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?

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Learning Preferences

Learning preferences are one of my pet peeves. Originally introduced as a classroom management tool (vary your presentation to help maintain interest), they have become one of the foundations of modern education. Everyone has a preferred learning style. I don’t argue with this. But what does a preference have to do with ability. As a cognitive scientist, I have never been able to understand the scientific basis for a learning preference making learning easier.

The evidence that has been gathered clearly shows that there is no scientific justification for the concept, and in fact, demonstrates that it can be detrimental to learning.

Combined with the mindset research done by Dweck, and you can see that learning styles can be extremely harmful to a person’s education.  Dweck found that a person’s beliefs have a massive influence on their motivation. As an example, if a person believes that they are poor at mathematics, they will put in minimal effort to improve their ability, because they are poor at math. It doesn’t matter what the reality is, if they believe it, they won’t try.

Now, label a child as a kinaesthetic learner, and (if they believe it) they will no longer put in effort to learn material presented in a visual or auditory modality. They are a kinaesthetic learner, and they can’t learn any other way. It doesn’t matter what the reality is, only what the child believes. This applies to labels in general (think: types of intelligence), and not just to learning styles.

Here’s a great take on learning styles.