MADE for U of T | Ep. 10 | Nidhi Sachdeva, M.A., Ph.D

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In the 10th episode of MADE for U of T (see all episodes), we hear from educator and researcher, Nidhi Sachdeva, who discusses educational myths, a term used to "describe a commonly held but inaccurate belief or misconception about education and educational practices."

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Prefer to read rather than listen to the podcast? Below is a transcript of the interview.  It has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Nidhi Sachdeva (NS): An edu-myth, or also known as an educational myth, is a term used to describe a commonly held but inaccurate belief or misconception about education and educational practices. These myths often persist, due to misunderstandings, misinterpretations, or simply outdated ideas that have been perpetuated. Some of the commonly held edu-myths are people are left, brain or right brained, or that we only use 10% of brains. And a very popular Learning Pyramid, also called known as Cone of Experience, with all its bright colors, is also a myth. The percentages that you see on that learning period were all made up. There are no studies in the literature that validate those numbers. In fact, I've seen different versions of the learning pyramid in circulation and they have their slightly made up percentages. And one of the more recent ones is teaching facts is not important. That's also a myth. Students can look up what they don't know is what they (the believers of this particular myth) would say, and my most favorite one, and also the one that I have to say sometimes keeps me up at night, is learning styles. So those would be, you know, the really commonly held beliefs. And you also asked Inga, why am I interested in this topic? Well, I'm interested in this topic because I deeply care about learning, and I care about how learning happens. I always look for evidence in educational practices. But as a researcher, when you pick any educational myth, you simply won't find any evidence for it. But you'll find our stories exciting and colorful graphics or infographics, random numbers, percentages, and things like that. But no real experimental studies could actually provide any evidence that these myths actually make learning better or more efficient. I'm also interested because educational myths can be really harmful. The issue is that edu-myths are so popular, and many people believe in them. And as a result, they frequently lead to ineffective and misguideded practices, policies, or big decisions that are made in our schools for our children. So, these can be extremely detrimental to learning and our learners, you know. And I'm really thinking about younger learners, children. And I think it's also important to mention that educational myths can have significant negative financial impact to our educational systems. When our educational policies are based on educational myths, it can lead to inefficient allocation of resources within the system, the education system and that can result in financial costs. So, for example, if a school board invests heavily in a particular teaching method or technology that is not evidence based, but is believed to be effective due to the prevalence of this edu-myth, it can result in a lot of wasted dollars, and I'm thinking, sometimes even a million. And the bigger issue here is that learners will feel lost and those who feel lost those who can afford it, younger parents of younger kids and their children to tutors, university students may seek support from peers, professors, or private tutors for those who cannot afford it. That's where really the problem is. Estimates are really capable of creating educational disparities. And hence I would say, this issue is a lot bigger. Their popularity is really the impact that they're capable of creating. And almost always it is negative. So, it's not something that we can just say, "Oh, it's amazing. Just laugh at it, and no problem, not going to do it." But the impact is really big.

Inga Breede (IB): So, Nidhi, let's explore a couple of the edu-myths that you've mentioned so far: teaching facts and learning styles. What can you tell us about that?

NS: Thank you for choosing those specific ones. I was really hoping you would do that. The learning styles one, because I think that will resonate, especially with the members of this community. But let's talk about the myth, that teaching facts aren’t important. Let's talk about that of course. I mean, the truth is, we actually need a lot of facts to be able to build knowledge. And I want to say that we recently wrote about this talk on our blog, the science of learning. And by “we” I don't mean the royal “we.” I co-write this blog with Dr. Jim Hewitt. He's an associate professor at OISE. Many of you probably heard that heard the name, and you know of him as well. So yeah, this is one of those myths that almost sounds reasonable the first time you hear it. But the facts that live in our long term memory, facts that we can retrieve or pull out when we need them, are extremely important to make sense of the new incoming information. So, you can't perform long division without knowing your multiplication facts which first need to be taught before children can make them traumatized, so to say, right or consider this situation a little bit closer to our home. You're sitting in a lecture face to face, or zoom, your professor mentioned something that requires there's some key foundational knowledge that wasn't taught. And as a result, you don't possess this knowledge. How are you going to feel - confused, lost, frustrated? And all these are signs of cognitive overload. Something I often talk about, and it'd be almost impossible for you to make sense of this new knowledge, right? Because it has nothing to connect to memory. And we know that knowledge builds upon knowledge. So will you learn in today's session becomes your prior knowledge for tomorrow's lesson, and that's how it goes. So, facts should be taught so that our learners are not constantly overloaded or better yet, heir working memories is not overloaded.  Working memory has a very limited capacity in time and in duration and sort of space on a good day, right. And I also want to mention that students can't do quality critical thinking without access to this foundational knowledge in their brain.  So, they can look it up, but in the moment how they will be able to tell someone this is right or wrong? This is relevant, or need to have that knowledge that foundational knowledge in their long term memory, right? And let's now move to learning styles. Oh, yeah, we've been talking a lot about that in our course right now as well. So timing is kind of nice. It's all fresh in my mind as well. Now, learning style is that idea that each of us has one special way we learn best, like, you know visual learner or auditor learner, things like that.  And perhaps it does come from an idea that people are all different, and just as they may pre may prefer different foods. They may also prefer different ways of learning. So, like one prefers pictures, while others prefer words. In many ways it sounds and even feels logical, and that's the tricky part with most of these educational myths, right? It sounds logical that you know, there might be people who are visual learners, meaning, they learn best when information is presented as pictures, diagrams, charts.  While others say “I'm an auditory learner,” meaning, they learn best when they're in a lecture or a podcast.  Or they may be reading and writing learners, meaning, they learn best to read and write.  And then there's the kinesthetic learners, which is hands on, “I learned best when I have this physical experience.”

