Memorization + Repeated Regurgitation ≠ Education: A Misleading Article in the NYT? Reply


Are educators missing opportunities by substituting hype for science?  Having gone back to read the original research publications mentioned in a recent NYT article, I feel we are reading a potentially misleading portrait of what the research is actually saying.  There is a huge difference between something being untested, and giving readers the impression that some educators are selling snake oil. 

The questionable article is called Forget What You Know About Good Study Habits.  It reports on the cognitive science of learning which the author claims can help anyone, from young to old, learn more effectively. “We have known these principles for some time, and it’s intriguing that schools don’t pick them up, or that people don’t learn them by trial and error,” said Robert A. Bjork, a psychologist at the University of California, Los Angeles. “Instead, we walk around with all sorts of unexamined beliefs about what works that are mistaken.”  Fair enough. 

So what's wrong with this picture?  On the one hand, the highlighted articles all seem to emphasize tests of simple retention and recall which, I would argue, is the essential starting point and not the destination of learning at the university level (fair enough, however, when we consider the needs of children). We can improve retention by regularly altering our study locations, for example. Another point is that testing based on mixed sets, rather than deep immersion and heavy replication of more homogeneous sets (be it math problems, painting styles, or literary styles) produces more correct answers–which means only that we can correctly name or categorize.  Again, fair enough if we are satisfied, as educators, with memorization and recall as an outcome. 

Now looking at this from the point of tertiary education, I personally see red flags.  Employers for years have complained about our delivering graduates who have only book smarts.  Better book smarts is not an acceptable response to employers' complaints. 

And unfortunately, I am already seeing tweets and RSS feeds embracing this article with more than a little zeal.  Here it comes…we need more tests. 

The problem is not with retention and recall.  These are critical steps in the educational process.  The problem lies in what the NYT author left out.  He first goes on the attack against learning styles, and the article quotes psychologists as concluding that, "The contrast between the enormous popularity of the learning-styles approach within education and the lack of credible evidence for its utility is, in our opinion, striking and disturbing.” The same treatment is given to teaching styles, and the obvious conclusion is that there is no scientific evidence for this rubbish.  Schools should not be using unproven approaches; stick to the science.

Perhaps correct in a narrow sense, but also misleading.  By returning to the original research cited in this report and reading for myself–I know, how old school of me–I see that the conclusion does not argue that learning and teaching styles are rubbish.  With regard to learning styles, the conclusion is that scientific methods employed to date are not suitable for demonstrating an interaction between our preferred learning style and an instructor's teaching style.  To explain, educators espousing the view that we tailor learning to a student's preferred learning style will often claim that there is an interaction or "meshing" of learning style with teaching style.  This interaction between the way a teacher delivers, and how a student learns, is a central principle of the learning-teaching style perspective.  The idea of adapting to our audience is as old as Aristotle's Rhetoric, can be found in Sun Tzu's Art of War as a general responds to a threat, and even applies to sport where offense and defense react to one another.  For two millenia, the pinnacle of tertiary education was the ability to speak well and argue your case, something which implies this give and take between learner and audience.  The research conclusion as I read it, however, is that the learning style – teaching style interaction remains largely untested because the research methods employed have not been appropriate for supporting such a claim.

There is a huge difference between something being untested, and alluding that it is rubbish.  Unfortunately, this NYT journalist seems to have missed this important point–and the irony does not escape me.  To the journalist's credit he does hyperlink to some of the original research, and we are able to see how the research has been misrepresented.  That is, frankly, better than we can expect from most newspapers around the globe.  If only more journalists could perform in such a transparent way.

I love that researchers are testing such timeless assumptions.  This is exactly what education and research should do.

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