Thursday, November 7, 2019

Something Borrowed: Interdisciplinary Strategies for Legal Education by Deborah L. Borman & Catherine Haras

The Journal of Legal Education has just published an exciting new article by Deborah L. Borman & Catherine Haras:  Something Borrowed: Interdisciplinary Strategies for Legal Education.  There is a lot to this article, but, in this post, I want to concentrate on a section that we have often discussed on this blog: educational neuromyths.

They begin, "In this article, we posit that while some traditional law education strategies and techniques are historically successful in developing critical-thinking abilities, additional teaching and learning theory and practice methods borrowed from other education disciplines are necessary for students to transfer learning from school into practice.” (Note: my co-blogger, Jim Levy, would say that this has been my mantra since I joined this blog in 2011).

They continue, "The neuromyth most closely held by faculty is the one widely associated with the classroom, the theory of learning styles. . . . The premise of learning styles is this: Students learn best by their expressed preference for a learning mode, whether visual, auditory, or kinesthetic." "It is true both that people exhibit preferences for receiving information and do not process information more effectively when they are taught according to that preferred learning style. In other words, there is a difference between the way we prefer to receive information (often these are emotional/ noncognitive choices) and the way we actually learn. Learning styles are associated with subjective, not objective, aspects of learning. The preference for how people study is not a learning style but is based upon typing, also little supported from primary research.”

“In the thirty years since learning styles theory was propagated, the myth has mushroomed in scholarly publications, graduate curricula, posters, conference papers and workshops. Rigorous research has failed to demonstrate that learning styles affect learning. Individual learners show preferences for the mode in which they receive information (e.g., visual, auditory, kinesthetic) but learn no better when they receive information this way. Neuroscientists and cognitive psychologists alike widely pan the theory.” (I have left out the footnotes in the above. However, the points in the article are supported by rigorous research.)

“In 2018, the theory of learning styles continues to be disproved, just as the theories continue to be believed. The consensus among researchers and learning theorists is that we are often poor judges of our own learning, something to keep in mind when we resist disbelieving neuromyths.” “Unfortunately, Pandora’s box has been open for thirty years. Misconceptions about learning abound. Many of these have found their way into classrooms, if not teaching scholarship.” (For why, see here.)

The authors also discuss other neuromyths. “This incredible neural interconnectivity makes the ‘left brain-right brain’ theory of personality highly improbable and thus roundly debunked by neuroscientists.” Similarly, “The idea that people use only ten percent of their brains is also a neuromyth. One cognitive scientist writes that the idea is, in the first place, impractical: ‘Brain tissue is metabolically expensive both to grow and to run, and it strains credulity to think that evolution would have permitted squandering of resources on a scale necessary to build and maintain such a massively underutilized organ.’ The ubiquity of the ten percent myth probably comes from journalistic treatments of scientific papers by early researchers of brain function.”

Finally, "It is also tempting to believe that our students, most of them digital natives, learn differently from the people who grew up before the internet. This myth is also refuted by neuroscience. The learning difference may be a result of technological pressures, which have wrongly influenced public perceptions: that students of this generation somehow learn differently from their forebears and should be taught differently."

The authors conclude: “No wonder it is so hard to give up the fallacies. They are ubiquitous, having been insinuated into everyday jargon and practice, including law, reemerging as a kind of folklore. The fallacies have become, to some extent, part of every teacher’s prior knowledge. And like all lightly held, hasty ideas, these fallacies may keep us from making real change in our classrooms.”

Professors Borman and Heras have done a great service to legal education by debunking these neuromyths in such an important journal. Hopefully, in the future, legal educators will look to cognitive science when adopting new teaching methods, rather than unsupported fads. (There’s my mantra again, Jim.)

(Scott Fruehwald)

A last word from the article, "eminent education researcher John Hattie, writes: 'We are all visual learners, and we all are auditory learners, not just some of us.'"

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