On The Mozart Effect, Learning Styles, Karma and Other Things I Wish Were True



The Mozart Effect and Confirmation Bias

No, playing classical music to children (of whatever age) does not make them more intelligent. ‘The Mozart Effect’ does not work. It sounds like a beautiful mind hack – an elegant little shortcut to getting smarter, known only to the initiated… but it isn’t true. Nor are the exaggerated claims of 99% of the ‘brain training’ software out there. Ditto with most intelligence-boosting dietary supplements.

Just because it sounds like it should be true doesn’t make it so.

And carefully sifting sources and selecting only certain facts to try and make your case is only evidence of confirmation bias. Here’s what just one source has to say on the much-believed link between playing young people, classical music and intelligence:

Not only had babies never been studied, but the original 1993 experiment had found only a modest and temporary IQ increase in college students performing a specific kind of task while listening to a Mozart sonata. And even that finding was proved suspect after a 1999 review showed that over a dozen subsequent studies failed to verify the 1993 result. While many newspapers did report this blow to the Mozart Effect, the legend continued to spread—overgeneralizations and all. For example… a 2001 article in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that refers to “numerous studies on the Mozart Effect and how it helps elementary students, high school students, and even infants increase mental performance.” In truth, none of these groups had been studied… (Source)


Enduring Nonsense, Alchemy and Neuroplasticity

The Mozart Effect is nonsense. It is enduring nonsense, but nonsense nonetheless. And like so much other mumbo-jumbo, it has become an education meme because of the twin forces of marketing and fear. Quick fixes sell: see diet pills and exercise machines. As does fear: there seems to be a strong relationship between belief in the Mozart Effect and parents’ fear of the damage weak education systems may inflict on their children’s future prospects. (See the previous link and this one.)

Yet, this has done nothing to stop the spread of the scientific legend that asserts that classical music is to the brain what alchemy is to lead: a magical secret formula to turn something base into something sublime.

I am a firm proponent of neuroplasticity, and I do believe it is possible to get smarter. I just don’t think that there are any shortcuts. Improving your intelligence is a long-term commitment. There is no hack. As much as we wish there were.


Learning Styles, Karma and the Magic Formula

Recently, I came across another piece of research that discredits something I have strongly believed throughout my years of teaching young minds. It seems that teaching to students’ preferred learning styles may not make any kind of measurable difference:

Cognitive psychologist Daniel Willingham explained this conundrum in his 2009 book “Why Don’t Students Like School?” In the best tests of the learning-styles theory, researchers first ascertain students’ preferred styles and then randomly assign them to a form of instruction that either matches their preferences or doesn’t. For example, in one study, students were randomly assigned to memorize a set of objects presented either verbally (as names) or visually (as pictures). Overall, visual presentation led to better memory, but there was no relationship between the learners’ preferences and the instruction style. [A] comprehensive review commissioned by the Association for Psychological Science concluded that there’s essentially no evidence that customizing instruction formats to match students’ preferred learning styles leads to better achievement. This is a knock not on teachers… but on human intuition, which finds the claim about learning styles so self-evident that it is hard to see how it could be wrong.(Source)

There are many more ‘neuro-myths’ that teachers and parents believe, simply because they sound like they must be true: Enriching classroom environments, carefully choosing the colour we paint classroom walls, ‘Baby Einstein’ videos… The list goes on. It’s all a little bit like our common sub-conscious belief in karma: that people get what they deserve… It sounds so true, it must be real. But it isn’t. (Just ask those close to you if they deserve to be suffering. Or the millions around the world afflicted with so many problems not of their own making.) People do not reap what they sow. Similarly, there is no magic formula to improving intelligence. As much as we would like there to be.

But what if it weren’t so simple?

The Sweet Core

Know this: Education is a major market for snake-oil salesmen. Knowing that many of the ‘edu-myths’ we hold so dear may be wrong has the major benefit of being able to ward off these dishonest profiteers. Parents, students and teachers should be very wary of the claims these charlatans make through fear, pseudo-science and marketing. Stakeholders must learn to steer clear of the myriad of apps, DVDs, ‘consultants’ and ‘programmes’ aimed at making a profit out of pseudo-science. Research which identifies and debunks these myths plays an important role in helping them to do so.

