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Professional Development Opinion

Education Fairy Tales Put to Rest Through Research

By Learning Forward — July 17, 2014 2 min read
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Carol François

In my last blog, I promised to chronicle my summer reading progress, so I’m pleased to share that I recently finished Visible Learning and the Science of How We Learn by John Hattie and Greg Yates, a cognitive psychologist. In this book, Hattie and Yates expand on Hattie’s Visible Learning project to explain principles of learning, describe strategies associated with deep learning, and debunk some of the more popular education myths. Since John Hattie will be speaking at the 2014 Learning Forward Annual Conference, I was anxious to delve into his latest work.

It was the book’s chapters debunking several education myths that caught my attention. Having attained my undergraduate and doctoral degrees between the mid-seventies and the early nineties, I’ve learned about and even ascribed to some of the theories Hattie and Yates discredit in their book. Now I’m happy to know the research behind them, and the reasons why they should have been questioned all along.

Hattie and Yates examine what they describe as “learning foundations” including ideas like learning styles, multi-tasking, digital natives, the Internet dumbing us down, and music’s impact on learning. Over the years, some of these concepts have become education sacred cows. So what did the authors have to say about them? -- Phooey!

Let’s take a look at their conclusions.

  • Learning styles. According to the authors, there is almost no empirical evidence to suggest that analyzing students’ learning styles leads to improved teaching and learning.
  • Multi-tasking. The authors explain that it doesn’t exist; what we’re really doing is deftly switching attention between activities or assignments.
  • Digital natives. Children are often described as digital natives because they use and practice with technology daily and thus appear to have mastered these tools at high cognitive levels. According to Hattie and Yates, though, their skills would be no different than a 19th Century student mastering a chalkboard slate as opposed to his/her parent using a pen and quill.
  • Internet dumbing-down. In the same vein, Hattie and Yates find it unlikely that the Internet is turning us into shallow thinkers since genetics and evolution prevent the brain from being easily malleable.
  • Music’s impact on learning. For those of you who have been listening to classical music in hopes of raising your GRE scores, while that music may be lowering your stress about taking the exam, it’s not making you smarter. I suppose the boom in classical music sales will take a hit now that the “Mozart Effect” has been unmasked as a myth.

So there you have it. Some new and not-so-new education fables put to rest through research. And that’s the point: when we don’t do our homework and ask for the hard data and facts to support “this year’s new thing,” we may be doomed to adopt poorly researched fads and design professional learning around unfounded ideas that pay little or no dividends in student outcomes. I hope you’ll read Visible Learning and the Science of How We Learn to avoid this potential pitfall.

Carol François
Director of Learning, Learning Forward

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The opinions expressed in Learning Forward’s PD Watch are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.