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?

Willful Blindness & Education

Both the education and the higher part of higher education is broken.Research is the only game in town and as that relies more and more heavily on private (read: commercial) funding the research game becomes more and more private (and trivial).

Research is the only game in town and as that relies more and more heavily on private (read: commercial) funding the research game becomes more and more private (and trivial).

In my last post, I presented the sorry state of affairs in equipping our graduates with thinking skills. The ability to engage in formal operational thinking may be inherent, but the skills necessary to use formal operational thinking must be taught. With up to 40% of our graduates unable to engage in formal operational thinking, we aren’t doing a good job of teaching it. This is what the higher in higher education stands for, higher thinking skills.

The education part of higher education refers to the methods we use to teach our students the higher thinking skills that higher education stands for. Constant pressure to crank up the research output means that more and more teaching is becoming less and less. Efficiency in teaching means large (or maybe small) lectures. The evidence tells us that around 90% of teaching in higher education is done through lectures. Lectures don’t work! As Gibbs writes:

More than 700 studies (referring to Blighs work) have confirmed that lectures are less effective than a wide range of methods for achieving almost every educational goal you can think of. Even for the straightforward objective of transmitting factual information, they are no better than a host of alternatives, including private reading. Moreover, lectures inspire students less than other methods, and lead to less study afterwards.

For some educational goals, no alternative has ever been discovered that is less effective than lecturing, including, in some cases, no teaching at all. Studies of the quality of student attention, the comprehensiveness of student notes and the level of intellectual engagement during lectures all point to the inescapable conclusion that they are not a rational choice of teaching method in most circumstances.

Corrigan looks at the debate about lecturing and says about those defending and supporting lecturing:

In some ways these apologia accentuate the dividing line in the lecturing debate. They praise various aspects of lecturing, while criticizing alternative methods. These rhetorical moves reinforce the idea of a two-sided debate, lecturing vs. not lecturing. Their skirting of the research on the subject puts them on the less convincing side, in my view.

Lectures don’t work to teach higher order thinking skills. I can’t tell you the number of times I hear – “But my lectures are different!”.

Given all of the evidence demonstrating that lectures don’t work to teach our students how to think, why do we still use them? Unless a working academic has not engaged in a single conversation about teaching in the last 30 years (and I daresay there will be some), they will have heard that lectures don’t work. Given that Bok reported (in “Our Underachieving Colleges”) that fewer that 5% of working academics will read anything about teaching in a given year, is it any surprise that nothing changes.

The story of Libby, Montana best illustrates the concept of willful blindness – I’ve provided a link, but reprint it here because it is important to know:

The town had a vermiculite mine in it.

Vermiculite was used for soil conditioners, to make plants grow faster and better. Vermiculite was used to insulate lofts, huge amounts of it put under the roof to keep houses warm during the long Montana winters. Vermiculite was in the playground. It was in the football ground. It was in the skating rink. What she didn’t learn until she started working this problem is vermiculite is a very toxic form of asbestos.

When she figured out the puzzle, she started telling everyone she could what had happened, what had been done to her parents and to the people that she saw on oxygen tanks at home in the afternoons. But she was really amazed. She thought, when everybody knows, they’ll want to do something, but actually nobody wanted to know.

In fact, she became so annoying as she kept insisting on telling this story to her neighbors, to her friends, to other people in the community, that eventually a bunch of them got together and they made a bumper sticker, which they proudly displayed on their cars, which said, “Yes, I’m from Libby, Montana, and no, I don’t have asbestosis.”

But Gayla didn’t stop. She kept doing research.The advent of the Internet definitely helped her.

She talked to anybody she could. She argued and argued, and finally she struck lucky when a researcher came through town studying the history of mines in the area, and she told him her story, and at first, of course, like everyone, he didn’t believe her, but he went back to Seattle and he did his own research and he realized that she was right. So now she had an ally.

Nevertheless, people still didn’t want to know.

They said things like, “Well, if it were really dangerous, someone would have told us.” “If that’s really why everyone was dying, the doctors would have told us.” Some of the guys used to very heavy jobs said, “I don’t want to be a victim. I can’t possibly be a victim, and anyway, every industry has its accidents.” But still Gayla went on, and finally she succeeded in getting a federal agency to come to town and to screen the inhabitants of the town — 15,000 people — and what they discovered was that the town had a mortality rate 80 times higher than anywhere in the United States.

That was in 2002, and even at that moment, no one raised their hand to say, “Gayla, look in the playground where your grandchildren are playing. It’s lined with vermiculite.”

This wasn’t ignorance. It was willful blindness.

It is easy to say that what happened in Libby has nothing to do with higher education. Academics ignoring the evidence about lecturing and not teaching students higher order thinking skills, and even defending their practices in the face of overwhelming evidence that it is just plain wrong, is willful blindness. But nobody dies – do they?

I would argue that they do. An example of what these higher order thinking skills are illustrates what I mean:

  • 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)

People who do not or can not engage in higher order thinking skills don’t grasp the use of evidence in argumentation. Evidence means nothing.

What do you think it was that allowed the residents of Libby to keep on denying what was happening in their town in the face of overwhelming evidence. To them, evidence means nothing!

What do you think it is that allows normal everyday people (some with higher education degrees) to keep on denying global climate change in the face of overwhelming evidence. To them, evidence means nothing!

Because of our almost exclusive focus on delivering information, with most of us (and our students) carrying around most of the world’s information in our pockets, we ignore our duty to teach people to think. We willfully ignore the evidence around us and it is costing people their very lives, not to mention the enormous cost to society when the majority of the people on our planet cannot or will not engage in formal operational thinking.

The cost of our willfully ignoring what we know to be true is beyond imagination. We can do better than that. We must do better than that.

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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Information Digitization – a Paradigm Shift

Scholarship of Learning

There is a paradigm shift taking place in learning today. I have written before that there is a paradigm shift in education, but the status quo is reinforcing the traditional trenches in a way that is unbelievable in today’s world. Just as the Germans simply zipped around the impregnable Maginot line (the massively reinforced trenches from WWI) at the beginning of WWII, learning is preparing to zip around the heavily reinforced educational institutions of today.

The music industry, the publishing industry, the newspaper industry, the postal systems, the public libraries, the traditional bookstore, video stores, movie theatres – these and other sectors of our society have had to (or are in the process of) reinventing themselves to fit into the new world of digitized information. Only in education have the powers that be refused to engage in a critical self-examination to ask what digitization really means to this sector of society.


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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.