Heather sits in the front of a stadium style college classroom in Idaho. In 10 minutes, her first course in higher education will begin, and she feels nervous excitement. Heather has been sitting in the center of the front row for 20 minutes now, anticipation making her antsy, her brand new $90 text book stacked on her desk, with notebooks, pen, and paper Her cellphone is off. She is thinking of how little she knows about what college learning will be like.
I enter the classroom, my 29th year in formal education, 11 as a university English teacher. I know all about what the next semester holds, almost down to each instant. After 18 semesters teaching this course, I have the material down, memorized. I feel as if I know Heather already. I've seen young women like her so many times.
I also have ingrained in my brain a plethora of assumptions and preconceptions about what Heather knows, how she learns, and why she is here. I believe I know her neural networks and pathways involved in literature and writing. Am I right? Of course not. However as a literature and writing teacher in higher education, I have studied both cognitive science and education learning theory, but unlike many instructors, I am most grounded in the science. And, I am engaged by the recent discussion starting with the controversial article by Dekker et al., "Neuromyths in education: Prevalence and predictors of misconceptions among teachers."
Dekker's article suggests that educators, grounded in learning theory, express interest in neuro and cognitive sciences, but are guided by myths rather than empirical evidence:
... the teachers who knew the most about neuroscience also believed in the most myths. Apparently, teachers who are (admirably) enthusiastic about expanding their knowledge of the mind and brain have trouble separating fact from fiction as they learn. Neuromyths have so much intuitive appeal, and they spread so rapidly in fields like business and self-help, that eradicating them from popular consciousness might be a Sisyphean task. But reducing their influence in the classroom would be a good start.
According to the article, educators tend to adhere to myths in neuro and cognitive science rather than turning to primary sources. We have a difficult time abandoning learning theories that are entrenched in education and informed by outdated psychology.
Many in education, of course, defend themselves, but one article recently, from the realm of science, has taken a balanced approach. "Myths Come From Values, Not From Ignorance" by Cedar Reiner defends the intentions of educators, while admitting the problem exists. I agree with his contention that change is in order, and educators have good hearts.
My own experience is a bit different from many (English) educators. I began studying cognitive science through linguistics which gave rise to the field beginning with Chomsky. I became passionate about all things relating to the brain, linguistics, cognitive science, neuroscience, neurophilosophy, etc. through primary sources rather than educational ones. In fact, when I began my studies in linguistics science, I knew nothing about education theories.
When I finally took a Theories of Learning in Higher Education class, I already had 7 years of study in cognitive science, as an educational tool for understanding the minds of students, teachers, human beings. I also applied the science of cognition to the interpretation of literature.
When I delved into the sections on cognition in education textbook, I was so excited. However, I was soon disappointed. I found just what the articles above describe. Educators adhere to pop-psych and/or outdated visions of cognitive science.
The text (copyright 2011) invoked outdated psychology as if it were current. Most educational theorists, I discovered, are ignorant of current brain and mind science, not in a pejorative way. Many are unaware of the whole truth, or they ignore it. In ignorance, we often cling to our values, then hunt for research supporting our preconceptions.
This approach often takes the place of an empirical, rational, investigation in learning theory. As a teacher of advanced writing, I always emphasize to my students that this type of research is backwards.
I find this forgivable in terms of educational theory because it emanates from values and concern for students. However, the research strategy benefits neither the teacher nor the student and inevitably hinders progress in education.
Certainly many educators are progressing, and most do an exceptional job teaching. However, as with many fields and disciplines, educators tend to follow at least a decade or more behind cutting edge science.
An example of this is in my specialty area, Literature. Most scholars still discuss Freud, Saussure, and Foucault as if they were the cutting edge of research. Many in education and literature think that science is not real until it ages like a fine wine. They eventual use it, but science is not like wine. Instead, cognitive science is best used as new insights are discovered. Currently, most in literary studies resist theoretical approaches that use cognitive science, evolutionary psychology, linguistics, neurophilosophy, and the like.
Some enlightened scholars in literature and educational theory are accomplishing great interpretative work with the best resources, but their work lies at the fringes. Only in the last few years are they gaining some recognition.
Educational theory, may be entrenched in the old school. In some potentially dangerous ways, they are drifting toward their own brand of cognitive research. Science should always seek to question and test assumptions rather than reinforce them. Educational theorists should make use of specialists in the fields of science that pertain to learning and thinking.
In Heather's case, I am both right and wrong as an educator. I certainly don't know everything, let alone a student I have not yet met. While cognitive science should guide my teaching practices, I should always be conscious of the fact that individual brains are unique and mysterious, and knowing each student is of supreme importance. This is where educators are experts.
The best teaching comes down to one on one relationships, grounded in the most current science of the mind.