Neuromyths and potential classroom implications: Part 2 – Learning Styles, Fixed Intelligence, Forget about Arts

This is the second part of the 4-post series on how neuroscience can be used in the classroom. If you missed the first blog post, read it here.

Let’s get down to business, shall we? What are some of the most commonly spread neuromyths in educational settings? Here’s my list with 3 of them:

1. Learning Styles

By now, you must have heard that the whole learning styles thing is a neuromyth. If you haven’t or even if you don’t agree, no need to change the way you teach. Well, not necessarily. Let’s look at how it started and what it actually means for us, teachers, and our students.

Origin

It was in the 70s that the idea gained popularity and, in the following decades, many authors either supported it or created their own models. The two most famous were perhaps Walter Burke Barbe with his Visual-Auditory-Kinesthetic (VAK) model in 1979, reinforced by Neil Fleming, and David Kolb’s with his Accommodator-Converger-Diverger-Assimilator (look at what happened in The Divergent Series, labeling people like that!)

Even Howard Gardner’s Frames of Mind: Multiple Intelligence Theory in 1983 has contributed to the myth. He has, however, explained on many occasions that

[…] by the middle 1990s, I had noticed a number of  misinterpretations of the theory—for example, the confusion of intelligences with learning styles […]

Howard Gardner (2003, p. 8)

Why is it a myth?

Many studies (look at this metanalysis by Paschler et al. 2010) have demonstrated that we do not learn best if we learn through our preferred learning style (they tested mostly VAK). In fact, there are subjects or activities that rely heavily upon just one of those modalities and would be quite hard or impossible to learn for certain types of learners, which doesn’t happen. How to teach physical geography without using maps, for example? Also, we know that our working memory capacity is quite limited and that memory retention benefits from multiple representations of the information we’re learning. That means that taking a lot of aural (auditory) input at once without anything visual to relate it to is likely to cause cognitive overload and be quickly forgotten.

What does that all mean in the classroom?

It means that it’s better to listen to and look at something than to do just one of the other. It’s the concept of dual coding (Paivio, 1991). It also means that teaching as if everyone had all three VAK learning styles is actually a good thing because you’re varying your input. But, assigning homework or teaching a one-to-one lesson, for example, based on a specific learning style and neglecting the others will most likely be bad for the students.

2. Fixed Intelligence

Ever heard?

I have no talent for this

I wasn’t cut ou to be that

I don’t have that gene

These are common sentences people who are struggling use to justify why they can’t seem to learn something. But is that really the case?

Origin

Most likely the IQ test fever originated after the publication of Alfred Binet and Théodore Simon’s book in 1905. It became possible to “quantify” kids’ intelligence or mental age using a score that varied from 90 (normal intelligence) to over 140 (genius). Many schools, parents, and institutions adopted the IQ test and started labeling kids and giving prognoses.

Why is it a myth?

The intelligence of an individual in not a fixed quantity

The scale, properly speaking, does not permit the measure of the intelligence, because intellectual qualities are not superposable, and therefore cannot be measured as linear surfaces are measured.

Alfred Binet

That’s right. Binet himself said it was not possible to quantify people’s intelligence. Psychology now knows that there are individual differences (not actually multiple intelligences as discussed in Gardner 1983 and reviewed by Gardner in 2003) and neuroscience brings the notion of neuroplasticity, which, simply put, means that the brain can always learn and change itself through experience.

Perhaps the most popular author discussing this nowadays is Carol Dweck (2006) with the concept of Growth Mindset. She says that students who have a more Growth Mindset, that is, the belief that they can improve with effort and that their intelligence is not fixed, will likely achieve more than those who have a more Fixed Mindset, which refers to those who believe their intelligence is limited.

PS: we all have a little bit of both (Growth and Fixed) and it depends on what we are doing. A more Growth Mindset can be developed.

What does that all mean in the classroom?

