The Value of All Subjects

An important point was raised in this episode of Crash Course: European History:

“The question isn’t just how to build a bridge; it’s where to build a bridge.”

In other words, subjects like history, sociology, psychology, politics, economics, philosophy, literature, and art are just as important as STEM subjects. These subjects are often undervalued or even derided as pointless. But they are just as essential to our civilization as more “practical” subjects.

Science and technology are powerful tools, capable of benefiting us all. But if we don’t have citizens capable of thinking carefully about how to direct those tools, we might use them to create immense harm. The Nazi war machine comes to mind.

We need the capacity to extract and use the Earth’s resources, but we also need the collective will to use those resources sustainably and distribute them equitably.

At the end of that episode, John Green points out that there is a difference between what we know how to do and what we actually do. There are many things that we can do, such as build bridges and schools or prevent and cure diseases, that we nonetheless fail to do because we’ve collectively put our priorities elsewhere.

So it’s not enough to have engineers and doctors; we also need citizens and leaders who are willing and able to direct the expertise of engineers and doctors to the benefit of humanity. And that will require educational systems that value the humanities.

These subjects are not impractical. They are not a waste of time.

There is value in all of the subjects.

Learning Styles vs. Universal Principles

The concept of learning styles has been around for decades, and there are many variations of it, but the most popular version was created in the early 1990’s by Neil Fleming.1 His VARK questionnaire sorts people into four different learning styles: “Visual, Auditory, Reading, and Kinesthetic.”1 Perhaps you identify as one of these types. Personally, I self-identified as an auditory learner when I was taught about learning styles in middle school.

The idea is really popular. As recently as 2014, “more than 90 percent of teachers in various countries believed it.”1 And it’s understandable why people like the idea of learning styles. It appeals to our sense of individuality, and it offers a clear way to improve education: teach to students’ learning styles and they’ll do better. Unfortunately, the ideas we like don’t always turn out to be true.

When a team of eminent researchers surveyed all the existing literature on learning styles in 2009, they found that most of the studies had terribly flawed study design, and the few that were well designed failed to show that learning styles mattered.2 More recent studies have also refuted the supposed power of learning styles. For example, one gave students the VARK questionnaire and then provided them with study strategies that matched their learning style.1 The results? Most didn’t change their study habits, and those who did didn’t show any improvement.1

Another recent study seemed to refute the very idea that learning styles exist at all. It “found that students who preferred learning visually thought they would remember pictures better, and those who preferred learning verbally thought they’d remember words better. But those preferences had no correlation to which they actually remembered better later on—words or pictures. Essentially, all the ‘learning style’ meant, in this case, was that the subjects liked words or pictures better, not that words or pictures worked better for their memories.”1

So if teaching to students learning styles doesn’t help, and studying in ways that match your learning style doesn’t help, what does work?

One answer is matching the teaching style to the content itself. For example, even if you’re the most visual person in the world, you can’t learn to hear and speak Spanish correctly just by looking at it. Likewise, it’s pretty tough to make reading literature kinesthetic, and it’s impossible to learn tennis aurally. Some of the things we want to learn have to be presented in a particular way, regardless of the audience’s preferences.

Another answer is to do all the things – to teach and study via as many avenues as possible. We do have research that supports the idea that stronger memories are formed when you involve as many of your senses as possible.3 If you can see it, hear it, read it, say it, and do something with it, you’ll form a stronger memory.3 Touch, smell, and taste are harder to come by in the classroom (and downright dangerous in Chemistry class), but these can be included on occasion. And of all the senses, vision is the most powerful; we remember far more when images are included in teaching.3 It’s not too surprising, then, that one of the recent studies found that people who claim to be visual learners tend to do better on all types of tests.1 So even if you don’t think of yourself as a visual learner, you’d probably benefit from acting like one: Seek out images, draw diagrams, and picture things in your mind because it will help you form strong memories.

And that last bit gets to what I think is the best answer to our question: Apply universal principles. There are study techniques that we know work, like spaced repetition, self-testing, teaching it to someone else, and making written product.4 We know that classroom instruction needs to be engaging to hold kids’ attention.3 And homework needs to involve a better mix of massed practice and interleaving.

But while you’re waiting for the science of learning to make its way into the classroom, remember that you can proactively take learning into your own hands. If you find the lectures to be boring, you can ask questions to stay engaged or treat them as an opportunity to grow your focus muscle. If you’re not finding the instruction and the homework sufficient to understand and remember what you’re learning, you can choose to do whatever it takes to convince your brain to care. And if school isn’t forcing you to master the skills you need, you can choose to walk the mastery path yourself.

1 Khazan, Olga. “The Myth of ‘Learning Styles’.” The Atlantic. April 11, 2018.

2 “Learning Styles Debunked: There is No Evidence Supporting Auditory and Visual Learning, Psychologists Say.” Association for Psychological Science. December 16, 2009.

3 Medina, John. Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School. Pear Press, 2008.

4 Oakley, Barbara. A Mind for Numbers: How to Excel at Math and Science (Even if you Flunked Algebra). Penguin, 2014.

Why Going Fast Often Means Going Slow

I have a student who loves to go fast. We do math together. He likes to rush through problems, he doesn’t like to write things down, and he doesn’t like to work things out step-by-step.

But he also likes to pursue mastery, or at least, the Khan Academy version of mastery. To achieve that for any given topic, such as subtracting mixed numbers, you have to rise through three ranks: from familiar to proficient to mastered. To progress through these ranks, you have to answer four questions correctly in a row in a focused set, then answer another question correctly on a quiz, and then later answer a question correctly on a unit test. If you get it wrong on either the quiz or the unit test, your rank drops.

This student wants to get full mastery on all the topics, which I love. Mastery learning is a great goal. But because he likes to go fast, he makes silly mistakes. He often misreads questions, misses key details, or makes errors in calculation. As a result, he frequently has to repeat problem sets in order to get four in a row correct, and then he has to repeat quizzes and unit tests in order to get the mastery level for each topic. In other words, trying to go fast slows him down.

One instance stands out to me as emblematic. He rushed through a quiz and made an error. So he had to repeat the quiz, but he rushed again and made a different error. Finally, on the third attempt, he got them all right. If he had just gone slowly and carefully the first time, he would have been done sooner.

Of course, this comes as no surprise to me. I know that mental math leads to a higher error rate. I know that writing helps you manage cognitive load, leading to less confusion, better understanding, and fewer mistakes.

It reminds me of the importance of tying your shoes, both literally and metaphorically. If you want to get to where you’re going as quickly as possible, skipping the step of tying your shoes might seem like a time-saver. But if you trip and fall because your shoes were untied, it’s going to cost you far more time than would have been spent tying your shoes before leaving the house. Likewise, skipping steps in math problems – or in any learning process for that matter – only seems like a time-saver. It usually winds up costing you far more time in the long run.

This principle becomes even more powerful if we take the long view. If you want to go fast, you might skip a year or two in math. You’re saving time, you’re getting ahead, and you’re proving how smart you are! But, for many reasons, skipping ahead in math is rarely a good idea. For most students, this path means less mastery of the fundamentals, more holes in their upside-down math pyramids, and a higher likelihood of hitting a wall and quitting math altogether.

There are many students who want to become scientists, engineers, or mathematicians who are absolutely capable of doing so, but nonetheless pursue other careers because they falter in math. And many of them falter in math precisely because they skipped ahead in middle school. This is yet another case of the tragedy of lost potential that could easily be prevented if we only had the patience to go slowly.

Sometimes, going fast means going slow. And sometimes going fast means not going as far.