What I just explained is actually one of the popular known learning styles theory called VARK; the visual, auditory, reading/writing, kinesthetic. And sadly, there are a lot more versions of these kind of theories. But again, the truth is, if you dig deeper, there is no evidence whatsoever for these learning styles and again, the bigger issue is that those who believe all learners learn differently also advocate that we need to design and facilitate instruction that aligns with unique learning styles.  Think about it for a second, that simply isn't possible. And even if it was possible, it would be a very inefficient, extremely inefficient way of teaching. It's so challenging to cater to so many unique sort of ways of learning. Meanwhile, we have evidence of how learning happens that we can apply in our learning.

IB: Tying this all together, how can we “un-learn” these myths in the work we do as educational media developers and instructional designers?

NS: Before we do, I do get into the time component. I do want to mention that, you know it was pretty grim, right like when I said, educational myths and learning styles, and we still believe in it, and it's hard to design. But then, what's the alternative? And that kind of answers your next question as well. But then I'll build upon that a bit more. The good news is that we do have theories supported by evidence. Lots of evidence. So, I say, start going back to the basics. We have a theory called dual coding theory. I just posted a video about it on my Twitter space this morning. And this is a theory that we've known about since 1971, and I often say, probably developed by a Canadian psychologist, Dr. Alan Paivio. Dual coding theory explains how our brains sort of stores and recalls information. It assumes that there are 2 cognitive subsystems of the brain, one for processing verbal objects to language, text. and the other ones for processing imagery. Right? So nonverbal objects, right? So, visuals, and I think, smells, and any of anything that's non-text. And what's interesting is that these 2 systems work independently, function independently of each other. But they constantly interact. What does that mean? That means that when you design instruction that gives you your 2 systems access to it, you know information that they really tap into, that it has an additive. If it makes learning actually better, right? So, it just will make your information receiving accessible through the 2 channels that are always available, the visual channel and the verbal channel. And this has huge implications for instructional design. Right? If designed properly, receiving visual and verbal information will enhance that learning. Okay, so think of an example. Let's say you're learning a new language. Say German. I speak German so, I'll take that example.  It’s so much easier to process and learn a new word when it is also presented with a visual. So, if I told you the German word for table is “Tisch”, and I show you a visual of a table, your brain's tapping into both those systems at the same time, right? Because it can do that. It's not taking away space. In fact, it's creating that additive effect and making sense so much faster versus if I just told you the word, “Tisch” and then left you to try and figure it out. So, it's kind of overloading your working memory.

Dual coding theory almost helps us like, lower that load on our very tight space working memory.  And if more of us believed and not believed learned about this, then I'd say, maybe we will start believing in learning styles a little bit less and go the evidence, right? So again, one of the things is tying this all together, as you said, like, how do you apply this knowledge and work? So, one of the things is that you can be at peace with yourselves. And we can all be at peace with ourselves. But instead of trying to achieve the impossible, which is designing instruction matching with people's so called “unique learning styles,” you can design instruction based on evidence, informed practices. So, using the theory that we have the second aspect is you use this evidence, inform practice and use what we now know. What has become of dual coding theory? So dual coding theory is your solid foundation with a lot of evidence, and it has been now developed into what we now know as Multimedia Principles. So, folks may have heard the name, Richard Mayer and Mayer developed this theory out of cognitive theory and dual coding theory. And this theory is called cognitive theory of multimedia learning and encompasses, again, the two theories, and he has given us, or this theory has given us, I should say, from 12 to 14 very practical multimedia principles that you can apply as you're creating content.