If students’ intelligence can be improved, we must be careful about labels. A “weak” student does hold the potential to become the “strongest” in class. It all depends on having the right ingredients. An emotional connection with the teacher and the class, constructive feedback and adjusted practice, the clear notion that his/her intelligence is not static, the knowledge that our brains are plastic and constantly changing, some idea of metacognitive strategies (learning how to learn) and support are some of the ways we can make sure we develop our students’ intelligence. Also, a focus on the learning process over the product, and praising effort and dedication are great ways to develop a more Growth Mindset.

3. Forget about Arts: STEM over STEAM

In some countries, mine included, it feels like arts have become secondary in the curriculum. Why is that?

Origin

There’s a widespread notion that academic subjects are the best chance a kid will have at finding a job in the future. The rapid increase of Sciences, Technology, Engineerings, and Maths (STEM) and its potential to generate wealth for a country seem to have shifted schools’ focus. The whole thing probably goes back to a rather discriminatory view that musicians, painters, and dancers were bohemian people who produced nothing of added value. Even worse, artists have been persecuted in authoritarian regimes for the danger they offered their respective governments because of their “free-thinking minds” or potential connection with riots and a revolution. Two examples are the Nazis burning books that opposed their ideology or the Mao’s Cultural Revolution in China forbidding western musical instruments.

Let’s go even deeper. During the medieval Dark Ages, artists who opposed the views of the Catholic church or the king were also considered dangerous, even heretics, and were often imprisoned or executed.

Why is it a myth?

Arts are known to promote critical thinking and creativity, which may more easily lead to innovation (Boy, 2013; Madden et al., 2013). Focusing exclusively on STEM may lack the interdisciplinarity that is at the foundation of Higher Order Thinking Skills (HOTS), described in Bloom’s Taxonomy (1956). There are studies showing that long-term artistic experiences make our brains more plastic, that is, with the ability to constantly change structurally and learn, for a longer time (Münte et al., 2002, Schlegel et al., 2015). And, perhaps the most compelling evidence, several studies have found that integrating arts in the curriculum improve academic performance as they improve attention, memory, executive functions, and self-regulation (Gullatt, 2007; Diamond, 2012; Respress & Lufti, 2006)

What does that all mean in the classroom?

As the image at the beginning of this post indicates, art is essential for humans.

The “EARTH” without “ART” is just “EH”

Unknown

I’d go further and say that education without art is also boring. That is precisely why we must integrate arts in the curriculum. It’s not stealing time from your students, time they could be using to practice more. It’s giving them the tools to be higher achievers, innovators, creative and free thinkers.

Use projects that involve photography or painting. Have students act in a play or sing and dance in a musical. Listen to music and analyze the lyrics, get them to compose their own and play their own instruments. Have a book fair or a reading club. Get your students to write their own tales or poems. Teach them how to build models or sculpt. Join the Maker Movement and create makerspaces in your school.

In short, put the “A” back in STEM.

That’s it for today’s neuromyths. If you’re eager to know more, follow me on Instagram (@edcrocks) and sign up for my asynchronous online courses here. You get 15% off in July!

Next week I’ll write about Drilling, Multitasking, and Emotions in Neuromyths part 3. Don’t miss it!

online

 

REFERENCES

Learning Styles

Barbe, Walter Burke; Swassing, Raymond H.; Milone, Michael N. (1979). Teaching through modality strengths: concepts practices. Columbus, Ohio: Zaner-Bloser.

Coffield, Frank; Moseley, David; Hall, Elaine; Ecclestone, Kathryn (2004). Learning styles and pedagogy in post-16 learning: a systematic and critical review (PDF). London: Learning and Skills Research

Gardner, H. (2003). Multiple intelligences after twenty years. American Educational Research Association, Chicago, Illinois21.

Kolb, David (1984). Experiential learning: Experience as the source of learning and development. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Paivio, A. (1991). Dual coding theory: Retrospect and current status. Canadian Journal of Psychology/Revue canadienne de psychologie45(3), 255.

