3 Ridiculous Popular Beliefs About Learning that Hold Us Back

Updated: May 17, 2012

Corbett Barr

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Some ideas never die, no matter how little fact they're based in.

Popular misconceptions can be fairly harmless, like the belief that it's dangerous to wake a sleepwalker (in fact it can be very dangerous not to wake a sleepwalker).

In other cases misconceptions can be dangerous or limiting. False beliefs about how we learn can be the absolute worst, keeping people from trying to learn certain things because they've been told they're not capable.

Here are three of these ridiculous popular beliefs about learning:

Myth #1: there are left-brained and right-brained people

You've heard this before, right?

The left hemisphere of the brain is good with logic, math, reasoning, etc. The right hemisphere is artistic, visual and imaginative.

This concept is based on work by Roger W. Sperry who studied patients with "split brains" (a severed corpus collosum, the structure that connects the two brain hemispheres).

The left-brained / right-brained idea is pop psychology, based on a little fact, and then exaggerated to oversimplify and make an interesting story. The two hemispheres do have slightly different specializations, but they actually work together.

Don't take my word for it. Here's what an actual scientist has to say:

So the notion that someone is "left-brained" or "right-brained" is absolute nonsense. All complex behaviours and cognitive functions require the integrated actions of multiple brain regions in both hemispheres of the brain. All types of information are probably processed in both the left and right hemispheres (perhaps in different ways, so that the processing carried out on one side of the brain complements, rather than substitutes, that being carried out on the other).

There are some functional asymmetries in the brain, and it is true that certain regions of both hemispheres are specialized for particular functions. Speech illustrates this, but also shows that nothing is ever so simple when it comes to the brain: in most right-handed people, speech is processed in both hemispheres, but predominantly in the left. In some left-handers, speech is processed either predominantly in the right hemisphere or on both sides.

Myth #2: males and females learn differently

Debunking the myth:
Men’s and women’s brains are different, but those distinctions are much smaller than we typically think, and few of them are innate. Rather, the slight asymmetries present at birth, shaped and molded by interests, predilections, and the cues of parents and teachers, grow into more significant gender gaps in adulthood. This divergence is an example of plasticity, the brain’s marvelous ability to adapt and change. “Most differences in behavior develop through experience,” says neuroscientist Lise Eliot of Rosalind Franklin University of Medicine and Science in Chicago. “Nature sets the ball rolling, biasing boys and girls toward different interests, but the gaps themselves are largely due to learning and plasticity.”

In her new book, Pink Brain Blue Brain: How Small Differences Grow Into Troublesome Gaps and What We Can Do About It, Eliot dispels many myths about male and female brain development. “In parenting literature, there’s a lot of stuff that’s made up,” she says. When the toddler son of peaceniks pines for a toy army truck, she argues, he is expressing an inborn tendency toward active, physical play that has been shaped by social influences, not by the effects of a “gun gene” on the Y chromosome. Until about 1 year of age, boys and girls are equally drawn to dolls; it is only later, when boys become more active, that they strongly prefer balls and cars. Parents also play a role in shaping their children’s interests, often in ways that they may not be fully aware of.

The negative impact of these myths is predictable and yet distressingly persistent. Told that girls typically struggle with math, promising young female students might be discouraged from pursuing careers in science or engineering. Naturally creative or empathetic boys may stifle these impulses and miss out on a calling as an artist or social worker. Eliot advocates a return to the attitudes of the 1970s, when parents were more attuned to the way social influences shape children’s behavior and performance.

Myth #3: adults can't learn new languages

Debunking the myth:
We most often hear the critical period myth applied to language acquisition, with the prevalent be-lief being that it’s impossible or at least extremely difficult to achieve competency in a language after a certain age. The age that people cite often varies from 3 or 4 to a high of about 13 or 14. This myth is so attractive, in part, because it seems to hold true to the experience of many people who struggled through a second language requirement in school only to promptly forget almost everything after graduation.

In fact, however, extensive research shows that there are sensitive periods for certain aspects of language, but not a critical period for language learning. Sensitive periods are “windows of opportunity” in which an individual can acquire a certain ability mosteasily and efficiently.

For example, there appears tobe a sensitive period for learning phonology, with evidence that infants are initially able to recognizeand distinguish phonemes across multiple languages,but after three to six months of age (and exposure tothe sounds of the languages spoken at home), children become more skilled at producing the soundsthat appear in languages that they have heard (Neville and Bruer 2001).

This effect appears to be the result of neural pruning (removing less efficientneural connections), probably to increase the efficiency of sound processing by the brain. One result may be increased difficulty with age in acquiring a native-like accent in a non-native language. However, people show large individual differences in learning a new language, and some individuals can still acquire close to a native accent in adulthood.

Other studies have shown that adult non-native language learners are actually quicker at acquiringnew vocabulary in a second language and that they may draw on a sophisticated understanding of mean-ings that gives them advantages over young children(Snow and Hoefnagel-Hohle 1978). In short, there is no evidence that there are biological critical peri-ods for acquiring non-native languages.

Have you held these beliefs?

What other popular misconceptions would you like to put an end to?

Tell us in the comments below.


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