Debunking Pseudo Theories

During my PhD research* on how lecturers rationalise their digital teaching, one of the strong themes that emerged from data of lecturers talking about their teaching was their use of folk pedagogies and pseudo theories. I extended Olson and Bruner’s (1996) definition of folk pedagogies to include, not just theory of mind about how others learn, but also how educators have experienced learning themselves and the cultural norms about teaching with which they are surrounded (e.g. disciplinary pedagogies). Intersecting with these are pseudo theories like the neuromyths (Newton 2015) of learning styles or technology truisms like ‘digital natives’. (If you need a refresher on why these ideas are problematic, you’ll find a selection of references critiquing learning styles and digital nativism at the end of this post.)

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Photo by George Becker on Pexels.com

Now drawing the line between what constitutes a valid way for an educator to conceptualise their teaching, and what is a lazy, damaging yet persistent idea is tricky. On one hand, I trust educators as experts in what they do, even though they may not be experts at talking about what they do. However they want to present their ideas about teaching and learning, especially if they are thinking about and owning their teaching, I think is fine. And yet, if they choose to use the idea of learning styles as justification for distributing digital content in lots of different formats to their students, is that a problem? Taking into account that they may be retro-fitting a pseudo theory onto a teaching practice which was originally an experiment to ‘see what would happen if…’, what should be done when these ideas get passed around in rooms where teaching is being discussed?

I have been in such a room where one unfortunate lecturer spoke about their disconnection from their younger students because they were ‘digital natives’ and there was practically a stampede to sound the Klaxons and ‘correct’ his thinking. But just because an idea has been found to be potentially limiting to the ways of thinking about students, it doesn’t mean that this lecturer’s framing of his experience of reality is ‘wrong’. I’ve also witnessed teaching which presented learning styles as a supposedly valid learning theory, only to wait and see if the learners (themselves university lecturers) would uncover the body of literature critiquing learning styles and revise their opinions. To me, this feels a bit unethical, as they are being ‘caught out’ for assuming something is ‘valid’, when some (but not all) of the literature says it is not. It also represents knowledge in this area as a right/wrong binary.

Of course, there is a further problem that if you start splitting hairs, there are roots of valid theory in some interpretations of learning styles (which is actually a very wide area once you get into it). Cognitivism is concerned with the individual’s cognitive structure and how it accommodates new knowledge, so if we accept this, we must also accept that people have different cognitive structures so learning happens differs from person to person. So far, so understandable. This is happens during a face-to-face lecture, everyone hears and processes what is said differently. The problem arises when generalisations of ‘personalised’ learning are used to classify people, and frankly, guess what they might need. (In my data not one of the I lecturers who talked about personalised learning or learning styles also gathered information on what individual students needed or whether these interventions were successful, so was this truly ‘personalisation’?) When we talk about learning styles or personalised learning, or even digital natives, we often mean different things.

These pseudo theories are immensely powerful. They must be to be so persistent. They can be easily absorbed and used as short-cuts so that there is no need for further discussion or analysis of what is actually happening. Many educators absorb them into their own folk pedagogies. It is my belief that rather rolling our eyes and ranting on Twitter when we hear someone talking about teaching using a pseudo theory, that it is an opportunity to engage with how educators think about their teaching. Pseudo theories and folk pedagogies have tremendous meaning for individuals, so rather than confront them and try to change their conceptions, there should be scope for lecturers to shape and change the meaning of the pseudo theory for themselves. This should not be in prescribed ways i.e. changing it from ‘wrong’ to ‘right’. If pseudo theories are being used, it is because of a failure of ‘valid’ theories to be meaningful to educators about their teaching, not a failure of those educators.

Perhaps I am being naïve and even contradicting myself, but I think there must be a way to turn pseudo theories into productive conversations, where educators retain agency over their choices and conceptualisations of teaching. I’d be interested to hear from anyone who has ideas or experience on how to move discussions on from pseudo theories.

* Yes, before you ask, I am trying to get work from my thesis published and you will be the first to know when I am successful.

Bulfin, S., Henderson, M. and Johnson, N. 2013. Examining the use of theory within educational technology and media research. Learning, Media and Technology, 38(3), pp.337–344.

Coffield, F., Moseley, D., Hall, E. and Ecclestone, K. 2004. Learning styles and pedagogy in post-16 learning. A systematic and critical review. London.

Cuevas, J. 2015. Is learning styles-based instruction effective? A comprehensive analysis of recent research on learning styles. Theory and Research in Education, 13(3), pp.308–333.

Kirschner, P. and van Merriënboer, J.J.G. 2013. Do learners really know best? Urban legends in education. Educational Psychologist, 48(3), pp.169–183.

Kirschner, P.A. 2016. Stop propagating the learning styles myth. Computers & Education.

Nasah, A., DaCosta, B., Kinsell, C. and Seok, S. 2010. The digital literacy debate: an investigation of digital propensity and information and communication technology. Educational Technology Research and Development, 58(5), pp.531–555.

Newton, P.M. 2015. The learning styles myth is thriving in higher education. Frontiers in Psychology, 6(1908), pp.1–5.

Olson, D.R. and Bruner, J.S. 1996. Folk Psychology and Folk Pedagogy. IN: D. R. Olson and N. Torrance (eds.) The handbook of education and human development: New models of learning teaching and schooling. Oxford: Blackwell, pp. 9–27.

Pashler, H., McDaniel, M., Rohrer, D. and Bjork, R. 2008. Learning Styles: Concepts and Evidence. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 9(3), pp.105–119.

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