Paschler, H., McDaniel, M., Rohrer, D. & Bjork, R. (2010). Learning styles: Concepts and evidence. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 9, 105–119.

Fixed Intelligence

Dweck, C. S. (2006). Mindset: The new psychology of success. New York, NY, US: Random House

Gardner, H. (1983). Frames of mind: The theory of multiple intelligences. New York: Basic Books.

Gardner, H. (2003). Multiple intelligences after twenty years. American Educational Research Association, Chicago, Illinois21.

Kaufman, Alan S. (2009). IQ Testing 101. New York: Springer Publishing

Forget the Arts

Bloom, B.S. (1956) Taxonomy of Educational Objectives, Handbook: The Cognitive Domain. David McKay, New York.

Boy, Guy A. (2013). From STEM to STEAM: Toward a Human-Centred Education, Creativity & Learning Thinking. In Proceedings of the 31st European Conference on Cognitive Ergonomics, 3:1–3:7. ECCE ’13. New York, NY, USA: ACM.

Diamond, A. (2012). Activities and programs that improve children’s executive functions. Current directions in psychological science21(5), 335-341.

Gullatt, D. E. (2007, September). Research links the arts with student academic gains. In The Educational Forum (Vol. 71, No. 3, pp. 211-220). Taylor & Francis Group

Madden, M. E., Baxter, M., Beauchamp, H., Bouchard, K., Habermas, D., Huff, M., … & Plague, G. (2013). Rethinking STEM education: An interdisciplinary STEAM curriculum.
Procedia Computer Science, 20, 541-546

Münte, T. F., Altenmüller, E., & Jäncke, L. (2002). The musician’s brain as a model of
neuroplasticity. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 3(6), 473-478.

Respress, T., & Lutfi, G. (2006). Whole brain learning: The fine arts with students at risk. Reclaiming children and youth15(1), 24.

Schlegel, A., Alexander, P., Fogelson, S. V., Li, X., Lu, Z., Kohler, P. J., … & Meng, M. (2015).
The artist emerges: Visual art learning alters neural structure and function. NeuroImage,
105, 440-451.

 

Part 3. Consolidation

We finally got to the end of this three-post series on how to use the Science of Learning to make learning more effective! Check out Parts 1 (ENGAGE) and 2 (BUILD) right here and here. Don’t forget to sing up for my Nat Geo Learning webinar here.

Engage

Ok, so we’ve discussed how you need to first ENGAGE your student (or yourself as a learner) and BUILD on PRIOR KNOWLEDGE to achieve the INTENDED LEARNING OUTCOME (ILO). That sounds great and, to be fair, we can pretty much check if our students have indeed learned by the end of that lesson, right? We normally set up a PRODUCTION phase or do a quick review by asking questions or even have them answer a quick activity or survey. There’s just one problem. I can’t remember how to calculate Torricelli’s Equation or how to explain the different layers of our planet from the surface to the innermost part. Any organic chemistry left? Nah…not much. History? More than any other subject. English? Well, I still remember a lot of that.

Catch my drift? At one point in my life I actually used to know how to apply Bhaskara’s formula (I love this example because it kinda shows how much “useless” stuff we learn at school). I could build long chains of organic compounds and discuss in detail how the Earth’s crust had been formed. And my teachers asked me a bunch of questions about those topics and I was able to answer them. They were assessing learning. It turns out that now I’m pretty much hopeless in any of those topics.
What is consolidation then? How does knowledge consolidate in the brain and what does it take? Let’s take a look at some principles and go back to the examples above. If we search the word CONSOLIDATION on Google, that’s what we get:

consolidation

/kənˌsɒlɪˈdeɪʃ(ə)n/

noun

1. the action or process of making something stronger or more solid.

2. the action or process of combining a number of things into a single more effective or coherent whole.

Great, but how long does a particular knowledge last in our memories? I guess the examples I mentioned before didn’t consolidate properly in my brain since I am unable to retrieve them, right? I mean, I know I once learned them, but I can’t really apply them. The English language, on the other hand, is still here. I started learning it when I was around 7 and I’d say it’s pretty much consolidated. What made a difference?

