James Herriott was a veterinarian who wrote very popular books about his experiences in a small town in Yorkshire, England. In his first book he described his veterinary education at the University of Edinburgh, in the 1930s. One day, he came out of class and saw an old, sway-backed horse hitched to a cart. Proud of all he was learning in his program, he decided to check out the horse. He located all of its major muscle groups, identified some old injuries, and thought what he might recommend if he were the horse’s vet. In the midst of his happy explorations and daydreaming, however, the horse unexpectedly whipped around and grabbed him by the shoulder, hoisting him two feet off the ground. Herriott was completely helpless, flailing around ineffectually to try to get free. He was also mortified by this comical predicament, which drew a crowd. Finally, the horse’s owner came running up, cursed out Herriott for disturbing his horse, and finally commanded the horse to put him down, which he did.
James Herriott learned an important lesson that day. There is a big difference between knowing things and knowing how to do things. Herriott could know absolutely everything about every aspect of equine anatomy and function. But none of this was of much help unless he also know how to manage horses in real life, not in books.
I was reminded of this story when I read an article in Education Week about a recent report, “What Teachers Know About the Science of Learning,” by my friend Ulrich Boser of The Learning Agency. The main point of the report was that teachers believe in a lot of long-debunked ideas, such as the concept that there are “left brain” (e.g., good at math) and “right brain” (e.g., good at art) learners. The report focused on a survey of 200 educators about these and other mistaken but widely held ideas.
If you want to be appalled, there was plenty in the report that was appalling. 77% of educators believed that “right brained” and “left brained” people exist, and that they learn differently. A whopping 97% believe that students can be categorized by their learning styles (e.g., auditory, visual, and kinesthetic), which has been soundly debunked for decades.
Because of these kinds of misconceptions, a substantial enterprise has grown up around debunking them. In many universities, it is possible to take a whole course in “neuromyths.” However, I have to admit, I have trouble getting too excited. For teachers, I wonder how much it really matters whether or not they believe in right/left brain or learning styles. Every teacher is aware of the fact that students learn differently, and have various learning strengths and difficulties. As long as teachers believe that these learning differences in no way limit student learning, then how much does it matter if they believe in right- or left-brained people? As long as teachers do not try to match their instruction with students’ supposed “learning styles,” who cares if they think learning styles exist? Whether or not you believe in learning styles, it is surely beneficial to teach using visual, auditory, and tactile methods, to all students, whatever their supposed learning styles.
Imagine for a moment that every teacher disavowed every neuromyth, and learned how brains truly functioned. Learning the truth is always a good thing. But would their students actually learn more?
What really matters is what teachers do. Give me a teacher who knows how to make content exciting and comprehensible, one who knows how to manage diverse classrooms so that students are eager to learn, self-motivated, productive, and able to work effectively with peers. Give me a teacher who models curiosity, kindness, and flexibility, one who accepts and builds on student errors, one who helps all students believe in themselves and their potential, whatever their backgrounds. If a teacher can do all of these things, do we really care if they think there are learning styles? All of the attributes of this ideal teacher can be taught, practiced, observed, and learned by ordinary teachers. Given a fixed amount of time and money to provide professional development and coaching, should we be worrying about the language teachers use to describe student diversity, or should we be working to enable teachers to use proven approaches to enhance their effectiveness?
What James Herriott learned hanging from the jaws of a draft horse is that he wished that in addition to all his science courses, someone had thought it worthwhile to teach him how to manage horse behavior. Children are a lot more forgiving than draft horses, but to succeed with them, teachers must know how to create effective environments for children and respond to their behavior in productive ways. Learning this takes outstanding, ongoing professional development and a whole career of practice. Do we truly have time for neuromyths, or even for their correction?
Boser, U. (2019). What do teachers know about the science of learning? Retrieved September 9, 2019 from https://www.the-learning-agency.com/insights/what-do-teachers-know-about-the-science-of-learning
Picture by Henry Walter, 1822 via Wellcome Library [CC BY 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0)]
This blog was developed with support from the Laura and John Arnold Foundation. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the Foundation.