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Top learning myths to leave behind in 2020

It seems that everyone’s looking forward to the new year and the promise that it holds. And who should blame us? It’s 2020, after all, am I right?

For my part, I also think that we should leave other things behind in 2020: learning myths! You know:

  • We use only 10% of our brains.
  • We remember 10% of what we read, 20% of what we hear, 30% of what we see.
  • We can learn while we’re asleep if the room is entirely dark.

OK, the last one I just made up, but no, you can’t learn while being asleep, darkness or not. I can’t help but admit that I’m a little disappointed :/.

Myths have a way to infiltrate our collective knowledge because they appeal to our intuition, become very popular, get overhyped by being repeated over and over. Ultimately, they get passed down from generation to generation.

The most apparent flaw in myths is that they lack an evidence-based approach. In order words, they originated somewhere, usually in books or studies where rigorous research methods were not applied or simply, that’s where the science was back then.

Once we know better, we can do better.

7 Learning myths to leave behind in 2020

Shedding light on some popular education myths guides us towards much better, evidence-based practices.

Without further ado, let’s explore some popular educational myths that we’d rather forget about in 2021:

  1. Teachers should teach according to learning styles

    Attempts to validate the “learning styles” theory have failed or have had weak results. The myth’s intent is a good one: let’s see what our students prefer so we can teach them better. However, classifying learners into narrow groups completely misses the mark as there’s zero scientific evidence that adapting instruction to “learning styles” actually does anything to enhance it.

    First of all, how do you know who belongs to which category? Most get pigeonholed based on self-reporting, which is a very unreliable method of determining learning styles. Even so, if students lean towards a particular style, it doesn’t mean that it’s the most productive way for them to learn. Speaking of unproductive, it’s nearly impossible to develop effective teaching methods to cover all learning styles in their multitude of classifications: Kolb’s Model, Learning Styles Analysis (LSA), the VARK model, etc.

  2. Maslow’s pyramid tells us how to motivate students

    “Maslow before Bloom” is a noble idea, so it’s easy to see why Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is still widely accepted in the educational community as being inherently valid. Just take care of their needs first, and then teach them, right?

    The flaw in this whole approach is that subsequent scientific attempts to validate the theory have failed despite its popularity. Not only that, but Maslow himself never envisioned his theory as a pyramid. We also approach it as a “none or all” game in which one “lower need” should be completely satisfied before moving on to a higher-order one — which would mean that everyone should be completely content before setting foot in the classroom. This also puts an impossible amount of pressure on you as an educator to figure out what students need, when in reality, building a good student-teacher relationship is more likely to motivate them to learn.

    Read more: The truth about “Maslow before Bloom”

  3. Students’ attention spans are shrinking

    The myth that peoples’ attention spans nowadays are comparable to that of a goldfish has spread like wildfire thanks to the media hype. The claim was based on a dubious source from the start, but it appealed to many people who believed that it must be related to smartphone use. The truth is that the research on the link between smartphones and shrinking attention spans is riddled with inconclusive and contradictory evidence.

    We don’t have enough longitudinal studies so far to refer to causation, and most of them base their conclusions on correlational data. Attention span varies from task to task even for a single individual, so even the 10-20 second average attention span estimate doesn’t hold water.

    However, phones can be distractors, which leads to decreased focus and rapid switching between tasks (multitasking). A safer way to counteract these negative effects is to open a conversation around digital wellness and limit screen time whenever needed.

    Read more: Teaching students how to manage digital distractions

  4. Students learn better under pressure

    “Under pressure” is a great song, but not my favorite feeling. Now, you might say that even if I don’t like it, it might help me concentrate better, with all that adrenaline going through my body.

    And you’re on to something, as some studies show that stress can help memory consolidation. If students become stressed after or around the event of learning, it can help retain information better.

    However, if they feel stressed during learning, recall and recognition performance go down by more than 30%. The result is independent of the learned material and the effect of acute stress seems to be independent of the time of day.

    It’s more likely that stress isn’t black or white, good or bad. A small amount of pressure is fine and expected, but chronic stress has profound adverse effects on learning and health in general.

  5. Today’s students can multitask just fine

    Because they are so-called digital natives, students are used to switching from device to device, so they’re used to multitasking efficiently — or so they say. After all, students can also ride a bike, which requires doing more things at once as well.

    Eh, not so fast. Learning how to ride a bike takes some time, and the process becomes automatic after a while. For complex tasks, such as learning, participating in class, etc., this doesn’t happen; they still need to make an effort each time. What happens is that students will rapidly switch from task to task, resulting in poor learning performance.

    The truth is that we’re all ill-equipped to deal with multitasking, as we waste more time doing the switch than on the actual tasks at hand. So the next time students insist that they can text and learn simultaneously, try this experiment together with them.

  6. Boys are better at Math than girls

    If I had a nickle for each time I heard this, I’d be able to afford a huge billboard that says: “Boys AND girls can be good at math.”

    In this recent study, researchers have found that “boys and girls engage the same neural system during mathematics development.” This is consistent with other findings that indicate that boys and girls perform equally well in Math. However, “stereotypes that girls and women lack mathematical ability persist and are widely held by parents and teachers”.

    The myth is rooted in the wrong idea that there’s a biological advantage that makes boys more “analytical.” However, it’s hard to distinguish between the biological, individual, and social influences when it comes to performance in different subjects. In other words, girls internalize the message that they’re not going to do well in Math and stop trying early on.

    Read more: The best 4 tips to get your child involved in STEM learning

  7. Some students are right-brained, some are left-brained

    If you do a quick google search for left-brain/right-brain test, you’ll find around 720 million results. This idea has been around for some time, splitting students (yet again) into two categories: creative and analytical. The first should go for language arts, and the latter should just do science!

    Without delving too much into neuroscience, the left and right hemispheres are connected and always communicating with each other. One side may be larger than the other, but that doesn’t mean that we prefer to use that one more! This study involving more than 1,000 subjects used fMRI scans to put this myth to rest, once and for all, concluding that: “our data are not consistent with a whole-brain phenotype of greater “left-brained” or greater “right-brained” network strength across individuals.”

    In other words, you can’t have one without another, brain connectivity is more important than which side does what, and there’s a real danger in believing your brain is only good at “creativity” or “logic.”

    Read more: How learning shapes a student’s brain. Literally

Fact or fiction?

This isn’t an exhaustive list, so I strongly encourage you to check out Urban Myths about Learning and Education for a more comprehensive view on this subject.

Popular educational myths will probably still be around in one way or another. Their allure consists of seemingly simple explanations that sound valid. However, now that we know better, we can leave them where they belong: in the past.

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