1. REHEARSAL

Rehearsing is basically repeating or practicing a new piece of knowledge in different contexts for a long period of time. After high school, I did not have to use my knowledge on tectonic plates or the structure of benzene, erm… like… ever again! Even though these facts might still be there, I can’t really access them. The problem with rehearsing is that it must be continuous or else we really do forget. Neuroimaging studies show that people who have just learned some arithmetic (like multiplication) have a lot of activation in different areas of the brain, including the frontal areas, responsible for the WORKING MEMORY. However, after training (or REHEARSAL), less activation occurs (especially in the frontal areas) as the new knowledge becomes more automatic and, thus, more easily retrieved.

I do remember a cool physics class we had in which we observed the water volume in a tube before and after we added an ice cube in it. The level raised a little and our teacher asked us what would happen after that ice cube melted. Most of us answered that the water level would go back to where it was before adding the ice cube or that it would increase a little but not reach the level it had with the ice cube inside. We were surprised to learn that the level between a) tube +water + solid ice cube = b) tube + water + melted ice cube (also known as water). We had that experiment and discussed why it happened in class and told our parents about and, and, and… We applied that knowledge in different contexts and our brains created different representations of it, which is quite useful as we have various paths to access this memory. By the way, if you don’t believe the water level doesn’t change, do the experiment yourself or check out this explanation. That brings me to:

2. APPLYING KNOWLEDGE

This has to do with using that knowledge in several different ways and contexts so that you can access it more easily in the future. “Learning things over and over again” is a great way to add NEURAL HOOKS (different cues or associations) to help you find that information in your memory. It’s kinda finding your way to your favorite camping spot in the woods. If you have only one path memorized, what happens if you don’t go back to that place for many months or years and the bushes grow over it, covering the path? If you go back, it’ll be hard to find your way there. Now, if you have walked different paths to get to that same spot and you can’t remember one, you’ll be able to pick up another. In a study conducted on subjects learning a second language, there was a lot of activation in very specific areas of the brain in very similar patterns when they were at the initial learning stages, indicating that they were using various strategies to learn, however, once they became more familiar with the vocabulary over the course of their classes, areas in the parietal lobe were more activated (much less activation in the frontal areas) but with different patterns this time. This means that that knowledge had become more automatic and that they had multiple representations of it as the patterns changed, making it easier for them to retrieve that information.

Ok, this next step is probably one of our favorites! It’s what we spend 1/3 of our lives doing and it feels we’re not getting enough of it. You’ve guessed it right:

3. SLEEP

For those of you who thought sleeping was for the weak, well, I have great news. Sleeping is for the ones who want to learn effectively. Both our SLOW WAVE and RAPID EYE MOVEMENT (REM) SLEEP play a very important role in DECLARATIVE MEMORY (ideas, concepts, facts) and PROCEDURAL MEMORY (abilities, habits) CONSOLIDATION. If you want more information on that, check this great TED-Ed video. What does that tell us about when to do HOMEWORK or REVISION? If they are types of REHEARSAL and we need sleep to help consolidate memories, should they be done on the same day that we learned that new knowledge and not revisited in the next class? Think about it.

4. EMOTIONS & STRESS

STRESS is one of those words that got a really bad reputation, nevertheless, it is an important learning tool. Being slightly stressed, in a good way, means you’re alert and attending to the instruction. If it arouses you because it’s interesting and fun or even creepy and bizarre, this will help you consolidate that memory in a more effective way. The problem is when FEAR, for instance, takes over and our cognitive resources attend to trying to keep us alive or not exposed to something that might embarrass or harm us in any way. Having a strong emotional connection with our teacher and feeling excited about what we’re learning is a great way to make sure we are in fact learning well.

