Everything You’ve Ever Been Told About How You Learn Is A Lie

October 14, 2013 at 1:23 am 13 comments

The first of these “lies” is the one that that the students in my TA Prep (Teaching Assistant Preparation course, for PhD students learning to be teaching assistants) courses most often say back to me. ┬áThe third lie (where “___” is “computer programming”) is a pernicious one among CS teachers.

When I was in middle school and high school, teachers loved to impart various tidbits of wisdom about the way students learn during lectures, always couched in such a way as to indicate these were scientifically accepted facts. You know everyone learns differently. Do you think you learn better through words or pictures? Did you know you learn different subjects with different sides of the brain?

Welp, they were wrong. Many of the theories of “brain-based” education, a method of instruction supposedly based on neuroscience, have been largely debunked by rigorous science. Brain-based education studies are usually poorly designed and badly controlled. Nevertheless, myths about how we learn persist in the popular imagination, and, most importantly, in educational materials and references for teachers.

1. We Learn Best When Teaching Is Tailored To Our Learning Style

2. Some People Are Left-Brained, Some People Are Right-Brained

3. __ Will Make You Smarter

via Everything You’ve Ever Been Told About How You Learn Is A Lie | Popular Science.

 

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13 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Gary Stager, Ph.D. (@garystager)  |  October 14, 2013 at 2:43 am

    Brain science doesn’t need to be debunked. It is bunk.

    Even if scientists understood anything about how the brain works and we could differentiate between brain and mind, teaching and learning, what would a “meat model” get us that John Dewey didn’t know?

    IMHO: You need to do a great deal of work helping the TAs understand the difference between teaching and learning – including the fact that learning is not the direct result of having been taught.

    Have you spoken with Brian Harvey about his version of this course at Berkeley? I suspect his approach is a bit more radical than yours.

    Reply
  • 2. Don Davis (@gnu_don)  |  October 14, 2013 at 9:07 am

    One might also quite simply define ‘teaching’ in terms of ‘learning’. Teaching can only be said to have occurred, if ‘learning’ has occurred. If the ‘teacher’ has successfully altered the students’ response patterns, then ‘teaching’ has occurred. In short, the difficult bit to swallow – if they’re not learning, you’re not teaching.

    Reply
    • 3. Carl Alphonce  |  October 14, 2013 at 10:20 am

      It’s a two-way street – a student must engage with the material to learn. A student who simply shows up but does nothing more will not magically learn.

      Reply
      • 4. Mark Guzdial  |  October 14, 2013 at 10:36 am

        Absolutely true, Carl, but that doesn’t relieve the teacher of the responsibility of providing the best possible teaching. They are being paid to teach. To use methods that are less than what research shows works, or worse, to use methods that research has shown do not work, is wrong.

        Reply
      • 5. Don Davis (@gnu_don)  |  October 16, 2013 at 8:25 am

        Carl, it wasn’t a value judgment. One could have the world’s best ‘learn Russian’ lessons and present them to a Golden Retriever – but it wouldn’t be correct to say that ‘teaching’ is occurring.
        With ‘teaching,’ as with communication, there has to be a give and take. If your interlocutors don’t speak French, then talking about Galois in French to them has no advantage.
        As teachers, we have to ask ourselves how much we need to do to help students learn. This is where the important conversations have to take place. Should CS be a field where only those (with thick skins) who can grow on remote cliffs with a few bits of de-contextualized code embedded thick in theory are allowed to flourish? Or should CS strive to promote a much healthier base, with rolling fields of aspirants who are nourished with the guiding hand of understanding, empathetic, and pedagogically knowledgeable mentors?

        Reply
        • 6. Don Davis (@gnu_don)  |  October 16, 2013 at 8:44 am

          Carl – apologies for the flowery prose. I know that students can be very frustrating. In more objective terms – it’s important to note that every student’s behavior can be shaped so that they are computer scientists (and/or programmers). It seems that the expectation is frequently that more learners will be ‘taught’ to be computer scientists without much modification of the “teacher’s” behavior (i.e. lessons, delivery, scaffolding, use of personal & cultural relevance, etc.) – that can’t happen. This goes back to Mark Guzdial’s point – teachers have a duty to provide the best possible instruction (i.e. most effectively construct the contingencies and environment to shape novice CS students’ CS behaviors) – only after doing that should there be discussion of students’ problematic behaviors in response to CS ‘teaching’.

          Reply
  • 7. Leonard Klein  |  October 14, 2013 at 10:59 am

    Unfortunately the article is not quoting the most recent research. There is brain-based research that discusses much more than this article. It chose the most incorrect information because it makes a nice story. I am a bit disappointing that you, as a college prof, chose to quote this article without more research on the topic.

    Reply
    • 8. Mark Guzdial  |  October 14, 2013 at 11:01 am

      I would be happy to include links to papers and stories with more updated findings. Could you point to something you think we should read?

      Reply
  • 9. David Wees (@davidwees)  |  October 15, 2013 at 6:26 am

    It’s interesting that they chose this particular title, without regard to what their readers might have actually learned about learning, or what their teachers told them. Hyperbole sells, I guess.

    Reply
  • 10. Pat  |  October 20, 2013 at 11:02 am

    Here are some papers for those wanting more rigorous evidence: http://www.danielwillingham.com/articles.html

    And one quite specific to the matter at hand: [What College Teachers Should Know About Memory: A Perspective From Cognitive Psychology](http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/87567555.2011.580636)

    Reply
  • 11. Mark Guzdial  |  October 20, 2013 at 3:49 pm

    Thanks, Pat! This one from Daniel Willingham is particularly relevant to this discussion, about “brain-based learning”: http://www.aft.org/newspubs/periodicals/ae/fall2006/willingham.cfm

    Reply
  • 12. J. McGrath Cohoon  |  October 20, 2013 at 6:51 pm

    Thank you, thank you, especially for #1.

    Reply
  • 13. Tom Morley  |  October 20, 2013 at 8:55 pm

    One of my sisters once stuck people in an MRI and had them solve math problems.

    Reply

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