Teachers are sometimes exasperated by the fact that they cannot get students to forsake bad behaviours or grasp subtle but important concepts, no matter how many “interventions” we put in place. Examples of bad habits could be something as silly as consistently spelling particular words the wrong way or more profound issues such as confusing physical concepts like weight and mass, or gravity and weight. Almost every teacher has an example of a student’s verbal wrong answer to one of her/his questions in class became a widely accepted answer by other students, despite correcting the error there and then. Why is that? After all, why would our brains insist on “recalling” wrong answers if the correct ones were provided (and heard)?
If our brains worked like computers this would of course not be the case because we would all be able to do perfect recall of the correct facts after only being exposed to them once. But our brains are not computers and the way in which memory and recall work is vastly more complex. Consequently, humans are much more complex and there are other factors that influence our decisions. Perhaps this explains why adults are just as bad at changing their thinking even when this is refuted by solid research. Which brings us to a familiar and formidable foe in many schools: the idea that students have learning styles, that they need to be aware of what these are, and that teachers, equally, need to take that into account when teaching.
I have written about neuromyths a number of times over the last year or so but perhaps it is a good idea to just start with a description of what a neuromyth is: A neuromyth is a belief about the brain and how it functions that has been popularised to the extent that it is pervasive within a particular section of society (i.e. among teachers) and almost regarded as “self-evident” or common sense. In their report on neuromyths in 2002 the OECD defines a neuromyth as follows: “a misconception generated by a misunderstanding, a misreading, or a misquoting of facts scientifically established (by brain research) to make a case for use of brain research in education and other contexts”.
On its own, a neuromyth is fairly harmless. However, once it becomes entrenched in how people think about and conceptualise their teaching, neuromyths become quite dangerous. They then create a false sense that teaching is research informed while actually doing the exact opposite. Of course, with the learning styles neuromyth, the irony is perhaps even more striking, given that it’s part and parcel of the CAPS curriculum.
How to change your mind
So, if learning styles is a neuromyth, and it has been revealed as such by research – what is the problem? Surely, school principals and teachers, once they become aware of the evidence against the learning styles (and other neuromyths) would embrace and welcome the research findings and start acting accordingly? Or not…..? It seems that in this sense teachers (and principals) are not that different from their students after all… Despite being presented with the facts, it seems that those first impressions are difficult to get rid of – even for adults.
Practising what we preach
This brings us to the root of the problem. Many educators today profess to be preparing their students for the 21st-century and the skills which these students will require – one of them being critical thinking. However, when presented with new research and the opportunity to exhibit some critical thinking of their own, some (not all!) of these teachers react precisely the opposite. Instead of looking at the evidence for ourselves or act like the lifelong learners (which we expect our students to become) we simply refuse to critically rethink why we so fervently believe certain neuromyths, what the initial evidence was and whether it is still valid. We instead question the validity of the new research. Reactions like these exhibit exactly the opposite behaviour of what the 21st-century requires, not only from students if they were to thrive, but also from those preparing them for it.
The natural human instinct is not to like admitting that what we believe might be wrong. Furthermore, research teaches us that each time we recall something we reinforce its neural pathway. On their own, these two facts already give us an indication of why it is difficult to get people to change their mind. If we combine this with a reluctance to question popular beliefs, (critical thinking) it becomes clear why it is almost impossible to get rid of entrenched neuromyths – irrespective of the quality of the evidence to the contrary.
There are perhaps two things we can learn from the persistence of the “learning styles” neuromyth:
- The importance of getting our facts right the first time, because once people start acting on misinformation and integrate it into their thinking, it is very difficult to get them to rewire their brains – no matter how compelling the evidence is. In cases where such misinformation/neuromyths tie into some common sense notion of how the world works, this is even more so;
- It seems the intellectual environment in our schools is not one where teachers are encouraged or equipped to challenge their beliefs and practices in terms of their scientific reliability and validity. If something seems to be working – especially with anecdotal evidence to boot – it will simply persist, irrespective of the evidence.
It will be setting a good example when we prepare our students as critical thinkers if we exhibit these traits and are also willing to confront facts that sit uncomfortably with our own belief systems.