The word sounds like the title of a 1980’s science fiction novel, but it refers to something that is incredibly relevant to the way we understand ourselves today.
Neuromyths are any commonly held misconceptions about how the brain works. You’ve probably heard a few of them before—ideas such as “We only use 10 percent of our brains,” or “The right hemisphere of the brain governs creativity, while the left handles logic,” or “Children have a critical learning period in the first three years of life”. Believe it or not, such ideas are simply untrue.
These neurological myths usually spring to life from misunderstandings, misinterpretations of scientific data, and sometimes even deliberate falsehoods. And once brought to life, they often spread quickly because they seem like quick, bite-sized ways of understanding the most mysterious and complex part of the human body. Often, they are so engrained into our cultural consciousness that they are widely accepted as fact.
This presents danger. Because of these neuromyths reduce the complex to the simple, we believe that we can game the system, so to speak, and use them to gain an advantage. For example, a person who believes in the 10 percent myth might engage in exercises that will allow him to use a greater percentage of his brain. This would be a waste of time. Or, worse, a family or school system might adopt “brain-based” upraising or teaching strategies for their children that are not based in fact, but fiction.
Of this last category, the myth of “Learning Styles” is one of the very worst offenders. Let’s talk about what this particular neuromyth entails, why it’s dangerous, and how we can understand learning in a better way.
The Myth of the Divided Learner
Despite criticism from many researchers, the idea of individual learning “styles” became popular in the 1970s. Although there was a multitude of learning style models which described the styles in different ways, the general idea was that everyone learns best in a way that is specific to them.
One model, popular today, embraces the idea that everyone is either a visual, auditory, or touch-based learner. Put into practice, this often takes the form of teachers educating young students according to their individual styles, assessing each student to find out if they learn best from having a task described to them, demonstrated for them, or given to them to solve with their own hands.
Understandably, parents and teachers are excited to believe that their children are receiving an education tailored specifically for their unique minds. It’s also comforting to students to think that a course might have been more difficult for them because it didn’t engage them through their own learning style rather than any lack of effort on their part.
But as we’re about to find out, the result of all this is misspent funds, stunted student motivation, and impaired personal growth in schoolchildren.
The Dangers of Labeling
The truth is that no child can or should be labeled in this way. These learning styles are based on sensory input, but the senses are not where understanding occurs—they’re merely an input, like your computer’s keyboard. The thinking, the understanding, and the processing occurs not in the perception of a problem, but within the mind.
One issue that arises is that of money. School systems—and parents—put in a huge amount of time and money figuring out how to educate their kids. The use of external consultants, reading material, and training courses have a huge price tag, and when this money is spent on something that simply doesn’t work, these funds go to waste.
Another issue is that of student motivation. If a pupil believes that they failed to perform because the teacher did not appeal to their learning style, they place the blame on something other than themselves. Formed into a habit, this makes for a sense of entitlement, and a lack of the ability to analyze one’s faults and correct them.
Finally, the worst result of teaching via learning styles is the impairment of personal growth in developing children.
Learning styles place children in boxes. Essentially, teachers are telling these children that “This is how you learn. This is how you will always learn, and you can ignore other modes of input.”
This fixed approach is disastrously damaging to a student’s ability to adapt to new situations, as well as their ability to explore their own minds and personalities. They’re being told who they are, and that is stunting.
And while this teaching approach is beginning to fade, studies have found that it is extremely prevalent amongst teachers. Research from the British Wellcome Trust, in fact, found that 76 percent of British teachers still believe in the idea of learning styles, and implement these ideas as they teach.
It isn’t going anywhere for the moment. But it should, and the best way to get rid of an old system is not by railing against it, but by proposing a new system that simply works better.
A Better Approach
Rather than focusing on learning through individualized styles, the emphasis should simply be on “learning through understanding”. Teachers should ensure that their students are critically thinking through problems, regardless of how the mode through which they perceive these problems. For teachers everywhere, simply presenting information in the most appropriate manner for the content and level of student ability is a better path.
What’s more, a child learner should be taught to adapt to a weakness rather than avoid it by only engaging what he or she is best at. That means that children should be taught in a variety of ways, and be taught to do their best no matter what. This creates adaptability and accountability.
Dropping the learning styles neuromyth frees students, teachers, and parents from a constrictive narrative that holds us all back. Replacing that with a simple emphasis on critical thinking and adaptability is the first step toward finding a much better educational model.
The breaking of this myth doesn’t just affect children—it affects everyone who believes it. When you, as an adult, realize that you have not just way of learning, but many, you free yourself from labels. You free yourself to explore who you are and how you really learn best.
Don’t be afraid to take yourself—and your kids—out of the boxes of learning styles. You might just find a whole new world of education.