Published in Professional Learning

UKFEChat 2016 Presentation: part 1

At last week’s fabulous UKFEChat national conference, I gave a presentation that was planned to be a dual affair with Dan Williams.

Choose Science not Myths

This was the title chosen by Dan Williams who, sadly, was unable to attend. The purpose of the presentation was to update — indeed abolish — any remaining beliefs in FE that are based on misunderstandings or misrepresentations about how humans learn best.

As current questionnaires of teachers reveal that many of these myths are still strongly held, such presentations are still necessary. And with the resilient virus of learning styles as strong as ever, it may well be that such presentations will have to be regularly on the agenda. Particularly so as many teacher training institutions are still solidly clinging on to this discredited proposition. 

Below are the majority of the slides of the presentation.

Myth 1: learning styles

Here are Dan’s notes for this myth:

“What do you mean, I shouldn’t accommodate people’s learning styles? You can’t tell me people don’t learn differently! I see it in the classroom all the time!”

Coffield et al (2004) critically reviewed the literature on learning styles and examined in detail 13 of the most influential models. There are 71 models of learning styles for information. They say that the contrast between the enormous popularity of the learning-styles approach within education and the lack of credible evidence for its utility is striking and disturbing. If classification of students’ learning styles has practical utility, it remains to be demonstrated.

Whilst it is true that individuals have preferences for how they learn, there is a distinct difference between a preference and what is more effective way of learning something. We like to think that if we make learning easier for people that they will learn better, but the information gleaned from Robert Bjork’s work on desirable difficulties contradicts this, demonstrating that hard work is associated with better learning. 

Myth 2: the learning pyramid

Here are Dan’s notes for this myth:

This ‘learning pyramid’ actually turns out to be a cone of learning which was created by a chap called Edgar Dale in 1946.  Dale’s Cone of Experience is a visual model that is composed of eleven (11) stages starting from concrete experiences at the bottom of the cone then it becomes more and more abstract as it reach the peak of the cone. Also, according to Dale, the arrangement in the cone is not based on its difficulty but rather based on abstraction and on the number of senses involved. The cone was made more appealing and nicely rounded off percentages were added by Mobil oil company in the 60’s with no scientific research for them. Essentially, it’s impossible to conduct a study to determine the effectiveness of each of these and compare and is therefore assigned to the myth trap as a load of tosh. 

Myth 3: left and right brained

Here are Dan’s notes for this myth:

This myth gained ground in the 1960s following the work of Sperry and Gazzaniga on the split brain. The researchers conducted studies with patients who had undergone surgery to cut the band of neural fibers that connect the hemispheres — as a last-resort treatment for epilepsy. They discovered that when the two sides of the brain weren’t able to communicate with each other, they responded differently to stimuli, indicating that the hemispheres have different functions. As a result, psychologists attributed labels to each side of the brain in an attempt to link the hemispheres to personality types.

The myth was properly debunked by University of Utah neuroscientists, who scanned the brains of more than 1,000 people, aged 7 to 29, while they were lying quietly or reading, measuring the specific mental processes taking place on each side of the brain. Whilst they did uncover patterns for why a brain connection might be strongly left or right-lateralized, they found no evidence that the study participants had a stronger left or right-sided brain network.

They argue that the dichotomy, holding that left brainers are logical, good with mathematics and language, while right brainers are creative and artistic, is not true.


Myth 4: the guide-on-the-side is best

This one is in most people’s blind spot, as it was, until very recently, part of the Ofsted inspection regime (however much they denied it). Once again, this myth seems intuitively to be true, and needs a careful understanding of the ideas analysed in the research. Read carefully and notice any ideological reactions to hearing what was once considered to be heresy.

