Alternative Healing & Education

Most of us look at traditional naturalistic healing methods with well-founded skepticism, and for a good reason. There is no acceptable evidence that they work. Anything published relies on anecdotal evidence which are stories from someone who tried one and it worked miracles for them.

Rubbing coconut oil on the back of your hand to cure Alzheimer’s dementia; a few minerals in the right balance will cure mental illnesses; colloidal silver to cure cancer and heart disease; an essential oil sprinkled on a crumpled kleenex next to your bed will draw out all of your childhood trauma. As unbelievable as these sound, they are practiced by and sworn to work for a significant minority of people. Harmful for a minority when they reject mainstream medicine for the alternatives but with little or no impact on the rest of us.

What does this have to do with education? In Nature Reviews Neuroscience, October 15, 2014, Howard-Jones published a study looking at a range of neuro-myths practiced by teachers. These myths have as much evidence underlying them as the alternative healing methods listed above (and many more). Here is a table showing the myths and what Howard-Jones found.

Neuro-Myth Percentage teachers who agreed with the statement
We mostly only use 10% of our brain 49
Individuals learn better when they receive information in their preferred learning style (for example, visual, auditory or kinaesthetic) 96
Short bouts of co-ordination exercises can improve integration of left and right hemispheric brain function 77
Differences in hemispheric dominance (left brain or right brain) can help to explain individual differences amongst learners 80
Children are less attentive after sugary drinks and snacks 53
Drinking less than 6 to 8 glasses of water a day can cause the brain to shrink 18
Learning problems associated with developmental differences in brain function cannot be remediated by education 28
The table shows some of the most popular myths. Teachers were asked to indicate their levels of agreement with statements reflecting these popular myths, shown as “agree”, “don’t know” or “disagree”. The table shows the percentages of teachers within each sample who responded with “agree”.

Some of these myths are harmless enough in an educational setting, however, some are seriously harmful. These myths have as much validity as the alternative healing methods listed at the beginning of the article. However, belief in them effects not just a small minority like the alternative healing methods do. These myths effect millions of learners.

One of the most serious is the myth of learning styles believed by 96% of teachers. How is this harmful? When looked at from the perspective of Dweck’s mindset research, it is devastating to a learner.Dweck began her career looking into why girls perform worse at math than boys, a finding that has been found at almost every level. Her research found that girls performed worse at math than boys because we all know that girls are worse at math than boys. The girls believe this and so don’t try because they can’t do it anyway.

Dweck began her career looking into why girls perform worse at math than boys, a finding that has been found at almost every level. Her research found that girls performed worse at math than boys because we all know that girls are worse at math than boys. The girls believe this and so don’t try because they can’t do it anyway. Almost every incoming undergraduate questioned for three years in a row knew what their learning style was (it had been carefully measured). If I believe that I have a certain learning style (like the girls who know they can’t fo math) I can’t really learn when information is presented in a different modality from the one that I have. This is not harmless, this is damaging to learning.

What does this have to do with higher education besides our students arriving believing strongly in their learning style? The learning styles myth is one of the bedrock principles taught in our education departments and schools and most of the other neuro-myths are taught there as well. Virtually every university has a teaching and learning enhancement center to help lecturers improve their teaching. The philosophies and practices espoused in these learning centers originate from an educational perspective.

There is nothing unnatural about this. We trust those who study and teach education in our institutions to base their teaching about how people learn on good solid evidence. However, we must remember that education, as a subject, is not an evidence-based subject. At least when it comes to how people learn. Education is about teaching, not about learning.

We need to change the practices in higher education and begin to look at the what the evidence says about how people learn and align our teaching practices to the evidence.

How could we take something as natural and wonderful as learning and turn it into education?

Cramming – You Don’t Learn from Episodic Memory

Actually cramming works to pass a test, and for millions of students that is the only goal for their education. Eighty-five percent of the students entering university in 2016 were doing so in order to get a qualification that would lead to a better job. For them, cramming works, because they have no intention to learn anything, just get a degree.

Research tells us that immediately following a lecture, students recall about 42% of the material. Two weeks later, they recall about 20%. A year later, they recall less than 10%. Although cramming will get a student through an exam, they don’t really learn anything.

The why is really quite simple. When students study for a test they are using what is called episodic memory. Episodic memory is a type of memory that we use every day. When you think about what you ate for breakfast this morning or what you ate for dinner last night, you really don’t have much trouble remembering. That is your episodic memory. However, if you try to remember what you had for lunch a week ago last Tuesday there are few if any of us who could recall the delectable feast. If I ask you what you did on Tuesday afternoon on January 17 of this year, unless you have a regularly scheduled event of participated in an emotionally charged event, it is very unlikely that you could tell me what you were doing. Even if you could tell me because you have a regularly scheduled event on Tuesday afternoons, there is an almost zero probability that you could remember what exactly took place at your event that day. That is because episodic memory isn’t designed to remember that way.

