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Bruno: "Learning Myths" Neither Real Nor Widespread

Seo-myths-mythbusterA couple of weeks ago Valerie Strauss posted "seven misconceptions about how students learn", which were originally provided by the Independent Curriculum Group (ICG).

Reading them I was struck by how little these "biggest myths" resonated with my own experience as a teacher because, almost to a one, these supposed misconceptions seemed to me to be either not very widespread or not actually wrong.  

I don't think that the Independent Curriculum Group has identified many important myths, and they may be promoting a few misconceptions of their own. Here are my very brief thoughts on all seven:

1. Basic Facts Come Before Deep Learning - Teaching has actually made me suspect that the difference between "basic" and "deep" learning is exaggerated, but even if we accept that distinction this "myth" isn't all wrong.  Yes, you can do some "higher-level" thinking and learning while acquiring basic facts.  It is, however, also often the case that familiarity and automaticity with basic facts facilitates deeper, more complex thinking. My experience is that teachers are just as likely to neglect the "lower-level" thinking as they are to spend too much time on it.

2. Rigorous Education Means a Teacher Talking - I don't know any actual teachers who think this, so I doubt it's much of a "myth". At the same time, the ICG's proposed alternative conception of teaching - that "The art of a teacher is to construct ways for students to discover" - is too vague to really agree or disagree with. At a minimum, I think it is safe to say that both research and experience suggest the existence of an important educational role for direct, guided instruction, and it would be wrong to suggest otherwise.

3. Covering It Means Teaching It - The specific objection here from the ICG is that "Teachers are often seduced by the idea that if they talk about a concept in class, they have taught it." I don't know any actual teachers who think this, either. I do, however, know many very thoughtful teachers who deliberate carefully on the trade-offs involved in spending more time on a concept at the expense of other, potentially important concepts. Such deliberations seem worthwhile, and I think this "myth" doesn't give the issue fair treatment.

4. Teaching to Student Interests Means Dumbing It Down - This does strike me as a misconception that is at least moderately widespread. My experience also suggests another, closely related myth, however: that making the content interesting requires teaching to the student's pre-existing interests. In some ways I think we risk limiting our students, and underestimating their capacities, if we assume that they cannot be intrigued by ideas that are somewhat beyond their previous experience or interest. I'd go so far as to say one of the purposes of education is precisely to expand students' interests.

5. Acceleration Means Rigor - I'm not completely sure what this one means, or how it's different from #3. Accelerating advanced students through additional content may or may not be the best thing for them, and I'd be uncomfortable making sweeping generalizations about what happens in "some schools".

6. A Quiet Classroom Means Good Learning - Again, I don't know any teachers who do not understand, as the ICG suggests, that students "sitting quietly may simply be zoned out." The authors are, in my opinion, correct to point out that a "loud classroom, if properly controlled, includes the voices of many students who are actively engaged". When thinking about the volume in my own classroom, though, I can't help but be concerned about how difficult it is to allow many students to engage equitably in class discussion without letting harmful, pre-existing social dynamics and hierarchies creep further into school. I also worry about privileging those students who do not need a quiet environment in which to process at the expense of those who do. It is not obvious to me that teachers, as a whole, are erring too far on the side of "quiet."

7. Traditional Schooling Prepares Students for Life - While I don't think many people would disagree that traditional schooling could better prepare students for life, I also don't think this counts as a "myth", at least not for the reason given by the ICG. "Listening to teachers and studying for tests has little to do with life in the world of work," they say. "People in the work world create, manage, evaluate, communicate, and collaborate." But is it actually the case that traditional schooling doesn't involve all of those things? That isn't my experience at all, either as a student in "traditional" schools or as a "traditional" teacher. Moreover, I am not aware of any professions in which workers just, for example, "communicate"; rather, they communicate about things and that process is aided by knowing about things. One way I hope to prepare my students for those professional processes is by having them listen or study, but also by having them do all of those other things - like communicating - that the ICG advocates. Where we differ, then, is that the ICG seems to believe that critical thinking tasks, like evaluating, depend primarily on context-independent skills and abilities. That is largely a myth in its own right.

To be clear, I do believe that our educational systems could be improved by addressing very real misconceptions about how students learn. However, I don't think that the Independent Curriculum Group has identified many important myths, and they may be promoting a few misconceptions of their own. - PB (@MrPABruno) (Image source)

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I suspect we disagree on the emphasis we should place on "facts" versus "concepts." Concequently we'd probably disagree on on a lot of subjective pacing issues. I'd probably be more focued on slowing the process down more. But, I have one hard and fast rule. When the kids say its time to move on, its time to move on.

Also, we need to peek kids interest in things they don't have an interest in. But that should not come at the expense of teaching to their pre-existing interests, but at the expense of less important things (like more facts that aren't linked to interesting concepts.) I suspect we share the suspicion that a bias against teacher-centric instruction has led to a bias against quiet. Neither do I see a problem with teachers erring to far on the side of quiet. The last thing we need in our digitally fueled mania is less quiet.

And I had a simple solution to silence, reminding the kids of our rule against lauughter. Of course, that prompted so many belly laughs and high fives that I sometimes had to employ my discipline plan and sing, "The Perfect Country and Western Song." Speaking of students not knowing that new things would peek their interest, they had not known of the power of poetry such as, "You don't have to call me Darling, Darling, You never even called me by my name ..."

Which gets me to the point where we disagree #7. I'm as Old School as they come regarding discipline, and I see it as a part of a traditional progressive value. In my experience, the traditional belief used to be that schooling is life, not a preparation for it. The fundamental flaw of contemporary reform is that it violated that truism by chopping up knoweldge and life into (supposedly) measurable pieces. That is not life or a preparation for life.

I'm not sure how much we actually disagree on "facts" vs. "concepts", although I tend to think that that distinction is somewhat overblown as well. I think it's hard to talk about in generalities, but I'll say that it's hard for me to think of many concepts that aren't best understood in the context of extensive factual background knowledge.

I do, however, disagree about less-interesting concepts being necessarily less important because, as I said in the post, what's "interesting" is not fixed and immutable and because whether or not kids find something interesting before coming to school seems only somewhat related to whether they should leave school knowing it.

I do think you're right-on about biases against "teacher-centered" instruction. The teacher-centered/student-centered distinction is, in my opinion, one of the most vacuous and counter-productive in education.

I'm also not sure we really disagree about #7, either - old school discipline FTW! - although I'm not sure what you're getting at about "chopping up knowledge and life into pieces". This is another area - school preparing students for life - where I think talking in generalities isn't very helpful. I honestly don't know what it means to say that "schooling is life", for example. I think to diagnose our problems we need to name them more concretely: What do we want to accomplish by having kids spend time at school, and how do we best go about that?

I think we can go 50/50 on many of these. For instance, myth number 1 and 3, I do know many teachers who think that this is true or they talk as if it were. However, what the ICG needs to do is develop ways to do get away from this. Many teachers, as Bruno mentions, do know this, but do not know any alternative ways of handling the situation. Perhaps, presenting alternative ways of handling it is something the ICG could do next.

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