Business people sitting at desksLast summer I read Daniel Willingham’s fascinating book ‘Why Don’t Students Like School?’ and immediately put it on my list to blog about. Willingham, a psychologist at the University of Virginia, applies the principles of cognitive psychology to the world of education. Essentially, his goal is explain to teachers how their students’ brains work.

The common wisdom in education holds that memorizing facts is a waste of time. In contrast Willingham believes the more details you know about a subject, the more you can understand the subject. By memorizing, we spend less time recalling facts which frees up time to spend on learning new concepts.

A few weeks ago I was reminded of Willingham when reading an article titled Rethinking the Way We Learn in my alma mater’s magazine. Willingham tries to dispel the myth that people have different learning styles and that teachers are more effective when they leverage individual ways students process information. In fact, cognitive science has shown we all learn very similarly.

For example, first ask visual learners and audio learners to listen to vocabulary words several times and then have them look at pictures depicting other words. If the learning style theory is accurate, the audio learners would get more words right the first way and the visual ones would get more correct via pictures. Unfortunately, research has shown this doesn’t happen. In Willingham’s words,

“People do have preferences, but they don’t think or remember better when [those preferences] are honored.”

Willingham busts a couple of other myths as well:

Myth: Left-brained/Right-brained types
The left hemisphere of the brain deals with more ordered, logical thinking, whereas the right hemisphere is more artistic and intuitive.

Fact: “People certainly differ in their abilities—verbal versus mathematical, for example—but these differences are not much reflected in the brain hemispheres. Most tasks are complex enough that they call on much of the brain, both left and right hemispheres, for their support.”

Myth: Learning to read is natural
It’s like learning to speak, and reading instruction is not only unnecessary, it makes kids hate reading.

Fact: ”Learning to speak is, indeed, ‘natural’ in that it’s a terribly complex feat that virtually all children learn, and learn merely by exposure to language—instruction is not needed. But most children do not learn to read merely by exposure to printed texts.”

Daniel Willingham challenges many tightly-held myths about how the brain works and therefore how we should design education. It’s time to rethink how we learn.

This blog was originally posted on Manage By Walking Around on July 21, 2013.