The Mozart effect, and four other learning myths

By Catherine Woulfe In Education

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17th February, 2014 Leave a Comment

The “Mozart effect”: listening to classical music raises your IQ.
This idea first popped up in 1993 in the journal Nature. The original claim was that listening to 10 minutes of a particular Mozart piano sonata would improve performance in the spatial-reasoning section of IQ tests. That claim seriously snowballed: in 1998, three American states mandated that young children be played the classics at school and preschools, and in a representative 2010 survey, 40% of Americans said they believed listening to Mozart increases your intelligence.

Actually, John Hattie and his psychologist co-author Gregory Yates argue that “the Mozart effect remains well-researched but unproven”. The data “establish that listening to classical music may help to keep you alert and awake, but will not boost your intelligence”.

In other words, it’s an auditory cup of coffee.

(Learning a musical instrument, however, may have a real effect on a child’s learning in other areas. The authors warn “the database is slim and the effects may not be strong”, but practising an instrument may teach self-control and discipline and help children make the mental link between effort and achievement.)

Hattie and Yates argue that “the Mozart effect remains well-researched but unproven”. Getty Images

Today’s children are “digital natives”, a new kind of animal whose use of technology is changing the way they learn and pushing their brains to make warp-speed cognitive connections.
This theory was first proposed about a decade ago and seems to have been swallowed largely whole.

The problem, Hattie and Yates say, is that there’s no good data to back up the theory. “In its raw form, digital native theory has to be seen as considerably overstated and basically incorrect.”

They argue that the human brain is not nearly flexible or responsive enough to change the way it learns because of the rise of smartphones or the internet. So just because modern children are Google gurus and know their way around a smartphone better than their parents do doesn’t mean they’re learning any differently – or any better. “When it comes to human learning, there simply is no new magic.”

Digital literacy, write the two authors, is crucial if a child is to participate fully in this world. But it’s also important that children are taught the difference between cutting and pasting from Wikipedia and building genuine knowledge.

The internet encourages shallow thinking.
This view was championed by Nicholas Carr in his 2010 book The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains. Hattie and Yates say the theory is not supported by good data and is probably untestable. Their conclusion?

We’re learning to balance the good and the bad of new technologies. And “we’re doing so with the same old brain that has tottered along for some million-odd years”.

Mastering memory games (mnemonics) or memorising long lists of numbers or names will somehow help a person’s learning in other areas.
Used correctly, simple mnemonic tricks can help novice students catch up to others. But “being able to recite pi to 1000 places does not make you a mathematician, any more than memorising random binary strings makes you a computer programmer”.

Having high self-esteem will lead to better learning, as well as a better life in general.
Wrong. “The trouble with such an approach has been that of ugly data. From the 1970s on, studies began to show that self-esteem increase is the natural outcome of successful life adjustment, rather than being its root cause.”

At the same time, it’s crucial that learners are confident in their ability to learn. The key is to anchor that self-belief in reality. So it’s no good telling a child, “You can do it.” It’s much better to spell out why you think they can.

Read the full Catherine Woulfe feature, “The superstar learner”, here (subscriber content).

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