in teaching and learning.

Yet, a survey by the Wellcome Trust, reported by the charity Sense about Science showed that teachers were not getting learning styles predominantly from their university teacher training. Instead, they:

Commonly come across neuromyth-based methods by word-of-mouth – from their institutions (53%), individual colleagues (41%), and from training providers (30%), who are often linked to those promoting neuromyths.

Are myths necessary?

Myths quite often have some basis in reality. For learning styles, there’s no doubt that people will report a preference for how they learn, but this does not mean they learn better using that “style”. Learning styles also gain traction in the education community because of a general conflation with a push to deliver content in the classroom in a variety of ways. How information is presented to children needs to be varied, if only to stop boredom kicking in. The best teachers have a variety of approaches that mix and match the best learning experiences for their children.

Variety in how information is presented and ideas are explored is not a bad thing. The problem is that this can also lead inadvertently to providing evidence that the idea being used, far from being a myth, actually works. On many occasions I have had teachers tell me that learning styles work, regardless of what the research evidence says. At this point, it’s worth remembering the Hawthorne effect: simply doing something different can have an effect and that effect can be a positive one, but the effect may not be real.

Training is key

The way to tackle edumyths surely must be to provide teachers with the evidence and show them that the idea they accept as true is actually a myth. If only it were that simple. The social psychologist Norbert Schwartz and his colleagues showed that often, when presented with compelling evidence that certain statements were false, people often mis-remembered the false statement as being true.

The move to sideline or even remove universities from initial teacher education and increase school-based teacher training programmes may have the opposite effect to that hoped for by the DfE. Instead of edumyths and “useless” theories dying out, they might become more prominent and even more difficult to remove from teaching. Once misconceptions are implanted, they are very difficult to remove. If teacher education shifts further towards a school-based model of delivery, the potential for implanting misconceptions increases exponentially.

Teachers need two things to improve their practice and eliminate what doesn’t work in favour of what does. First, training in how to look beyond the attractive yet empty claims of the peddlers of educational snake oil and second, time to undertake effective professional on-the-job training that has been shown to be both reliable, rigorous and effective.

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