So, I'll give you some examples. There's 14. So, I'm not going to all, but just going to give you a few examples. One of the principles is multimedia principles. And basically, it says that we can foster deeper learning by fostering mental connections between words and associated images in the learners’ mind. So, when you present content, present it with their visual and verbal elements. It's something we could do when we're working on our PowerPoint presentations or our videos and things like that. Another principle you can think of is the spatial contiguity principle. One of the funny things I find about the multimedia principle is that they mean so much easier, but their names are really complicated. So don't get stuck with that. I just want you to remember some of the key elements. So, this spatial contiguity principle says, people learn better when text and corresponding graphics are placed closer to each other, so think of a visual of a heart, and what are the different parts of the heart? So rather than me, saying different parts, labels as 1, 2, 3, and then on the right side, I have named all these like providing a legend, you provide the title like this is this particular ventricle, that kind of stuff, right? So, the graph and the text are closer together. Another really popular one is the personalization principle. Humans learn better from a more informal, conversational voice than a very formal, direct voice, and it's very closely related to the voice principle which says humans learn better from a human voice than a mechanical sounding voice. And I think that we really need to consider now, because we have so many options of text-to-speech, and all these AI generated. So, it's choice you want to make like, do you want to take the moment to record and have your voice that may not be perfect versus having this very, you know, machine kind of voice, right? And I know the software is just improving all the time. Sometimes it's even harder to distinguish between them. But it's good to know these things, so you can understand who your learners are, and how and which principle you may want to apply.  I'll give you couple more examples. The segmenting principle is extremely important, because it really pulls information out of the cognitive load theory. And basically, it says that humans learn better when the content is divided into discrete segments. So, this was in many ways, a part of my doctoral work as well. So, I worked on designing micro lessons in a graduate level online course. And the idea is that how can you get students to tap into the content? You divide it into segments and present relatively complex theories, but you break it down, and it's received. Well, it's understood well, and you can use aspects of, you know, retrieval practice, like self-testing quizzes, zero stakes quizzes, to see if they were learning or not. So, this is something very, very important. and we should always be thinking about that when you're designing content. And then I'll just say one more here. The dynamic drawing principle. So learning is improved in a video. For example, if the instructor draws visuals on a board rather than pointing to already drawn visual. So, if you watch, for example, Khan Academy videos, they're always writing as if the thing is being spoken versus it's already there. So, because learners wouldn't know where to focus, but as it's being written, so that dynamic principle we're following along exactly. As I said, there's like 14 of these, so I probably, you know, won't mention all of them. But I'm happy to share where you can access this information, and how you can apply this knowledge as you're designing content and working with multimedia content. So, what this does is that you go away from the learning style. But you go to evidence, cause. All these principles have been tested, heavily tested their effect. It’s very significant for us to be thinking about these, as we are designing our lectures, designing our videos, designing our micro lessons, or whatever kind of content that you might be working on.

IB: For our listeners and for our MADE community. Where would you suggest to go for resources to learn more about educational myths?

NS: So, there's definitely some I mentioned earlier, that we have a newsletter/blog called “Science of Learning” and it's on substack.  There's a really great book, it's interesting that it was written a long time ago, but it's still so relevant called “7 Myths about education,” and it's by Daisy Christodoulou, really, really great book. One of my other favorite books is called “How Learning Happens.” It's written by Paul Kirschner and Carl Hendrick. It talks about how learning happens generally, but the last section of the book, with various chapters is dedicated to educational myths. They actually call it the “deadly sins.” So, a little bit more intense, but very, very useful. And I would say the other pieces, I would say, follow some prominent names in the science of learning Some of the names would be Dr. Daniel Willingham. I mentioned Paul Kirschner. I mentioned Carl Hendrick, I would mention Dylan Wiliam, and various other names that I'm happy to share. Follow those names, because it's so important that we follow the right folks to understand what the studies are because in this day and age with a lot of influence from AI. And I think we were talking about it at the conference as well last week is it's hard to differentiate from real from fake, and anyway makes another stronger case of why we need to teach facts to our learners. But yeah, I would say that. And one place you shouldn't go is, ideally, don't ask AI, and I'll share an example here. The other day I attended a presentation, and the presentation started. With all children. Children learn differently, and I think it's a very exciting sentence here, but of course evidence speaks otherwise. They may have their unique preferences, but as long as cognitive science is, you know, you know, thinking about cognitive science. You're thinking about working memory long term. That's a theme, right? And so, I put in this question in ChatGPT. And I said: “All children learn differently. What does the research say about it?” And very confidently ChatGPT said: “Well, of course it's right. And the research is supported by the learning styles theory.”  So again, just being really careful where you seek information. But I think some of those places that I mentioned would be a definitely a good start to learn.

IB: Thank you, Nidhi, for giving us your time today to talk about edu-myths with the MADE community. I hope you had fun!

NS: I did it, thank you, and I hope it connected with folks what I was trying to say. So, thank you very much, and thank you everyone for joining!

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