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Are These Unscientific Educational Paradigms Bad For Students?

Sep 09, 13 Are These Unscientific Educational Paradigms Bad For Students?

I have read a couple of articles lately that take aim at some treasured educational paradigms. They contend that educators have the neuroscience wrong, and that this is hurting kids. The one I just finished reading is an op-ed piece by Tom Bennett on the New Scientist website. Now, I won’t argue in the least that these ideas are not neuroscientifically accurate, but I’m not sure that all of them are harmful. I want to share my take on these as a retired educator who has seen all of these practices in action.

The first of these is left brain-right brain thinking. This idea was debunked not too long after it was first put forth, and I’ve known that there was nothing to it for several years. However, it remains a popular concept, both in educational circles and elsewhere. There’s a good reason for this. Even though it has nothing to do with one side of the brain or the other, it is a useful construct. It rings true with many people that there is a dichotomy between those who are predominately mathematically/logically-oriented and those who are more creatively-oriented. Referring to these types as left-brain/right-brain is a convenient way of talking about the two without having to give a long, drawn-out explanation of what you mean.

Even if the brain worked that way, I don’t see it having a huge effect on educational practice, at least based on my personal experience. Even at the height of its popularity, the theory did not claim that these were absolutes. It was seen as a continuum with a few people at the extreme ends and most people falling somewhere in the middle. Since school subjects require both types of thinking, and you really can’t only use one or the other sets of skills either in teaching or learning. I find this idea to be basically harmless from an educational standpoint.

The second paradigm is “learning styles.” This one claims that children learn best when they are taught in their predominant learning style. These are usually described as visual, auditory, verbal, and kinesthetic. Apparently, there are as many as 71 defined learning styles out there, according to the article. I can see Bennett’s point that if a school takes very much time finding out what each individual’s “learning style” is, and then trying to individualize each student’s lessons to match their learning style, that would be a huge waste of time and effort. If any teacher, ever, has figured out how to individualize instruction for each and every student, taking into account all of the ways that each student learns differently from any other, I want to meet them. I don’t think it is possible, even if it were desirable.

The positive thing that the theory has done is that it has encouraged teachers to use a variety of teaching methods so that in the course of a unit, they will approach material using different media. In this way, the learning needs of most of the students will be met. Each student gets to use their strengths and hone their skills in weaker areas. This is a big improvement over the old, all-lecture style that was used when I was a student.

Basically, if a kid knows what their “learning style” was, and it helps them find ways to study more effectively, more power to them. But as a teacher, I wasn’t concerned about the label for any individual student; I just wanted to provide multiple ways for kids to learn. If used in this manner, I rate this idea as useful, even if not scientific.

The third, paradigm that Bennett criticizes is “emotional intelligence.” On this one, I wholeheartedly agree with him. I’m not saying that there isn’t such a thing as emotional intelligence, but I don’t think it can be taught like just other subject at school. This idea is usually presented as a school subject under the title “character education.” I’m sorry, but I don’t think you can teach character without context. You learn it by modeling good examples and by experience. You can teach manners, and they should be taught, but that isn’t what I am talking about.  In my district, we hired people to create a character education curriculum, and everyone had to teach it during the advisory period once a week. It was a total waste of time. When I tried to start conversations (as determined by the curriculum), all the students did was look at me and roll their eyes. Or, they gave me stock answers that they knew were expected. Teachers usefully discuss character through lessons in history or literature, or through sports or performing arts. They help students learn how to treat each other as they go through day-to-day classroom activities.

I had more luck sitting down with a student, who showed a lack of emotional maturity in a particular situation, and asking them questions. Do you know what you did? How do you think it made the other person feel? Is there something you can do to make it better? What could you have done differently? Answering these questions when they are relevant in a student’s life is how they learn what character means.

I am glad that these paradigms are being tested scientifically; the neuroscience is important to understand. But, determining whether or not these are harmful is not the same thing as determining that they are bad science. They might serve a useful purpose educationally, and they might not. That will require a completely different study.

Image Credit: Thinkstock.com

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