Here are Dan’s notes for this myth:

Minimal guidance instruction activities — otherwise known as problem based learning, discovery learning, inquiry learning, experiential learning — seem to take precedence in many FE colleges. Seen as ‘best practice’, the sage on the stage is confined to being the ‘guide on the side’, This approach to learning assumes that learners will find knowledge for themselves, rather than it being imparted by the teacher. This myth has evolved over the last decade as a result of a learner centred focus…

The problem is, when learners arrive at our colleges/training providers, they probably have little knowledge of the subject they’re studying. It’s probably the first time they’ve studied engineering, or hairdressing, or English. With this in mind, expecting them to act like ‘experts’ as opposed to the novices that they are, is a nonsensical approach to learning.

From a cognitivist perspective, human cognitive architecture (how our memory works) does not lend itself well to this approach to learning. Novices and experts think and behave differently. Experts have built strong and well organised patterns of information which they can use effectively in minimally guided instruction, whereas novices have little prior knowledge or experience to draw upon and so they struggle to assimilate and accommodate information that is poorly structured.


Myth 5: teach transferable generalised skills

"If you can analyse a poem, it doesn’t mean you can analyse a quadratic equation, even though we apply the word ‘analysis’ to each activity.

Again, another cherished keystone of FE practice is turning out to be not so obvious after all.

Here are Dan’s notes on this myth:

The FE and Skills sector is often the bridge between education and employment, so there is little wonder why there is an emphasis on teaching generic skills such as problem solving, creativity and critical analysis. The thing is, we can’t teach them. If we could, it would be a very efficient way of proceeding, but unfortunately it isn’t. Skills are tied to domain knowledge. 

When we see people employing what we think of as a generic, transferable skill, what we’re probably seeing is someone with a wide-ranging body of knowledge in a number of different domains.

According to Tricot and Sweller (2014) skills such as problem solving, creativity and critical analysis are acquired without the need for instruction. The key to acquiring them however lies in the acquisition of subject knowledge. The greater the subject knowledge, the greater the ability to problem solve, to critically analyse, to create, but always within a domain (subject). Take the mechanic who knows the engine of a car inside out and compare them to the mechanic with little knowledge of the engine. Who is best likely to solve an issue with the car?

Why do these myths persist?

If any of you haven’t read any of Donald Clark’s oh-so sharp writing, then I urge you to look him up (his blog address is on the bottom of the slide). He identifies 7 reasons for the persistence of these myths. Take a deep breath, as Donald never pulls his punches.

Intuition: It really does seem to make sense doesn’t it? Tailor your teaching to the differences that your students show you, as well as the differences they tell you they have. After all, it’s the bedrock of special needs teaching is behind the whole decade-long push for personalisation. However, the research continues to fail to find any evidence for this proposition.

Category mistake: This is linked to the above notion of differences. As we plainly see that everybody has different personalities (and we are not denying this), it is easy to glide that notion into that of learning styles. Yet the two are quite different concepts and not at all identical.

Simple model: For every complex question, there is always a simple and wrong answer. Here is just another good example. Learning styles is a simple model that is easily explained, understood and remembered. It just happens not to be true.

Anti-intellectualism: What Donald meant by this was the rejection that research has anything of value to the practical world of teaching. Anything remotely intellectual or academic is sternly pushed away, believing it to be irrelevant, if not plain dangerous.

Professional bodies: Local authorities, unions, Ofsted, teacher training providers, universities, and a host of other professional bodies are all guilty of spreading many myths about teaching, most particularly the one about learning styles.

Poor CPD: Related to the above are the very many training days spent promoting approaches to teaching that had, and continue to have, no basis in evidence.

Group think: When everyone holds views about teaching and learning so strongly,  be they colleagues, advisors, authors, inspectors, head teachers, managers or gurus, it’s easy to assume they must all be right. After all, how could all these educated professionals possibly all be so wrong?

A liminal moment for FE

Discovering the demolishment of so many myths that were central to an approach to teaching, can be very threatening. And when the source of this dismantling of hard-earned knowledge is cognitive science, feelings of ambivalence are natural. The challenge to accept this and step forward into a new era of new, more robust evidence is one that faces FE.

Such moments are known as liminal moments; liminal meaning doorway or threshold, offering an opening to a new phase. I will continue the second part of this presentation next week, promising to show what it is that cognitive science offers instead of myth.