"Bear in mind that the wonderful things you learn in your schools are the work of many generations, produced by enthusiastic effort and infinite labor in every country of the world. All this is put into your hands as your inheritance in order that you may receive it, honor it, add to it, and one day faithfully hand it to your children. Thus do we mortals achieve immortality in the permanent things which we create in common." - Albert Einstein

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Why Do We Hold Onto Myths in Education

In a post I made years ago on this blog, Hooray! No More Trigonometry,  I wrote:
"...The Philippines is one country that is enslaved by superstitions and pre-enlightenment religion. In 2006, a meeting was held between leading Philippine scientists, the Department of Science and Technology, and members of the House Committee on Science and Technology. In that meeting, one congressman related the story of how a relative was trying to find a cure for cancer. According to the congressman, even scientists at the National Institutes of Health in the US had given up, but it turned out that the cure for cancer was drinking one's urine early in the morning. Apparently, according to that congressman, the urine that built up during one's sleep contained the remedy for cancer. And there was no response from any of the attendees of that meeting...."
Of course, I was among the attendees so I was likewise silent. I guessed I was shocked with what I heard that my mind basically froze. Myths such as this tend to linger because they are often not challenged. Stubborn myths are often untestable. I will not certainly volunteer anyone including myself to drink one's urine to prove or disprove such a hypothesis. Myths that are prevalent are also frequently held by people with authority and influence. In this case, it may not be wise to challenge a member of the legislature whose vote is needed to increase funding in the sciences.

If myths are stubborn in medicine where a much clearer relationship can be established between evidence and a hypothesis, the area of education is a much more fertile ground for unfounded beliefs. Unlike physicians who regularly read primary literature in their field, teachers, principals and education policy makers rarely read peer-reviewed publications in neuroscience and educational psychology. Instead, what frequently happens in the field of education is this.  Interventions are usually introduced in meetings or workshops by individuals who have the zeal to cure problems in education but are often lacking in scientific discipline. Consequently, interpretations of scientific reports are usually clouded with wishful thinking and the desire to help is intense enough to make the unscrutinized belief appear to be true. Such eagerness likewise propagates these misinterpretations as challenges are now perceived as threats. It is personal. Correcting such myths now will only yield resentment.

Years ago, Paul A. Howard-Jones wrote a perspective in Nature Reviews Neuroscience. In this article, a survey is presented showing how various neuromyths persist in education. Although there may be some cultural or even religious influences on how these myths linger, the persistence seems universal:

Above copied from
Nat Rev Neurosci. 2014 Dec;15(12):817-24. doi: 10.1038/nrn3817. Epub 2014 Oct 15.
Browsing through these popular myths brings one thing in common. Each one is significantly consequential. It makes a myth attractive if it is revolutional. Each one offers something dramatic. Each one is therefore tantalizing.

The most prevalent myth in the above table is "learning style". Nearly all of the teachers surveyed in five countries subscribe to the unsupported idea that students learn more effectively in their preferred learning style. In the Philippines, there is even a Center for Learning and Teaching Styles that actively advocates the Dunn and Dunn model. "Learning Styles" are indeed attractive, but as Pashler concludes:
There is growing evidence that people hold beliefs about how they learn that are faulty in various ways, which frequently lead people to manage their own learning and teach others in nonoptimal ways. This fact makes it clear that research—not intuition or standard practices—needs to be the foundation for upgrading teaching and learning. If education is to be transformed into an evidence-based field, it is important not only to identify teaching techniques that have experimental support but also to identify widely held beliefs that affect the choices made by educational practitioners but that lack empirical support. On the basis of our review, the belief that learning-style assessments are useful in educational contexts appears to be just that—a belief.
Some of these myths are also appealing since they contain half-truths. Take, for instance, drinking water. Dehydration is a very unhealthy condition so it is logical that being hydrated is important for learning but not drinking 6 to 8 glasses of water a day will cause our brains to shrink is clearly an exaggeration. Some of these myths are attractive since they offer great optimism. Being told that most of us only use ten percent of our brain does provide a huge room for improvement. Unfortunately, such idea is simply that, a blind optimism.

It is really difficult to get rid of myths in education because of so many reasons. It is imperative that a strong linkage be made between evidence-based research and education policy making as well as teaching practice. Sadly, even "evidence-based research" has now been used as a catchphrase to propagate some of these myths and only someone who is familiar with scientific literature can tell the difference. And unlike drinking urine, these misconceptions in education are not repulsive. Some are even highly appealing.



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