Did you hear the one about the little old lady (why is it always a little old lady?) who after walking her toy poodle in the rain wanted to dry it quickly? She put the poodle in the microwave – it used to be the clothes drier – and cooked it?
Such a story is called an urban legend; an often fictitious story that’s broadly circulated, seen by the teller and listener as true, that we want to believe, but that there’s no proof for.
Education is rife with myths which undermine learning. Many can be dismissed as tangential or exotic (e.g., listening to Mozart makes your baby smarter), but some are pernicious. Take the idea that kids’ brains now are different from previous generations and that teaching should accommodate this.
We look at three pervasive urban legends in education which actually are variations on one central theme, namely, that learners know best and should be the controlling force in their learning.
The first is the learner as digital native who instinctively know how to learn from new media, and for whom ‘old’ media and methods used in teaching/learning no longer work. The second is that learners have specific learning styles and that education should be individualised so that the pedagogy matches that style. The final legend is that learners ought to be seen as self-educators who should be allowed to control/determine what they are learning and how.
Myth 1. The Digital Native
If you see kids with a tablet, you might think they really know what they’re doing. They search for videos and effortlessly use all types of social media. People call them digital natives and call us (parents and teachers) digital immigrants.
According to Marc Prensky1 who coined the term, these digital natives can’t learn in the current educational system and thus should be taught in a different way because they think and process information fundamentally differently from their predecessors “as a result of this ubiquitous [digital] environment and the sheer volume of their interaction with it”(p. 1).
Veen and Vrakking2 took this a step further and introduced the homo zappiëns; a new generation of learners who learn significantly differently from their predecessors.
But playing with tablets is different from learning via tablets and Instagramming friends is different from communicating and collaborating to learn. Yes, kids can search for practically everything online, but there’s also a lot of misinformation, disinformation, and even sheer nonsense online.
Good Googling requires formulating a good search question and then assessing what’s found with respect to its usefulness, reliability, truth, and so on. All of the hours children spend with new technology has not led to acquisition of these necessary skills (called media literacy or information problem-solving skills.
In addition, children (and adults too) often flutter via hyperlinks from one ‘interesting’ piece of information to the next without understanding the underlying structure of the content. They may remember some ‘interesting’ facts, but don’t really learn. Gavriel Salomon3 called this the butterfly defect.
Myth 2. Learning Styles
The second legend is learning styles. The idea is that to teach well, you need to determine the learning style of each pupil and then teach accordingly. This is known as the meshing hypothesis4. Step 1, thus, is determining what style each learner has.
In the last half century, many different learning styles have been thought up. For example, the VARK divides people into four learning styles: Visual, Auditory, Read/Write, Kinaesthetic. Kolb defines four styles, namely divergers, assimilators, convergers, and accommodators.
Others divide students into holistic or analytical learners, impulsive or reflective learners, analytical, practical or creative learners, and so on. Frank Coffield and his colleagues came to no fewer than 71 different styles!
One learning style per child?
Suppose you want to use learning styles to differentiate in your classroom. First you determine who in the class is a diverger, assimilator, converger, or accommodator (Kolb). Once you determine this you then need to find out who in the class is visual, auditory, read/write or kinaesthetic (VARK). You now test her for this and you now can divide the class into visual divergers, auditory convergers… and all of of the now 16 possible styles (4 Kolb x 4 VARK). But who are holistic or analytical visual divergers? You test them again and now we are on 32 different learning styles that you may need to attend to. Are you there yet? No! You don’t know if there are impulsive or reflective analytical visual divergers. Now we’ve reached 64 different possible learning styles and unfortunately you can continue for a while (remember, you’ve only tested for 4 of the 71). That’s not only impossible, it also makes no sense at all.
Add to this, research shows6,5 shows that matching teaching to learning style doesn’t lead to better learning. The meshing hypothesis predicts that, for example, pupils with an auditory style will learn better if they listen to the instruction and less well or not at all if they read it. This is the opposite for a pupil with a visual learning style (and we’ve purposely left out visual and kinaesthetic). Unfortunately, there’s no proof that the meshing hypothesis is true!
A third problem with learning styles inventories, usually self-response questionnaires, aren’t reliable. One week, the person is an assimilator and the next week a converger. Allied to this is that the questions used actually only measure the preference for a certain way of learning.
Myth 3. Students know best
But your preference doesn’t say anything about whether you actually learn better with the preferred type of presentation. Do students really know what’s good for them? Ask people about their favourite food and you’ll here that it’s something fatty, and/or salty, and/or sweet. Is this eating preference (eating style) also the healthiest?
Finally, how do you explain to an auditory pupil how crimson red and brick red look or kinaesthetically explain how a blackbird sings? In other words, it’s the subject matter and the learning goal that should determine how one teaches and not a learning preference or non-existent style.
