3 urban myths in education on the question if learners really do know best?

In this new article by Kirschner & van Merriënboer two urban myths come along that we have been mentioning already for quite a while, learning styles and the digital native myth.

The third one both authors add is one who is also quite popular lately, well, for the past decades actually. Recently it popped up in the new book by Peter Gray. The  thinking is that we should use self-directed and self-determined learning in education. Kirschner & van Merriënboer link this need to the move we made away from a society in which authority is accepted and even appreciated into one where it is questioned and where we feel that we are best at determining what we do and how we should do it. I myself would place it much earlier, as it is already present in the romantic reaction to modernity, but I do think it is a valid argument.

The arguments that would support the idea of self-directed learning are sadly absent as Kirschner & van Merriënboer describe:

  • Learners are not always successful controlling their own learning,
  • The second problem is that learners often choose what they prefer,
  • People appreciate having the opportunity to make some choices, but the more options that they have to choose from, the more frustrating it is to make the choice (aka the paradox of choice).

Abstract of the paper that can be read for free at time of writing this blogpost:

This article takes a critical look at three pervasive urban legends in education about the nature of learners, learning, and teaching and looks at what educational and psychological research has to say about them. The three legends can be seen as variations on one central theme, namely, that it is the learner who knows best and that she or he should be the controlling force in her or his learning. The first legend is one of learners as digital natives who form a generation of students knowing by nature how to learn from new media, and for whom “old” media and methods used in teaching/learning no longer work. The second legend is the widespread belief that learners have specific learning styles and that education should be individualized to the extent that the pedagogy of teaching/learning is matched to the preferred style of the learner. The final legend is that learners ought to be seen as self-educators who should be given maximum control over what they are learning and their learning trajectory. It concludes with a possible reason why these legends have taken hold, are so pervasive, and are so difficult to eradicate.

4 thoughts on “3 urban myths in education on the question if learners really do know best?

  1. Great piece to get you thinking about what works in education. Yet, however much I appreciate your and Casper’s initiative to fight urban myths in education, to a practicing teacher like myself, this comes across as fighting caricatures of education as it is practiced in real schools. I understand and accept the conclusions of academic studies of education practices (often meta-analyses of large datasets), but at best, they are hypotheses to be tested in a particular school, in a particular class, with a partcular teacher, in other words, in context.
    I doubt there will be be many (good) teachers who will leave their lesson plans and the content of their lessons entirely to the whims of their students. The same applies to the other myths: good teachers do not practice just one learning theory, but use a combination of whatever theory or method that is applicable in their particular context.
    Good research, as we say in our group blog OnderzoekOnderwijs.net, inspires, but does not set the law for education.

    1. We don’t want to fight the teachers, at least it’s not our intention. We do want the fight the caricatures some people (often outside education) make of education.
      The first sentence in our book is very clear, we believe in teachers and are convinced that most of them are doing a great job. Sometimes the theories they are basing their work on, can be wrong, but because they adapt theory to their practice, most often it works out just fine.

      1. I know it’s not the teachers you want to fight. What I meant to say is that education science sometimes makes a caricature of teaching practice. As I said, teachers who exclusively opt for one method of teaching or theory, are rare.

  2. […] We’ve known for quite a while now that (direct) instruction is important for learning, especially for children who have less background on the matter or who have troubles catching on (and this can be for various reasons). This is not an easy task, as this can be not the prime wish of both teacher and pupil.  Discovery learning can be much more fun, but the effects can be counterproductive (check also here). […]

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