Episodic memory is the type of memory students use when they cram for an exam. They put a lot of information into their episodic memory that they have no intention of retaining, they use the information to get through the exam (some doing very well), and then they dump the information as being useless in the same way that we dump the memory of climbing the stairs to somewhere on March 15th.

Episodic memory is the kind of memory we use when we have regularly scheduled lectures to attend. Writing down the information has a negligible effect on remembering more than sitting passively. Having notes available does not help at all. The purpose of handwritten notes or lecturer provided notes is to provide the student with information that they can use for cramming.

The system works. Lecturers put in minimal effort. Students put in minimal effort. Graduates get degrees. Everyone is happy.

How could we take something as natural and wonderful as learning and turn it into education?

Cognitive Development and Higher Education

Cognitive development across the lifespan throws up an interesting problem for us here in Higher Education.There is fairly widespread agreement that Piaget got his developmental stages pretty close to the mark as he described how people develop from infancy through to adulthood. Although there is some argument about the details, with some adjustments that have been made here and there, the basic premise has pretty well stood the test of time.

There is fairly widespread agreement that Piaget got his developmental stages pretty close to the mark as he described how people develop from infancy through to adulthood. Although there is some argument about the details, with some adjustments that have been made here and there, the basic premise has pretty well stood the test of time.

The quandary faced by the higher education community lies in the final stage of cognitive development proposed by Piaget. The formal operational thinking stage that emerges at adolescence. As a person develops through their childhood, a normally developing child will reach a cognitive developmental milestone, acquire whatever skills that are attached to that stage of thinking, and move on.

As an example, as a young child, one of the stages is called egocentrism. Simply put, in this stage (finishes at about age four), a child thinks that everyone sees and experiences the world the same way that they do. If a child in this stage is viewing a scene and they were to ask you about something they were seeing, they wouldn’t be able to conceive the concept that you were not able to see exactly what they were, regardless of where you are. However, once a child passes through the stage, that doesn’t happen again in their lifetime. I doubt very much that you have experienced this recently because once the stage is passed it is simply the way you think.

This type of fairly linear developmental pattern holds true for virtually every cognitive developmental stage that we go through. However, this is not true of the final, formal operational thinking stage. Although the ability to think in a formal operational stage emerges during adolescence, thinking in this way requires teaching and practice. This is the only stage of cognitive development that is this way. All of the rest of the stages we simply acquire, but the formal operational thinking stage only bestows on us the ability to think that way, not the thinking itself.

Why is this a quandary for higher education? Because the higher part of higher education refers to the thinking that has to be developed for the expression of formal operational thinking. It doesn’t just happen, it has to be taught and practiced. We tend to call this thinking critical thinking and expect that our students arrive with this ability in place and ready to be fully expressed during their higher education. When it doesn’t happen, we are filled with disappointment and blame the secondary school system or the students themselves for not being prepared.

The research demonstrates to us that only a few (about 10%) of the adult population are ever fully equipped with formal operational thinking skills – whether or not they have received any higher education. Between 30% and 40% of the population lack the ability to engage in this type of thought completely. The remaining 50 to 60 percent have some formal operational thinking skills ranging from barely demonstrating that they have any to usually, but not always using them.

Given that we are now educating about 40% (or more) of the general population, how can it be that we are only seeing about 10% able to consistently use formal operational thinking skills to solve problems and analyze information? Because our model of “sit down, shut up, face the front, memorize, and regurgitate” used in 90% (or more) of the higher education classrooms neither teaches or requires the use of formal operational thinking skills.

The skills I’m talking about would include some of the following:

  •  a desire to seek, patience to doubt, fondness to meditate, slowness to assert, readiness to consider, carefulness to dispose and set in order; and hatred for every kind of imposture (Bacon 1605) 

  • the intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action 
(Paul, 1987) 

  • self-guided, self-disciplined thinking which attempts to reason at the highest level of quality in a fair-minded way (Elder)
  • the mental processes, strategies, and representations people use to solve problems, make decisions, and learn new concepts (Sternberg, 1986, p. 3) 

  • the propensity and skill to engage in an activity with reflective skepticism 
(McPeck, 1981, p. 8) 

  • reflective and reasonable thinking that is focused on deciding what to believe or do (Ennis, 1985, p. 45) 

  • thinking that is goal-directed and purposive, “thinking aimed at forming a judgment,” where the thinking itself meets standards of adequacy and accuracy (Bailin et al., 1999b, p. 287) 

  • judging in a reflective way what to do or what to believe (Facione, 2000, p. 61) 

  • skillful, responsible thinking that facilitates good judgment because it 1) relies upon criteria, 2) is self-correcting, and 3) is sensitive to context (Lipman, 1988, p. 39) 

  • the use of those cognitive skills or strategies that increase the probability of a desirable outcome (Halpern, 1998, p. 450) 

  • seeing both sides of an issue, being open to new evidence that disconfirms your ideas, reasoning dispassionately, demanding that claims be backed by evidence, deducing and inferring conclusions from available facts, solving problems, and so forth (Willingham, 2007, p. 8).
  • purposeful, self-regulatory judgment which results in interpretation, analysis, evaluation, and inference, as well as explanation of the evidential, conceptual, methodological, criteriological, or conceptual considerations upon which that judgment is based (Facione, 1990, p. 3)

I have written extensively about the state of higher education today, but our failure to deliver on our historical core purpose beggars belief. We can do better than this.

