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Kindling a Fire: Five Common Myths About the Science of Learning

Kindling a Fire: Five Common Myths About the Science of Learning

Much has changed in education over the last 30 years, from the ever-increasing role of technology in the classroom to a renewed focus on vital noncognitive skills such as communication and collaboration.

But among the most exciting developments for schools have been new discoveries around the science of learning. Fields including neuroscience and psychology have offered new insights into how students learn, shattering some longstanding myths along the way.

With that in mind, here are five commonly held beliefs about learning that have been debunked thanks to discoveries in brain science.

Myth No. 1: Children’s minds are blank slates. All students bring existing knowledge to any learning task, and therefore, they learn new ideas by reference to ideas they already know. For example, if a teacher explains that the earth is round to a child who thinks the earth is flat, that child may picture a pancake, which is round but flat (not spherical). Consequently, the teacher can only effectively deliver information if she has a clear picture of the student’s prior knowledge.

The classic children’s book Fish Is Fish presents a vivid example of the effects of prior knowledge. In the story, a fish wants to learn about land animals that live outside the ocean. When his tadpole friend grows into a frog, he leaves the ocean to explore the land and its creatures. But when the frog returns to describe his adventures, the fish can only construct a picture of land animals based on what he knows. Hence people are fish walking on their tailfins, birds are fish with wings, etc. So it is with students – they are not empty vessels to be filled with new knowledge, and teachers must first assess their existing knowledge base.

Myth No. 2: Students have distinct “learning styles” and if instruction is tailored to their style, outcomes will improve. Although this belief is ubiquitous, there is virtually no empirical evidence to support it. Students certainly will express preferences with respect to their learning, but the notion that teaching should be customized for “visual” or “verbal” learners finds no support in the scientific literature. On the contrary, delivering content through multiple modalities often leads to greater retention and synthesis for learners.

Myth No. 3: Students are “left brain” or “right brain” dominant based on personality and cognitive style. Similar to “learning styles,” hemisphericity (i.e., dominance of the left “academic” brain or the right “creative” brain) is a pervasive misconception. Neuroimaging data demonstrates this neat dichotomy is at best overstated. Interaction between the left and right hemispheres is critical to traditionally “left brain” functions (language) and supposedly “right brain” functions (creativity). Indeed, both hemispheres are activated and interact during nearly every cognitive task.

Myth No. 4: Humans only use 10% of their brains. This line provides the setup for one of Owen Wilson’s hilariously bad pickup lines in “Wedding Crashers,” so I want to believe it. However, it is demonstrably false. We know from fMRI scans that most of the brain is activated for almost all tasks. Over the course of a day, the evidence shows that humans use 100% of their brains.

As researchers have pointed out, this is true even for one of the most basic (but important) acts I perform every day: pouring coffee. In walking toward the coffeepot, reaching for it, pouring the brew into the mug, even considering whether to leave extra room for cream, the occipital and parietal lobes, motor sensory and sensory-motor cortices, basal ganglia, cerebellum, and frontal lobes all activate. Thus, a lightning storm of neuronal activity occurs across almost the entire brain in the time span of a few seconds.

Myth No. 5: Cramming and memorization are the most effective studying techniques. Cramming and memorization are not entirely without merit. However, we now know there are more effective methods to learn and store information. More effective strategies include spaced practice over a longer time period, administering self-tests to practice active retrieval, and interleaving (that is, working through problems that are related but distinct enough that they cannot be solved with the same strategy). These techniques help learners organize their knowledge so that it can be retrieved from long-term memory and transferred to novel contexts – a critical factor in successful learning.

If you held one of these misconceptions, don’t worry; they remain widespread – even at many schools – despite what is now known about brain science. At Country Day, we use these myths as a reminder to challenge assumptions and push our pedagogy to keep up with the latest developments in the science of learning. Because to be great teachers, we must all be lifelong learners.

"Kindling A Fire" is a column submitted regularly to Indian Hill Living by Head of School Rob Zimmerman '98. This article was printed in the December 2022 edition of the publication.