Third, Kirschner and Van Merriënboer discuss the often voiced idea that for students to learn best, they need control over their own learning process; that is make their own choices about what they want to learn, when they want to learn it, and how. By giving them control of (or autonomy with) their own learning process, they become more motivated and subsequently learn and perform better.
A problem here is that students find it difficult to accurately estimate their own performance; they often think that they are better than in reality. Also, if pupils are given the opportunity to make their own choices, they often choose what they find easy.
For example, they choose assignments that they already know they can do. In this way they don’t challenge themselves, while this is exactly what we, as teachers, want to do. They need our help. We have to support and guide them in making good choices and gradually reduce this support and guidance so that pupils can eventually do it by themselves (i.e., we must properly scaffold their learning choices).
What does this means for practice?
The insights from this article help us to reflect on the role of digital technology in education, differentiation, and independent learning. We can’t ignore the technology that surrounds us, but we can teach our students to actively and responsibly deal with digital information and make them media savvy.
It’s good to critically look at when and how to use a smartphone, tablet, or laptop is; when it is effective and efficient for learning and when it isn’t.
As Kirschner and Van Merriënboer clearly show, learning styles don’t exist. They therefore aren’t a meaningful basis for differentiation. In fact, they are rather counter-productive because our memory benefits from instruction being presented in more than one modality and this applies to all pupils.
Teachers, thus, don’t need to spend time determining each person’s learning style and changing their teaching accordingly. There are many other, more effective ways to differentiate, but this falls outside of the scope of this piece.
Finally, independent self-determined and –directed learning is not something students can do spontaneously. They need support and guidance in making their choices and you, as teacher, are the perfect person to do this. You can’t begin early enough helping children make good choices, but it’s not productive to do this too soon.
- Stop propagating the myths of learning styles and digital natives. Both don’t exist and teaching according to them is a waste of time and is often bad for the student!
- Be careful with self-determination, including self-directed and self-determined learning. Students must acquire these skills with your support and under your guidance.
- Work with students when searching for information on the web and teach them what how to judge the reliability and validity of what they find.
- Learners are poor judges of how they ‘learn best’.
- Schools need ‘research leads’ to act as a buffer against urban myths in education.
This article is an abridged version of Chapter 26 of our book How Learning Happens: Seminal Works in Educational Psychology and What They Mean in Practice6. That chapter is based upon the seminal article written by Paul A. Kirschner and Jeroen van Merriënboer entitled ‘Do learners really know best? Urban legends in education’7
Paul A. Kirschner is emeritus professor of educational psychology at the Open University of the Netherlands, an honorary doctor (doctor honoris causa) at the University of Oulu in Finland, and guest professor at Thomas More University of Applied Sciences in Belgium. Carl Hendrick is the head of learning and research at Wellington College in the United Kingdom, where he teaches English.
This article is adapted from their book ‘How Learning Happens: Seminal Works in Educational Psychology and What They Mean in Practice’ (Routledge, 2020). Adapted and reprinted with permission of the publisher. The book can be ordered at 20% discount by going to www.bit.ly/HLH-TT and using promocode HLH20
- Prensky, M. (2001). Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants Part 1. On the Horizon, 9(5), 1–6. Available from https://www.marcprensky.com/writing/Prensky%20-%20Digital%20Natives,%20Digital%20Immigrants%20-%20Part1.pdf
- Veen, W., & Vrakking, B. (2006). Homo Zappiens: Growing up in a digital age. London, UK: Network Continuum Education.
- Salomon, G. (1998). Novel constructivist learning environments and novel technologies: Some issues to be concerned with. Keynote Address presented at the EARLI Meeting, Athens, Greece, August 1997. Available at https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0959475298000073
- Pashler, H., McDaniel, M., Rohrer, D., & Bjork, R. (2009). Learning styles: Concepts and evidence. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 9(3), 105-119. DOI:10.1111/j.1539-6053.2009.01038.x
- Coffield, F., Moseley, D., Hall, E., & Ecclestone, K. (2004). Learning styles and pedagogy in post-16 learning. A systematic and critical review. London, UK: Learning and Skills Research Centre. Available from http://www.leerbeleving.nl/wp-content/uploads/2011/09/learning-styles.pdf
- Kirschner, P. A. & Hendrick, C. (2020). How Learning Happens: Seminal Works in Educational Psychology and What They Mean in Practice. London: Routledge.
- Kirschner, P. A. & Van Merriënboer, J. J. G. (2013). Do learners really know best? Urban legends in education. Educational Psychologist, 48(3), 169-183. doi:10.1080/00461520.2013.804395