Alleged Brain Science Education Exposed – Learning To Unlearn, Learn And Relearn

“The secret to learning new things is to be willing to unlearn–even if your behaviors previously brought success.” ~ Marcia Connor.

Unlearning, Learning And Relearning About How The Brain Impacts Conferences And Events

I’m been in an unlearning funk for the past year or so. I didn’t want to give up familiar education models. They were comfortable to me. I had success using them. My beliefs were grounded in them. My interpretations of my experiences appeared consistent with these models. Unfortunately, my own experiences became my bias. I found myself embracing a psychological phenomenon called the confirmation bias. (Confirmation bias is a tendency for people to favor information that confirms their preconceptions or hypotheses, independently of whether they are true. ~ Wikipedia)

In the mid 1980s, I was wrapping up my post-baccalaureate work on education and adult learning. I was also teaching in the public school system and was tapped to develop district-wide curriculum using the education trends of the time: learning styles, VAK & VARK strategies, right brain versus left brain hemisphere dominance, multiple intelligences and more. These learning style theories were the rage of that day. The Association of Supervision and Curriculum Development (of which I was a member) ran a long series on the subject and even ASTD provided multiple journal articles on these new models.  I read and put into practice anything I could get my hands on by these theorists: Dunn & Dunn, Neil Fleming, Howard Gardner, Eric Jensen, Myers-Briggs and others.

Shedding Old Education Theories That Have Been Debunked

Today, much of what I was taught in post-graduate work, in my early professional education years and what I read and studied for nearly a decade has been exposed as vague theories lacking empirical research. I’ve discovered that I was a willing and enthusiastic propagator of what is now known as misinformation. Thankfully, some of the instructional techniques I picked up were actually beneficial to people but not for the reasons I thought.

I’m sure you’re wondering what I’m talking about and how it applies to conferences, education, meetings and events. I’m talking about the buzz on how the brain learns, science vs. theory and its affect on your conference education design.

Does The Discussion Of How The Brain Learns Impact Your Conference Education Design?

I’ve been sitting on this post for nearly six months now, waiting for the right time. I know it will cause a stir in many of my colleagues, some for and some against. When I saw that ASTD’s Learning Circuit Blog July question of the month was about brain learning and eLearning design, I knew the time was right.

So here’s my spin on their question: Does the discussion of how the brain learns impact your conference education design?

In short, yes. How the brain works and learns should impact your conference education design. Actually, it’s imperative for a successful attendee/learner conference experience. If you design your conference with the brain in mind, one that engages as many senses as possible and follows some basic, well-researched and proven brain learning principles, your attendees will have a more benefical conference experience. They’ll learn more that can be applied to their profession.

However, if you are using old education theories such as learning styles, VAK or VARK strategies, right vs. left brain, and if you are hiring speakers that promote these old models, you are disseminating myths, untruths and misinformation. Unintentionally, you have embraced the false doctrine of a quasi-evangelical crusade to transform your education. In reality, it’s a way for you to spend more money on these consultant’s theories and propaganda. Let’s remember that a theory is just a hypothesis, conjecture or a guess. It is not proven, researched fact. I’ll provide more of the facts about these theories in an upcoming post. Or you could just read Wikipedia on Learning Styles and see some of the facts yourself.

So before you start screaming I’m a heretic and have sold-out to the dark side, separate your confirmation bias and emotions and think logically for a moment. If researchers have proven that the world is round, do you still want to believe that it is flat because your eyes see the horizon? Or could your own misaligned preconceptions be misguiding you? Your brain doesn’t always tell you the truth. And in case you missed it, my analogy of the misperception that the world is flat applies to the education theories of learning styles, VAK/VARK strategies, brain hemisphericity, Myers-Briggs and more.

What have you had to unlearn recently? Why do you think unlearning old beliefs is so hard? How have you adapted to new research that is contrary to your old thoughts?

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  1. Jeff,
    You’ve really poked your finger in it this time! I love where you’re heading! The brain is a wondrous and dazzling thing, but it certainly doesn’t operate the way we THINK it operates. “The Seven Sins of Memory” and “How We Decide” would be fun summer reading for you.

    “Anchoring” is another brain trait that makes this kind of mental shift so difficult. We have all had great meeting/conference experiences, often in events that were designed using the old models. So we (quite naturally) latch onto the old models as the reason we had such a great experience, and we try to replicate that experience. (Our first experience becomes our “anchor” – the baseline.)

    What’s been surprising for me to discover is how many of my own great experiences actually happened IN SPITE of the flawed models used to design the event. There are other (often brain-based) principles that can be used that are more likely to produce great experiences for our participants.

    I can’t wait to read more!

    1. Jeff Hurt says:

      Thanks for reading and adding your views. Yeah, I know I’m going against the grain with these thoughts as so many people have bought into learning styles. I think unlearning is one of those traits that people must embrace in order to be successful in the future or we will all continue to believe urban myths and misconceptions just like…step on a crack, break your mother’s back. 😉

  2. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Jeff Hurt, Jay Smethurst and others. Jay Smethurst said: Applied to schools? RT @Jeffhurt: Alleged Brain Science Ed Exposed – Learning To Unlearn, Learn And Relearn #ecosys […]

  3. Justin Locke says:

    the only meaningful item i can share in this realm is the pimsleur language method. this guy pimsleur figured out that we acquire language in a certain way, and he designed these language training tapes to fit. Before him, everyone taught language in an orderly, machine-like way, such as “conjugate the verb ‘to be’.” the pimsleur method teaches you phrases in order of highest need, and starts with, “do you speak english,” “I would like a beer,” and “Where is the bathroom?” I can now order a beer in 10 languages.

    this illustrates 2 points, first is, we tend to learn things that we have a desire to learn, and we retain information that we use, and 2) regarding the older ineffective language teaching approaches, we are still living in the cultural aftermath of the industrial revolution’s education revolution, where everything is viewed as a machine, including the human mind. we love to think we can automate certain processes, but the mind is a moving target and adapts quickly.

    I have decided that the real trick of teaching is instilling desire. if that is there, you don’t even have to be a great teacher, they will go and figure it out on their own. conversely, if there’s no desire to learn the content, no system, no matter how efficient will get thru. even if it does, they forget it quickly. — jl

  4. Hi Jeff,

    As you know I am spending a lot of time studying this stuff right now, and I am by no means as far along as you are.

    I will be interested to see how folks respond to this article, as you have definitely raised some solid questions. You know I am a big fan of Dr. Medina (Brain Rules) whom you have pointed to in your comments.

    I think I am gonna be a lurker on this one and wait to see what other interesting perspectives surface.

    I look forward to the discussion.


    1. Jeff Hurt says:

      That’s great that you can order a beer in 10 languages. That should come in handy! 😉 Great example of how we need to unlearn some things and how difficult it is. I’m right there with you that if you can instill desire to learn, you’ve won a large portion of the internal battle. Thanks for adding to the discussion.

      Lurk away! Lurkers are very important for sure!

  5. […] a previous post I discussed my own challenge with Learning To Unlearn, Learn And Relearn, especially as it applies to education theories and models. I’m still shedding old models and […]

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