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

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The Conversation

James Williams, University of Sussex

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 damming 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) pedalled 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.

James Williams, Lecturer in Science Education, Sussex School of Education and Social Work, University of Sussex

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


5 thoughts on “Why urban myths about education are so persistent – and how to tackle them

    Paul Braterman said:
    September 8, 2016 at 11:13 am

    Feynman wrote about this. A devoted teacher would come up with a new way of presenting material, and get stunning results. But when other teachers were asked to try the same technique, it failed to produce any improvement. Feynman concluded that the effective ingredient was, not the technique itself, but the originator’s commitment to it.

    Brian said:
    September 17, 2016 at 10:58 am

    “despite the lack of evidence of their effectiveness”

    An erudaite and persuasive post.

    I know I am teaching everyone to suck eggs here but I believe there are some simple reasons why these myths persist.

    One is that the research debunking the myth is misrepresented. There is a well known educational blogger who likes to wheel out the same bit of research “Kirschner and Sweller – Minimally Guided Instruction” to rubbish all sorts well beyond the scope of the issue being addressed. Everyone knows that leaving a kid to invent calculus will not be the most time effective way of learning calculus but we need to be careful how far from “minimally guided” we assert that the findings apply.

    When it comes to learning styles, my understanding (Dan Willingham has discussed this one at length) is that there is no measured benefit from teaching a particular student in their “preferred learning style”. Effectiveness of instruction should be based upon the nature of the content. Influential bloggers then announce…learning styles don’t exist.

    I have been studying Philosophy and Epistemology during the summer. I really can’t be bothered with reading which is often inconvenient. If I load a talking book onto my phone I find it very easy to listen to and with voice control I can re-listen to any bits i need to repeat. I can book mark. I can carry on listening when driving or sitting in bed drinking coffee in the morning. I would not be reading so if I wasn’t listening I wouldn’t be learning. Sometimes I need the video version of the course as it is nice to see the presenter and sometimes visual cues are used.

    I have a preference for auido and a bit of video. Without them I wouldn’t be learning. For me learning styles are about engagement more often.

    For the teacher who has the view that kids should be forced into the classroom and once there coerced into completing whatever task the teacher presents them with. For this teacher I can see that it is reasonable to assert that “it doesn’t matter which modality the student learns in, learning will be at best equally effective but in some cases less effective. Choosing the learner’s perferred style can be counter productive”. This approach for me can be a little anally retentive, it is a little blinkered.

    This is why I was happy to read this article which included the phrase “despite the lack of evidence of their effectiveness”. I would have preferred a little more precision but this was for me a good start.

    When experts simply declare “learning styles don’t exist” and trot this statement out quoting Dan Willingham whenever the subject of learning styles arises, I believe many teachers who have preferred styles themselves then ignore the evidence. And so they should.

    I don’t think that this is the only reason for myths enduring, but it is the one I as a reflective teacher see most often.

    Poor management enforcing misguided nonsense is anothe biggie but that is for another day…

    ad said:
    September 18, 2016 at 5:40 pm

    There is a rather wonderful essay by George Orwell, in which he wonders what grounds he has for believing the Earth to be a sphere. He can point to the horizon as evidence that it has a curved surface, but that does not prove it is a sphere. Eventually, he concludes that his real proof is that the people who navigate ships and aircraft regard it as a sphere, and they seem to be able to get where they are going, so he should probably trust their judgement.


    Analogously, if you want to be able to tell if someone is to be trusted on education, you should ask whether they can run a good school. If they can – Sir Michael Wilshaw, for example – that is reason to trust them.

    When university education departments are all running University Training Schools, we will be able to use those schools reputations to tell us if we can trust their universities education researchers.

    For the moment, we can look to the more successful academy chains, such as ARK or Dixons Academy Trust.

      James responded:
      December 8, 2016 at 1:13 pm

      You assume it would be the education ‘researchers’ who would run the school. I think you’ll find that they wouldn’t be doing that, have no interest in doing it and would probably not be very good at doing it. The University education dept would hire teachers and senior teacher leaders to run their schools.

        ad said:
        December 8, 2016 at 7:04 pm

        If the UTS does things in a very different way to the way recommended by the universities education researchers, that will also be revealing information.

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