Myths concerning teaching and learning

Educators stumble from one unproven educational philosophy to another (and back), looking for the deus ex machina that will relieve them of the hard work of teaching and learning. As they wander about they tend to drag along several myths that continue to obstruct effective teaching and learning. These myths need to be addressed.

Learning is fun

This myth is sometimes stated as learning can be or should be fun, the implication being that we have not yet found the key to making it fun, or that unspecified others have not yet made it fun.

It is wrong in any case. Why is an area of study called a “discipline”? Because learning is work, and the more intense the learning, the harder the work. A synonym of “fun” is “diversion”. Learning is not a diversion.

It is because learning is work that the majority of people give it up when they finish school, and fall back upon passive entertainments to occupy their free time.

In reality, though not fun, learning can be intellectually and emotionally satisfying, an accomplishment that can give a legitimate boost to self-esteem.

In any case, attempts to make learning fun result in creating distractions from the material to be learned. Two common examples are the inclusion of numerous marginal notes and images in textbooks, and so-called educational games. Both examples present material in contexts that are purposely distracting, reducing focus. Other examples are described below.

Engagement is key to learning

This is false when taken at the superficial level accepted by many educators. It is engagement with the actual material that is key to learning. Too often it is believed that engagement with a process or a medium is sufficient.

For example, students will quickly become “engaged” when given computers, but they are engaged with the medium, not the material. This is one reason why strategies that give laptops to all students generally do nothing to improve learning, and often detract from it. Yet educators, parents, and students all take the superficial engagement as proof that the strategy is a success.

Engagement is another word for focus, and anything that creates distractions, as a computer surely does, reduces focus.

Ironically, studies show that the best ways to engage with the material require no technology whatsoever: take hand-written notes, pause and recall during reading, and discuss the material with others. Again, all three require discipline.

Learning through games is effective

Embedding subject matter into a game is purposely putting it into a distracting context. Using games for learning has proven only that students can learn to play games. It is a misguided attempt to make learning fun.

But games must not be confused with serious simulations. If a computer program can simulate the function and operation of a nuclear reactor, for example, and the student has a legitimate need to learn that, then the simulation can be an excellent learning tool. But this is serious, not a game.

Different “learning styles” should be acknowledged and accepted

Some students learn easily from text, some from images, others aurally. The myth is that these differences are to be acknowledged, accepted, and integrated per se into teaching.
The fact is that these “styles” are actually skills that all students must learn. The lack of any one of these skills is a learning disability that must be remedied as early as possible in a student’s career. Teachers should otherwise assume that students have these skills; they should not have to assume that each student is a special case.

Rote memorization is bad

On the contrary, rote learning is the best general method for young students, and it is the best method in some subjects at any age.

Young people naturally and readily absorb facts of any kind, but they are not capable of abstract reasoning, which begins to develop around the time of puberty. Rote learning is what they do best. Any parent can attest to children instantly picking up facts that teens miss unless repeated.

Rote learning is necessary in many subjects at whatever age they are studied. Multiplication tables, alphabets, and the grammars of foreign languages are examples.

Students need to know how to use a computer

Some people need to know how to use computers for their jobs, but students do not need to know how to use computers unless they are purposely prevented from getting or producing required materials by any other means.

If a computer program can simulate an object or process that is too expensive, too dangerous, or otherwise unavailable, then that can be a legitimate need.

Simply changing the medium in which learning materials are presented, such as putting texts online instead of in books, artificially creates a need for a computer.

Effective teaching and learning require the latest technology

The untruth of this myth can be demonstrated with a short quiz on three advanced subjects:

  • What level of technology is needed to teach or learn evolution? The technology of 1859: a book.
  • What level of technology is needed to teach or learn the theory of relativity? The technology of 1905: a book.
  • What level of technology is needed to teach or learn quantum mechanics? The technology of the 1920s: a book.

There are courses that do require technology, but a realist will consider the context in which the subject matter was first developed.

The internet is a good learning tool

Nowhere in public education is the internet a better learning tool than good textbooks. The internet is too broad, unfocused, rife with distractions, open-ended, and seldom peer-reviewed. A good textbook contains the right amount of carefully selected and logically presented material without distractions. When a student uses a textbook, he or she knows the bounds of what is to be learned and where to find it.

If you are a teacher, which of the 12,300,000 Google references to dinosaurs would you recommend to your students? If you are a student, which of these should you study to satisfy the course requirements?

The internet can be a good learning tool only for a sophisticated and disciplined learner. For all others it is an entertainment.

Online courses make learning easier

Online courses can provide faster or more convenient access to materials, but learning occurs in the brain of the student. If all the materials are readily at hand in a textbook, the online materials offer no advantage.

An online course suffers also from being on a very distracting medium. In addition, it is impersonal, and it does not conduce genuine engagement with the material — that is, paying attention, note-taking, and discussion.

Multiple-choice tests are good

Where in real life does the situation arise wherein you are presented with a leading question and several choices of answers? When do you display your knowledge of a subject by offering or answering multiple-choice questions?

Understanding is demonstrated by explanations of the principals that connect facts, not by simply listing facts or selecting from a list of facts.

Every application of a multiple-choice test is a missed opportunity to reveal genuine understanding (if any) and to improve writing skills.

Education can be automated

On the contrary, education is a social activity. Learning is best done in a social context that provides goals, stimulus, discipline, interaction, and reward.

We all remember teachers who, through their attention and personalities, stimulated us to learn and enjoy learning. Research has shown that even a simple approving pat on the shoulder can improve a student’s learning.

We learn with, from, and for others as well as ourselves. This cannot be automated.

Summary

Most of these myths are held to be true because, if they were true, teaching and learning would be easier. Others are believed because they simply seem more “modern”. But they are not true. There is no effective escape from the facts. Either educators face the truth, or public education will continue its current slide into triviality and ephemera.

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