How could we take something as natural and wonderful as learning and turn it into education?

Mistakes are Useful?

The most alarming part of this post is in the middle where we find out that learners “…are more concerned with grades than they are with learning. This causes the supposedly smart students to take less risks in order to get better grades. Students that take more risks are punished with bad grades.” How many symphonies have not been written in order to protect a GPA?


If you have heard the phrase that “we learn from our mistakes” you may wonder why mistakes are unacceptable in schools. The very places that we go to learn. In school, the more mistake you make the more you are scorned. Only the students that happen to give the teacher the exact answer that they want seems to succeed in the current system. However, this is not how learning works in the real world. When we make mistakes we learn not to repeat them and we find out what does work and what does not work.

According to (Tugend, 2011) in our current education system, children are more concerned with grades than they are with learning. This causes the supposedly smart students to take less risks in order to get better grades. Students that take more risks are punished with bad grades. So in other words (Tugend, 2011) is saying…

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Conformity and Education

A new post I just put up there.

Scholarship of Learning

I have written before about the drive for conformity in education. Given the massification of education which has led to huge classrooms with, literally, hundreds of students being taught, conformity is essential. It has become, unabashedly, one of the central and core tenants of education. When I wrote about conformity three years ago, I focussed on the loss of creativity in the learning process. However, I now believe that there is a much greater cost to our society than the simple loss of creativity. I now believe that the greatest cost that society bears as a result of the enforced conformity from the youngest to the oldest students in education is a personal tragedy borne by, literally, millions of students and former students.

That students of all shapes and sizes are forced into a mold by the educational “system” is without disagreement. Students, at least for a significant portion of…

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How We Know

Scholarship of Learning

I know that this blog post will be old news to most of us, but I think it needs reiterating within the present context of my thinking – how do we find out what we believe in, or what are the methods of knowing?

According to Peirce (1877), there are three methods of knowing charles_sanders_peirceinformation, method of authority, method of tenacity, a priori method, and the scientific method. I will review each one of them, and consider how they impact us in our society today. I will consider the method of tenacity and the a priori method first

In both the method of tenacity and the a priori method, there is often no way to identify where knowledge of a belief came from, it just is. The fundamental difference is the willingness to change a belief.

In the a priori method, the belief is there because it…

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Reason and Moral Development

Last week I posted about the lack of ability to engage in deductive reasoning in the general adult population. As well as the problems I highlighted there, one aspect that deserves further attention is the effect that has on moral development.

Piaget assumed that all people, when they reached adolescence, would progress naturally from his “concrete operational” stage to the “formal operational” stage of cognitive development. The formal operational stage is where we see deductive reasoning emerge. However, research since Piaget’s proposal has let us know that not all (in fact a minority) of adults reach a formal operational stage of cognitive development. This is because it does not emerge naturally, but must be taught, and in our test, test, test world of education today, there is no room for teaching students how to think.

Moral development relies directly on the ability to reason, with Kolberg’s moral development stages tied neatly to Piaget’s cognitive development stages. What this means, is that the majority of people do not move beyond a concrete operational stage of moral reasoning. Here is a table outlining the stages of moral development.


Concrete operational thinkers don’t progress beyond stage 4 in their moral development. As the next table shows, there are few adults who progress beyond Stage 4 in their moral reasoning.


Why is this a problem? If you read the description of stage four moral development, you can see that there is little thinking involved. At this stage, people simply follow the rules. Right and wrong are defined by the law, and the highest moral authority is the government of the day. Whatever laws are passed defines the morality of the day for the vast majority of people.

Think of Nazi Germany, and the laws they passed targeting a group of people. With stage four moral reasoning, because it is written in law, it is the right thing. Institutional racism or bigotry become, not only okay, but right, because they are legal. Simply looking out on the events of today, and you can see the same thing happening again, both in North America and in parts of Europe.

One of the evidences that there is a lack of reasoning ability in America today is the emergence of Donald Trump as the frontrunner in the Republican race for the Presidency. Given how politics in the USA tends to swing between parties, this means that he is likely to be the next President. He is using the same language and techniques to target and oppress Muslims in America that Hitler used on the Jews 70 years ago.

Because of the failure of education to train people to think, there is an inability to engage in moral reasoning that will stop both the current, and the onrushing atrocities that are hurtling toward us. If, what is on the horizon, actually happens, we have to face the fact that we, as educators, have been complicit in shaping the society that would allow this to happen.

As the most powerful force shaping society today, we need to do better. We need to break out of the memorize and regurgitate model of education, and teach people to think. In the age of information abundance, we don’t need to focus exclusively on content, and yet, for all the innovations in education over the past ten years, that is still our predominate model. When are we going to really engage in meaningful discussion to fix what is broken.