NEUROMYTHOLOGY

The concept of different “learning styles” is one of the greatest neuroscience myths

Are you a visual learner who writes notes in a rainbow of different colors, or do you have to read something aloud before it will sink it? Chances are, you’ve been asked a similar question at some point in your life, and believe the concept of different “learning styles” is perfectly valid. But, as Quartz reported in December, we all learn in fundamentally similar ways. And, as New York magazine reports, the idea that students learn differently depending on their personal preference for visual, auditory or kinesthetic cues is just a myth.

In fact, it’s considered a “neuromyth,” which, as Paul Howard-Jones, professor of neuroscience and education at Bristol University, writes in a 2014 paper on the subject, is characterized by a misunderstanding, misreading, or misquoting of scientifically established facts.

Other examples of neuromyths include that we only use 10% of our brain, and that drinking less than six to eight glasses of water a day will cause the brain to shrink.

“Perhaps the most popular and influential myth is that a student learns most effectively when they are taught in their preferred learning style,” writes Howard-Jones.

Indeed, studies have shown strong cross-cultural belief in this concept. In 2012, researchers asked 242 teachers from the UK and the Netherlands whether various neuromyths were scientifically correct. The concept of auditory, visual, and kinesthetic learning styles was the most trusted myth: Some 93% of UK teachers and 96% of Netherland teachers believed it was true. (The second most commonly believed myth was that left- or right-brain dominance affected learning.)

In December, Philip Newton, professor at Swansea University’s College of Medicine, searched for “learning styles” articles freely available on research databases, to get a sense of the impression a teacher might get if they did a cursory search on the subject. He found that, though studies “do not really engage” with evidence showing that learning styles is a myth, 94% of current research papers start with a positive view of learning styles.

“Learning Styles do not work, yet the current research literature is full of papers which advocate their use. This undermines education as a research field and likely has a negative impact on students,” he wrote in his paper for Frontiers in Psychology.

The aforementioned evidence against learning styles is compelling. In 2004, Frank Coffield, professor of education at the University of London, led research into the 13 most popular models of learning styles and found there wasn’t sufficient evidence to cater teaching techniques to various learning styles. And a 2008 study by Harold Pashler, psychology professor at UC San Diego, was scathing. Despite the preponderance of the learning styles concept “from kindergarten to graduate school,” and a “thriving industry” devoted to such guidebooks for teachers, Pashler found there wasn’t rigorous evidence for the concept. He wrote:

Although the literature on learning styles is enormous, very few studies have even used an experimental methodology capable of testing the validity of learning styles applied to education. Moreover, of those that did use an appropriate method, several found results that flatly contradict the popular meshing hypothesis. We conclude therefore, that at present, there is no adequate evidence base to justify incorporating learning styles assessments into general educational practice.

So how did a false belief become so widely-held? In his paper on the subject for Nature Reviews Neuroscience, Howard-Jones argues that it’s not a result of fraud, but of “uniformed interpretations of genuine scientific facts.” The assumption behind learning myths seems to be based on the scientific fact that different regions of the cortex have different roles in visual, auditory, and sensory processing, and so students should learn differently “according to which part of their brain works better.” However, writes Howard-Jones, “the brain’s interconnectivity makes such an assumption unsound.”

Neuromyths arise, Howard-Jones argues, partly due to the technical language barrier that makes understanding neuroscience papers difficult for non-experts, and due to oversimplification of complicated scientific ideas. These myths are then “promoted by victims of their own wishful thinking” who are sincere but deluded in their belief that some eccentric theory will “revolutionize science and society,” he writes.

And these myths can flourish in cultures where beliefs about the brain are not subject to ongoing scientific scrutiny— it’s rare, after all, that a classroom’s teaching methods are rigorously and scientifically tested by an observer.

And finally, it seems that many people simply want to believe in learning myths. After Coffield published his study in 2004, he told The Guardian, “Low-cost and easily implemented classroom approaches can certainly cultivate wishfulness amongst educators, especially if they are fun and therefore likely to be well received by students.”

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