But here’s the big idea: The conclusion that teaching to learning styles is ineffective may not be entirely valid. Here’s why:

Educating a child is a very complex and multi-faceted process. As much as we would like it to be so, not everything that works can be tangibly measured. In particular, how much youngsters enjoy learning, and the subjective role played by those mentors who encourage them on their journey cannot be studied objectively under controlled conditions. Compounding this problem is the role played by emotional development, motivation, gender, family-dynamics, socio-economics and the individual personalities involved. Education is a process – across learning areas, over many years, occurring in a multitude of environments and inside the minds of individuals. For my money, short term, intensive studies cannot effectively control for these and many other nuanced variables, and thus it is unlikely that they will ever be able to fully discredit any child-centered methodology.

I am quite willing to adapt my approach in accordance with the latest neurological and pedagogical research. I do not want any quick fixes, nor am I defending an outmoded way of thinking in the same way a creationist would against a wealth of scientific evidence to the contrary. All I am saying is that if using a variety of teaching styles motivates my students to enjoy learning, and sets them on a path of life-long learning, and gives them the feeling that I care about them as individuals, then how can I not?

Theories of differing intelligence types and learning styles are still valid, even if we don’t quite know how to leverage them effectively just yet. The research alluded to above shows this. And only this. It does not follow that we have to abandon our attempts to customise learning. Every school is different, every teacher is different, every student is different. And all of these factors, plus thousands more combine in different ways for each individual child. We are hardly any closer to cracking the genome of an effective education if we discredit a small part of the sequence. We should not abandon a methodology that ‘has no measurable effect’, we should just think of ways to do it more effectively.

But wait, I’m not done…

Here is the big issue I have with research that addresses the effectiveness of learning strategies: they define ‘learning’ too narrowly. Researchers mostly equate ‘learning’ with either the ability to improve scores achieved at simple tasks, or with the ability to remember information. Young people are treated as lab rats, for the sake of quantifiable criteria. A good teacher knows that learning is so much more than this. For a start, there are these:

Twenty-First Century Learning Priorities

  • Critical Thinking and Problem Solving
  • Collaboration across Networks and Leading by Influence
  • Agility and Adaptability
  • Initiative and Entrepreneurialism
  • Effective Oral and Written Communication
  • Accessing and Analyzing Information
  • Curiosity and Imagination

And there is also what the good Sir Ken Robinson has to say about what a real education should be.

There is my own checklist of what I believe twenty-first century learning should involve.

Not to mention developing a global conscience about environmental issues and social justice.

What unites them all is that they are focused on the long term fulfillment of the child. Not on how well they can cut and paste shapes, or how well they can remember any arcane list.

Conclusion

To end off, I want to emphasise that there might be elements of teaching to learning styles in particular that can still be useful. Or perhaps can be more effective if taught in a different way. This does not conflict in any way with the research. It all depends on what we call a good education and how we define learning. Personally, I define it as a long term quest for meaningful personal fulfillment. And if this is true, then how can I not make use of any methodology which is child-centered, personalized and aimed at providing meaningful learning experiences? The best way we have to do this right now is teaching to learning styles. And so what if I choose to play a bit of music in my class? A more comfortable, enjoyable, child-centered learning environment can only be a good thing.

The alternative is to go back to chalk and talk.

I’d rather quit teaching.

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6 Responses to On The Mozart Effect, Learning Styles, Karma and Other Things I Wish Were True

  1. Pingback: Ulcers, Aliens & Mozart: Mr H’s List of Commonly Held Fallacies. (Critical Thinking Topics for Students.) | Ideas Out There

  2. Pingback: Blog-a-gogy: 10 Things Blogging Has Taught Me About Teaching | Ideas Out There

  3. Nina says:

    The problem with teaching to learning styles is that it still focuses on teaching, not learning. And as long as we think teaching is more important than learning we will not get much further. My personal belief/observation is that people don’t actually have different learning styles, but different cognitive styles that guide their perception and choices.
    Thank you for such a good and informative post!

  4. gypseyp says:

    If you read Great South African Teachers by Jonathan Jansen you will see there are many teaching and learning styles. All that should matter is that teachers and children should be inspired to teach and learn from each other in whatever way works.

  5. lennymaysay says:

    Hahaha! What a coincidence. I was just watching Season 1 of Penn & Teller’s Bullshit, with that episode featuring The Mozart Effect.

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