I’ve got a problem, and I’m hoping you can help me.
Here’s the situation…
I work as a high school English teacher. And I’m also a consultant – presenting psychology and neuroscience research for teachers and students and parents.
In that consulting work, I often face this problem: teachers/parents/students believe – quite confidently – in some brain myth or another.
When I talk with teachers about managing working memory load, I regularly get this question:
“Can we reduce working memory overload by aligning instruction with students’ learning style?”
When I talk about research into attention and distraction, I often hear this rejoinder:
“Yes, but: all the research shows that an enriched environment enhances learning.”
A discussion about student motivation often defaults to this baseline:
“Around here we remind students to have a growth mindset. That will get the job done.”
A comment about note-taking strategies prompts this response:
“Of course, we know from research that handwritten notes result in more learning than laptop notes.”
In these moments, how should I – the “outside expert” – respond?
We’ve Got Two Hands
On the one hand, I should – obviously – let them know they’re wrong.
First, because they are wrong (as far as research currently shows).
No: learning styles theories have not held up over time. We just don’t have good evidence to support them.
No: ‘enriched environment’ research doesn’t apply to schools. (It was initially done with rats; lots of research suggests that busy classrooms distract from learning. I tell this story in a recent book.)
No: mindset theory is not a slam dunk. This topic churns up lots of controversy, but my own view is…
…we’ve seen enough positive results to think something is going on there,
…and enough negative results to know we don’t have a good handle on the specifics yet.
No: the handwriting vs. laptop debate is nowhere near settled.
The second reason to highlight these errors: we don’t want their colleagues to believe these myths.
If I don’t contradict these false beliefs right away, they can easily propagate.
These two truths, however, face an ugly “on the other hand.”
On the Other Hand
When I speak up to contradict these myths, I’m pursuing two goals:
Change the mind of the person who made the comment, and
Encourage other listeners to adopt correct beliefs.
Here’s my awkward question:
does contradicting brain myths directly actually accomplish those goals?
Imagine I say:
“I’m so glad you’ve brought up learning styles. It turns out that the research just hasn’t supported this theory.”
Will the teachers who made those comments in fact change their minds?
Will others around them believe me?
Honestly, I’m not so sure…
A Compelling Backstory
Let’s ask this surprising question: why do people believe in learning styles?
Why do they believe that elaborate classroom decoration enhances learning, or that handwritten notes rule? Why do laptop notes receive so much confident hatred?
Almost certainly, teachers believe in these myths because some other consultant told them that “research says so.”
Or, they heard these myths at a conference touting “brain science!”
That is: teachers don’t believe these myths because they reject research. Teachers believe them because they embrace research.
In many cases, I suspect, they first heard that information at a PD day organized by their principal or district. In other words: they were once professionally expected to believe this myth.
Teachers are not, for the most part, stubborn flat-earth luddites. Instead, they have used these (seemingly) research-based strategies for years. Those strategies might even seem to help.
Why, then, should they change those beliefs? Just because some new guy (me) shows up and says “today’s research shows…”?
The Big Question
So, here’s my problem.
I really must correct brain myths.
And, I’m really unsure that “correcting brain myths” directly will work.
For the last few years, I’ve adopted a 3-step strategy in this situation:
First: I don’t contradict in public. Embarrassing people rarely inspires them to change their opinions.
Instead, I offer strong, research-based alternatives. (“Rather than focus on learning styles to reduce working memory load, I would …”)
Second: I ask that teacher curious questions in a one-on-one conversation:
“Where did you first hear about learning styles? Which version have you tried? What research have you explored? Have you looked at recent studies?”
Once rapport develops, I’ll mention that more current research hasn’t supported the learning styles hypothesis. I might even offer to send links and share resources.
Third: I include school leadership. Most principals and leadership teams I’ve worked with know common neuromyths, and want to root them out.
In-school leaders know better than I the best places to intervene: perhaps a departmental conversation, or a future faculty meeting. That is: they know how to spread the word widely without singling out and embarrassing any one teacher.
I wish I were sure these methods always work. But I simply don’t know.
And so, here are my questions to you:
What approach would be most effective with your colleagues?
What approach would be most effective with you?
If, for instance, you feel entirely certain that handwritten notes work better than laptop notes, what could I say to influence your thinking?
Would it, in fact, help to contradict you at that moment, in front of your peers? (“Let me explain why that study is so obviously flawed…”)
Did the research-based link above open new avenues for your thinking?
Would you rather have a one-on-one conversation about that research?
Honestly, I’m open for suggestions!
We really must correct brain myths in education. And, I’m really unsure about the best way to do so.
I’m hoping that you’ve got helpful suggestions…