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.

Critical debates in open education OER18 Presentation

Highly selective reference list and further reading relating to this presentation

This presentation is really just the drawing together of a few threads of criticial voices about OER and OEP and not meant as a comprehensive view by any means. In doing so I hope to catch glimpses of the distance travelled and any opportunities to revisit things that have been said which could improve debates and practice. The following is a selection of thoughts I’ve had about the subject the weeks before the conference.


There is a danger that open could start going in circles, ever re-defining what it is, claiming an re-claiming territories because as a space it is still fighting for recognition? Imagine a world where open is now invisible, so embedded in individuals’ and institutions’ practices and policies – that it no longer became something to discuss, there wasn’t this feeling of constantly rolling a big stone up a hill, but never getting to the top? (Massive work has been done and huge achievements have been made, I don’t mean to undermine that. When you consider that this work has been done without the support of validation and recognition from the wider educational community, it is all the more awe-inspiring.) That conferences like this evolved into something else, with other concerns? This conference has evolved of course, that’s what’s so interesting about it. It’s agile and responsive to world events. Open educators take on the world.

So is most of the scepticism reserved for MOOCs – the structured, institutionalised, privileging-the-already-privileged, both in terms of institutions themselves and individuals? Is there a two-tiered criticism, with the individual teacher valorised? That’s a question I’d like to explore further.

Yet we’re still working with systems, flawed systems, built by flawed people, and used by flawed people.

Back when I engaged with debates in a previous institution about resuable learning objects and specifically about where they could be stored, findable and know-that-they-are-there-able, the issue of metadata came up. Now, I assume that metadata the issue has come up elsewhere, and hasn’t gone away. And licencing. The issue of helping people understand the differences between creative commons licences – these issues are still here. Yet in spite of best intentions, people don’t do as they should, they don’t adhere to the rules, or forget and ignore rules. Additionally our best intentions also lead us to bias and perpetuation of inequality. There is a sociomaterial aspect to open education which it seems to me we are doing our best to deny. We don’t have total control, precisely because it is open. Put technology and people together and there will be unpredictable outcomes, we are shaped by technology as technology is shaped by us. Individually and as a society.

Are the rules about open too restrictive, trying to predict too much of what happens when open education is taken up by those outside this tight-knit community, those who are not initiated? It struck me reading one of the essays by Raymond bundled under the Cathedral and the Bazaar, that the invisible rules of the hacker community were borne out of a tightly connected ecosystem with multiple transactions. That’s where norms and taboos were formed, and reputations were earned. I’d wager that within this conference it would be unusual to see slides containing unattributed images, whereas in other conferences it may be the norm. There are taboos on open education. There are norms. But society at large doesn’t really care about them as much as we do. And we can’t legislate for that (well, obviously there is copyright infringement legislation, but you get my point).

Incredibly useful work exists, like the lived experiences of educators explored by Catherine Cronin (2017), which demonstrates the complexity of people’s negotiation of the open. And perhaps work like this exposes as shaky the structures and categories that have been built to protect and promote good practice in open education. And this, in many ways, makes the dangers of bias and embedded inequalities so much more urgent – and really has to be addressed on a societal level. Because we know institutions love structure and rules and hierarchies and diagrams. As Oliver (2015) says, permeability is key. Maintaining operations within and outwith systems. Being careful not to prescribe too much.

Are these crises in ownership of ‘open’ more personal, more introspective of the open education movement itself, (possibly a bit insular), reflecting global issues through a smaller prism where we examine ourselves as both heroes and villains. As is our nature, publicly flagellating ourselves for not foreseeing the problems and inequalities our very work was engendering? The self as ‘misguided’ OER? I’ll finish with a quote from Helen Crump who places our humanity in a more forgiving position:

” Subjectivity is different to identity. It’s about how individuals are ‘subjected’ to outside forces such as economics, the law, society, the circumstances of history and the physical world in general, and consequently how they’re made subjects of these forces. From this perspective it’s not so much what kind of OER you’d like to be, but rather what kind of OER you can be.”