To wrap up our the last blog post in our series, let’s use the construction analogy again. Imagine a pickup truck driving to the construction site carrying bricks, concrete, wood, screws, nails, buckets, etc. The driver always takes the same route. What happens if that route is closed and no GPS, Google Maps, Waze or whatever is available? The driver might get lost trying to find another route. The pickup truck is our WORKING MEMORY and it can carry only a limited amount of things to the construction site, our LONG-TERM MEMORY. In order to get to the construction site effectively, the driver will certainly need to repeat it a few times (REHEARSAL) and, to make sure they won’t get lost, they should certainly find other routes (APPLYING KNOWLEDGE). Driving without enough SLEEP will likely cause an accident and stop those materials from reaching their destination. If the driver is excited about getting there, or even a little pressed for time (just the right amount of STRESS), they will probably pay more attention and drive more effectively to make sure they arrive OK and on time.

In neurosciencetish (the language of neuroscience), we need to give our students the chance to REHEARSE the new knowledge, APPLYING it in different contexts over a long period of time, to both automatize it and unload the WORKING MEMORY to be free for more knowledge, in an environment with the right amount of STRESS and AROUSAL, to make sure we have their attention and hold them accountable for their learning, and get a good night’s SLEEP to consolidate those memories more effectively.

So, to be fair, I’m not hopeless in any of those subjects I mentioned and neither are your students. We can always learn. We just need to REHEARSE, APPLY, SLEEP well, and be a little STRESSED and AROUSED about the right things at the right time.

The final weapons for improved consolidation and retention (and you can read them on my blog with some references):

SPACED REPETITION

POMODORO TECHNIQUE

MEMORY PALACE TECHNIQUE

Tough job, isn’t it? That’s why we chose to be teachers. The good news is: some types of knowledge do can be forgotten depending on the path you chose and it won’t really affect your life. Do you remember all those formulas you learned in physics and maths?

You can check out my lesson plan here and also access the Science of Learning – Engage, Build, Consolidate website.

How to Memorize and Retrieve Better Using the Memory Palace Technique

memory palace
Taken from the Braz-Tesol MBE SIG page on Facebook
In our second MBE blog post, we are going to discuss how our memories can be trained and become better with practice allied with memorization techniques that have been used for millennia. If you missed our first post about spaced repetition, you can find it here.
Think for a moment. Try to go back in time using your memory and remember what you had for lunch yesterday. Got it? What about two days ago? A little harder? And three days ago? What about four? Five? How about ten days ago? Well, I’ll take a chance and say you probably had a lot of difficulty remembering your lunch after you passed the 2-day threshold, am I right? Now imagine you’re teaching that group of 10, 15, 20 students that you have. Close your eyes and try to remember where everyone is seated. I’ll bet that was a lot easier, right?
I know what you’re thinking: “My lunch is different every day (or most days) and my students always sit in the same place”. You’re right! That’s one of the reasons why you can remember their positions more easily. Another reason is the fact that humans have excellent spatial memory and not that great declarative memory (explicit memory), which is the conscious part of our memory in charge of storing concepts, experiences, and facts (Ullman, 2004). This probably developed to help early humans better protect themselves against predators, retrieve the location of safe havens and find animals to hunt and food in their territory (Foer, 2011). Be it as it may, our spatial capabilities could be put to better use when it comes to memorizing other types of information.
If we look into the original story of Simonides of Ceo, a Greek poet hired to entertain the guests of the banquet in a palace, we can understand how reliable our spatial memory is. After entertaining the guests and leaving the premises, the palace collapsed and killed everyone beyond recognition. Simonides, having taken a good look at everyone, was able to remember where the guests were and helped identify them to the families by simply taking them to their deceased loved ones (Yates, 1966).
Knowing that our spatial memory is quite good, how can we use it to help us remember the content of a test, the sequence of our presentations or even a doctor’s appointment? The idea is quite simple actually. All we have to do is to imagine a building, a house or an apartment for instance. It helps if it’s our own house since we’re very familiar with the different rooms. Now, in every room of this house, place the information you want to retrieve. The trick is to create bizarre, strong, nonsensical images that you can easily go back to when needed.
Let’s say your students are learning Modals for Speculating. They could imagine they’re entering their house and right on the floor of their living room there’s a crime scene and a giraffe or a gorilla detective. A robbery or a murder perhaps. They can see some evidence and they need to think of a possible answer to that crime before they answer the detective’s interrogation.: “The criminal must have entered through the window, no signs of breaking on the door. The criminal might have picked the lock. The criminal can’t have copied my key”. Now imagine your students need to retrieve Professions (vocabulary). They could see in their kitchen a lawyer who happens to be a zombie being operated on by a vampire surgeon while stick people journalists take photos and a cat wearing a chef’s hat prepares a delicious meal.
A well-established concept that explains why the memory palace can be of great help to our memory is the Elaborative Encoding Theory (Karpicke & Smith, 2012). It claims that for better memorization and retrieval, the information needs to be encoded in a series of different ways rather than just one. Instead of only listening to a new phone number, the elaborative encoding theory proposes that we listen to it, write it down, associated its digits with something we already know, as well as place it in a different room of our house, for example. This theory goes hand in hand with Paivio’s Dual Coding Theory, which claims that we need to use verbal and non-verbal processing to better consolidate and retrieve information from our memory (Paivio, 1986).
I realize you might be feeling a little uncomfortable with the idea of creating bizarre images so that you can better retrieve information. It may even sound silly to imagine a murder scene in your living room or to think Paris is in your kitchen. But journalist Joshua Foer, a guy with an average memory, used the memory palace technique and became the 2006 USA Memory Championship winner! He even wrote a book, entitled Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything, teaching us how to improve our memories. It’s worth a shot, don’t you think? (Foer, 2011)
If you’re still reluctant, here are a couple of rules to help you get started and to teach your students:

