Learning myths debunked

Group shot from event

I met Professor Bruce Hood at the Independent Schools Association conference more than a year ago, where he spoke about the prevailing mythology surrounding the neuroscience of learning. His desire to debunk those myths was matched by his enthusiasm for getting university researchers into schools to share latest research findings in all areas of learning.  He has established Speakezee, a searchable database of expert speakers.  It is however, so much more than that as it (and Prof Hood personally) puts schools in direct contact with leading-edge researchers from top research institutes in British universities. At the Cambridge Centre for Sixth-form Studies we were delighted to be able to link up with two top neuroscience researchers from the University of Cambridge, Dr Jon Simons and Dr Sara Baker. We were delighted too that one of our partner schools, Bassingbourn Village College, was also keen to have their students involved and it made for a great joint event.

Dr Sara Baker presentingDr Baker explained that there was no evidence to support the view that we have specific preferred learning styles, whether kinaesthetic, auditory, visual or any other of the various versions claimed. Learning styles have had a high profile over a number of years and rapidly became an educational paradigm, partly because so much of our approach to education has not been evidence-based, often I think because evidence has been in short supply, and also because the theory had instinctive appeal – we can all recount instances where we think we’ve individually responded better to hearing or seeing or doing.  All this seems to be changing now, and with the advent of functional MRI we can actually see what happens in the brain in real time. Good teachers, of course, have always seemed to recognise the value of a variety of approaches for all learners.

Slide from Dr Jon Simon's presentationDr Simons debunked other myths about how much of our brains we use: the idea that we might use as little as 10% having absolutely no basis in fact.  Quite the reverse: we need all our brain all the time.  He then went on to explain what the evidence suggests about the best ways of learning and memorising. With the students all sitting GCSEs and A Level exams in a few months’ time, the attention levels reflected a degree of immediate self-interest!

We expect an impact from the lectures on several levels. For individual students, we obviously hope they’ll understand some of the “matters of fact” that we need all our brain all the time and that they should not base their approach to learning on any particular style.

At an institutional level the challenge is going to be for teachers to use the evidence to structure their approach to teaching more effectively. My own response was to consider the development of study skills, as these seem less of an intrinsic part of subject teaching than I used to expect.  I was fascinated by the research evidence into how best to commit information to memory, as this seems to be such a challenge for so many.  Strategies for learning can enable students to do better by applying their efforts more effectively, and this will both encourage them to persevere and increase their confidence.

At a national level I hope that government and those who represent the teaching profession will recognise why it is important to ensure their approaches are valid and evidence-based.  All too often we hear received wisdom presented as fact, but it’s actually something that we think we know – we don’t know we know. I think it’s important to challenge these assumptions all the time as individual teachers, as a profession and at policy levels because only then are we asking intelligent questions about how best to teach our children.

As the Brain Awareness Week scientists put it: “These neuromyths may be ineffectual but they are not low cost…. any activity that draws upon resources of time and money that could be better directed to evidence-based practices is costly and should be exposed and rejected. Such neuromyths create a false impression of individuals’ abilities leading to expectations and excuses that are detrimental to learning in general which is a cost in the long term.”

I agree.  Our students deserve better.

Stuart Nicholson MA (Oxon) is the Principal of Cambridge Centre for Sixth-form Studies, an independent college teaching GCSE and A Level in central Cambridge.