Learning Myths


By Veronica Chavez

Photo courtesy of J E Theriot.

Myths about the way people learn and the way the human brain functions have been circulating for decades whether it be that humans only use 10 percent of their brains, or that people are inherently right-brained or left-brained.

The pseudo-scientific aura of these neuro-myths combined with their wide acceptance over the years have allowed them to continue existing despite little scientific evidence and research to back these theories. Many assume that these theories are rooted in neuroscience, but the use of neuroscience in education is still young. Neuro-imaging technology has only really developed over the last 20 years, which makes these theories questionable at best.

Listed below are three learning myths that despite their popularity and prevalence within education do not actually correlate with educational psychology.

Different people have different learning styles, and students know best about what learning style works for them.

The misconception that each student nowadays would learn best if they received an education specifically tailored to their learning style is popular, and has been promoted extensively through books, conferences, and teaching guides. Teachers would like to believe that they are hyperaware of their students’ needs, and parents would like to believe that their children are getting an educational experience customized for their unique learning style.

However, there is little evidence to support this idea. In fact, some studies have even gone so far as to say that money and time is ill-spent trying to tailor education in such a way. Instead, it seems that it is more important to identify what knowledge the student is entering with, and what format the material would best be presented (visually, verbally, etc.) regardless of their learning style.

As for the urban legend that the student knows best and should be the controlling force of his or her learning, education psychologists are skeptical, and self-reports are often skewed. Conclusion: you can learn in a multitude of different styles if you just put your mind to it.

People are either right-brained or left-brained.

Another myth that has been propagated time and time again is that people are either creative and artistic (right-brained) or logical and analytical (left-brained). While it is tempting to believe that perhaps the reason we can’t concentrate on math problems is because we’re just misunderstood right-brainers, or that we shouldn’t bother trying to learn how to draw because we’re doomed left-brainers, is an unsupported notion.

In fact, in 2013, researchers from the University of Utah debunked the theory after observing over 1,000 brain scans and noting that although some brain functions did occur on one side of the brain or the other, people don’t tend to have a stronger left- or right-sided brain network and that most of the actions done by our brain use both hemispheres.

Today’s children are digital natives and cannot learn as well using old forms of teaching.

Like many of the other learning myths that have emerged in recent years, this one has been spread so quickly because it sounds like it would be true. As technology evolves, it seems only natural that a new generation of young people would be practically innate at learning using digital tools and would feel less familiar with more primal educational tools.

This new digital generation is assumed to be creative problem-solvers, self-directed learners, and master multitaskers. After all, being able to do homework, text friends, update Facebook, and watch TV all at the same time is clearly a skillset prior generations have not had, and that this new generation can execute efficiently and effectively. Well, maybe.

While this generation has some of the largest and broadest exposure to technology and a wealth of information, mere exposure does not necessarily mean that we are utilizing our resources to their maximum capacity. In fact, having too much information sometimes overloads the brain and causes learners to hop around from one link to another, often not fully delving into what they read, and succumbing to interesting information that more often than not, is irrelevant to what they actually need. Researchers call this the “butterfly defect.”

Along similar lines, education that is presented in entertaining game-style formats tailored for “digital natives” is not always as effective as they seem. As studies show, “edutainment” is sometimes too concerned with being colorful and playful, and less concerned with making sure learners truly understand and remember the information presented to them.