1) If you can, teach different topics (grammar structures or vocabulary) in different areas of your classroom. Move every time you change the content subject. Another way you can do this is by moving your students. Wrapped up Modals for Speculating? Tell everyone to change seats and start teaching the vocabulary;

2) Use colors to assign different areas of the classroom different meanings, such as grammar and vocabulary. Each corner can have a different color. If you want to take the next step, each corner can be a different country on a different continent. You can even set up visual aids to help them imagine (a photo of the Great Wall of China here, the Eiffel Tower there, etc);

3) Tell your students to study different subjects in different rooms in their house and use the cues in their surroundings (furniture, windows, colors, shapes, etc) to help them access that memory later. They could use the same rooms they imagined in their memory palace: study the modals in the living room and vocabulary in the kitchen;

4) Reserve a couple of minutes of each class for the creation of the memory palace. Ask everyone to draw or write their images and then practice with them: tell everyone to close their eyes and visualize what they created. You can even have a gallery of memory palaces displayed in the classroom;

5) Don’t be afraid to look silly. The crazier the image, the better!

Embrace the memory palace concept and help your students and yourself to become memory champions. Don’t forget to watch Joshua Foer’s TED talk on this topic and like our Braz-Tesol MBE SIG page for more practical tips on the Mind, Brain, and Education science!

References

Foer, J. (2011). Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything. New York: Penguin Press
Karpicke, J. D. & Smith, M. A. (2012). Separate mnemonic effects of retrieval practice and elaborative encoding. Journal of Memory and Language. 67 (1): 17–29
O’Keefe, J., Nadel, L. (December 7, 1978). The Hippocampus as a Cognitive Map. Oxford: Oxford University Press
Paivio, A. (1986). Mental Representations. New York: Oxford University Press.
Ullman, MT (2004). “Contributions of memory circuits to language: the declarative/procedural model”. Cognition. 92: 231–70.
Yates, F. (1966). The Art of Memory. Chicago: University of Chicago

Extension

Joshua Foer – Feats of Memory Anyone Can Do TED
How to Create a Memory Palace – WikiHow