Urban Myths about Learning and Education – A Review

Two points need to be addressed when claiming that a particular notion is a myth. Firstly, people need to believe the notion. Secondly, it must be false, otherwise it is not a myth. Daisy Christodoulou set a benchmark in demonstrating both facets of educational myths in her 2014 book.

Pedro de Bruyckere, Paul Kirschner and Casper Hulshoff take a similar approach in “Urban Myths about Learning and Education,” although their scope is much broader. Daisy identified seven myths which she described at length. De Bruyckere and colleagues have identified a total of thirty-five. The result takes on the character of an encyclopaedia and I found myself reading it in this way, dipping in and out of the different myths. In this regard, it is extraordinarily useful. Each myth is given a brief vignette that begins with a demonstration of its existence, discusses evidence for and against before coming to a judgement about just how much of a myth it really is. However, this last part sat a little oddly with me. Surely, a myth is a myth is a myth? And yet the authors categorise them from the manifestly false to those for which there is just not a great deal of evidence. Are the latter ‘myths’? I’m not entirely sure.

Urban Myths Cover

Nevertheless, the result is a sweep across some major themes that dominate the landscape. Anyone who has spent more than a few minutes browsing education feeds on Twitter will have come across learning pyramids, digital natives, the idea that new technology is causing an education revolution, right/left brain learners and various kinds of exhortations to teachers to get out of the way of students finding things out for themselves. However, a few more unusual myths appear in the list, for instance the idea that class size doesn’t matter. Again, you are given a surprisingly powerful overview of this issue given that it’s dealt with in just four pages. The book is also peppered with pithy summary statements such as Barak Rosenshine’s 10 principles of good instruction.

Those who will find this book to be of most use are educators who already have a fair amount of scepticism about current educational fashions. In one strategic purchase, they will have a lens through which to evaluate whatever comes next around the corner. In that sense, it is a gateway drug into the broader education debate.

However, I doubt the book will do much to convince those who are true believers. As a veteran of such debates, I would suggest that many proponents of each myth could easily write as many pages simply questioning the premises of the authors – or whether it’s even possible to establish truth in the social sciences – before they begin to address the issue of the evidence that is presented.

Nevertheless, “Urban Myths about Learning and Education,” is a witty and lively review of a range of important issues. It makes a valuable reference text for the modern teacher.

The authors were kind enough to send me a review copy of their book

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How critical thinking works

I wish to make the following claims:

A. The Moon orbits the Earth in roughly 28 days

B. Bill Clinton will primarily be remembered for his affair with Monica Lewinsky

C. Constructivist theories of education are basically Marxism dressed up as educational theory

D. The people who built the pyramids of Giza had a pretty good telephone system

E. Sturt Street is the main street in Ballarat

I predict that you found the first claim pretty easy to deal with. I expect my readers to be well educated so you will know or quickly recognise that this claim is true and move on to claim B.

You might find B more controversial. You may agree or disagree but you will see where I am coming from. You will probably try this claim out for size, see if it fits with your opinion and then decide whether to accept it or not.

You might struggle a little more with claim C. If you know my blog then you will be aware that I have criticised constructivist teaching approaches before. Marxism is not popular these days and so you may be tempted to write this off as rhetoric.

Claim D will strike you as manifestly false. You know that the pyramids were built by the ancient Egyptians, thousands of years before telephones were invented.

The final claim will probably leave you a little cold unless you know Ballarat. You can’t say if its true or not but it doesn’t sound extraordinary; it’s the kind of name that streets have.

In all of these cases, I predict that critical thinking will have taken place automatically as you compare the claim with the contents of your own long-term memory. I predict that in none of these cases will you have used a critical thinking strategy.

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Cognitive Load Theory and its implications for instruction

I was a little perturbed to see the following tweet from celebrity maths teacher Dan Meyer in a thread that I was following:

John Sweller is one of my PhD supervisors. Although I would never attempt to put words into his mouth, I would like to point out that the devil resides in two significant details here; details around which there are some troubling misconceptions.

What is fully guided instruction?

It may seem obvious, but many people don’t actually get what fully guided instruction is. They conflate it with lectures. Once this is done, it becomes possible to draw on studies that show that lectures where students can interact via “clickers” are more effective than ones that are purely one-way. This may then be used as evidence against fully guided instruction.

Instead, fully guided instruction simply means explaining concepts and ideas and modelling processes prior to asking students to do this themselves. It places problem solving after explicit instruction but it does not require there to be no problem solving at all. In my view, good practice at fully guided instruction involves lots of interactions between teacher and students in order to ensure attention – this is why the clickers work. In some cases, as is common in East Asian countries, the practice phase is completed as a whole class.

I set out my summary of a cycle of explicit instruction here. Rosenshine made much of the early running on this when analysing the process-product studies of the 1960s. You can find his description of explicit instruction here. And the Direct Instruction that was so successful in Project Follow Through is also known for being highly interactive. All of these methods aim to move students from dependence upon explicit instruction to independence. Otherwise, what would be the point? Fully guided instruction is not just a one-way lecture.

Should we always provide fully guided instruction?

I responded to Dan Meyer and mentioned the expertise reversal effect. Slava Kalyuga, my other supervisor, has been a leading researcher in this area and he, Sweller and others have written extensively about it.

Essentially, it shows that fully guided instruction, although the most effective approach for novice learners, is not as effective for those who already have considerable expertise within the given domain. We reach a point where the effectiveness reverses and solving problems becomes a more effective way to learn. This is for a number of reasons: Fully guided instruction provides information that experts already have stored in their long term memory. If these elements cannot be easily ignored then the requirement to pay attention to them leaves less attention available to process the problem.

Christian Bokhove suggested on Twitter that Sweller’s acceptance of the expertise reversal effect indicates that his position is perhaps not as ‘extreme’ as it once was. Again, I do not wish to write on Sweller’s behalf. However, it is decidedly odd to suggest that the idea that experts are different to novices is some kind of softening of Cognitive Load Theory. There must be some point to becoming an expert. What is it, if not to be able to solve problems independently? For instance, experienced readers do not require continual phonics instruction. Expertise must gradually develop over the process of learning something. What Kalyuga and others have done is uncover something of the mechanism.

Indeed, the central problem with constructivist teaching strategies is that they don’t properly acknowledge the differences between novices and experts. “Experts do X,” say constructivists, “and so we must make novices also do X”. It is the fallacy that by mimicking what experts do we can become more expert. Hence we see science students running open-ended investigations and Jo Boaler noting that maths PhD students do maths differently to how it happens in your average maths classroom.

The key point is when and how we release students from fully guided instruction to more open-ended problem solving. I would suggest that some students studying coding, for example, might be such enthusiastic hobby coders that their level of expertise is such that they don’t need much explicit instruction. However, most students studying a new mathematics concept will need the careful guidance of an expert before they can start solving problems on their own.

You certainly don’t start the process by removing instructional supports or withholding guidance.

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