Do Learners Really Know Best? Urban Legends in Educatio

Kirschner, P. A., & Van Merrienboer, J. G. (2013). Do Learners Really Know Best? Urban Legends in Education. Educational Psychologist,48(3), 169-183. doi:10.1080/00461520.2013.804395

The paper sets out to debunk three urban myths in education. It takes an evidence based approach, and comprises an account of numerous data driven studies, cognitive load explanations and metastudy analysis accounts to debunk perceived urban myths in education theory and practice.

Specifically, The Digital Native myth (and references the digital native myth paper I read as evidence), the Learning Styoles myth, and the myth that modern learners are saelf starting, self directing and autonomous, needing guides who facilitate their learning.

Authors locate the digital natiove myth and characteristoics amongst numerous papers – Prensky, Oblinger, Veen, Veen and Vrakking,  which argue dig natibves are creative , playful problem solvers, adept at multitasking, garnering information from multiple channels, who can do mu;ltiple things simultaneously. They are “self directed learners and digital thinkers” Vreen 2006, and the authors state these assumptions are grounded, at least parially in the sense that these children are highly capable of managing their own use of technology.

They argfue Prensky;s description of digital native characteristics is based on his rationalising phenomena he had observed, rather than careful study. He saw children being surrounded by technology, and formed assumptions (they really understoood what they were doing with technology, they were using tech effectively and efficiently, good education would be none which facilitated these assumptions). Prensky’s argues we are engaging with a new generation who process, engage, and enquire in a radically different way.

He presents no evidence for these assumptions and rationalisations, no description of mechanisms, no data, or case studies to inform them.

The Digital Native Myth, Margaryan, Littlejohn etc, annotated by me previously, indicates they don’t.  (They argue digital nativity is part of the mix in determining tech use, but not the main driver in ed, which is lecturer and institutional use of tech, exspecially VLE use, discipline studied has an effect, as does age to a degree, and students will tend to be conservative in tech use if not led to it by teachers). A criticism here is that the nuanced and sophisticated motivations and factors behind tech uptake are a function of the qualitative analysis in Margaryan et al. That said, on the quantitative side, it seems clear that large numbers of students are not using tech in their education, and are conservative in their breadth of technology use. Kirschner’s assertions about the paper are probably sound.

A standard finding in reports critical of Digital Native assertions is that these so called natives are not aware of the extra functionalities the technologies they use can translate into learning environments., and training and scaffolding in tech use is required. ECAR mirrors this from the student side – conservative technology preferences, and a desire for tech use to be driven by educators, and not students. Report after report reaches these conclusions.

Author’s posit a butterfly effect, but I’m not certain how underpinned this effect is by evidence. The idea is, essentially, that students following links will achieve a fragile knowledge of a subject characterised by tangentsn and disjointedness.

The Finnish net generation study (along with Margaryan, and Bullen et al 2008) shows that (amomngst a population of traing teachers of the net generation) tech tarnsfer and familiarioty is not what would be expected of supposd natives. (I’ll be annotating these two papers subsequently. The range of software used was limited, and leveraged use, for curation etc, was also limited. Teachers proved to be largely passive users of technologies. Further studies (Selwyn 2009, Bennet, Matton and Kervin 2008) indicate passive, uninspired use of technology amongst natives is quite standard, and find no evidence for a generational shift.

Assumptions about digital literacy amonsgt students are misplaced. It;s key here to note that Kirschner et al are not saying students should not be digitally literate, but that assumptions that they are are misguided.


An aspect pof the digital native myth is that natives are highly efficacious multitaskers. Again, no cognitive or neurological evidence is proffered for this. No data is put forward.  Two assumptions underpoin this. That when students are observed doing several things at once, that this is multitasking, and that they are doing it efficiently. It is suggested that younger people have neurologically altered to achieve this. As Aleks Krotoski says, there is zero evidence that this is the case.

Empirical studies show that multi tasking is actually a form of attention splitting, and that the splitting action involves cognitive processes interfering with each other.

What would be good here is actual data showing this happening.( actually – this follows on)

It appears that genuine multitasking isn’t happening, and that efficiency is undermined by the capacity to rapidly switch between tasks. Kirschner quotes numerous studies showing increased mistakes, even amongst experts, when task splitting is required. This is also the reason why we ban mobile phone use while driving. Regardless of someones age. At the very least splitting means learning takes longer.

“Ophir, Nass, and Wagner (2009) observed that heavy media multitaskers are more susceptible to interference from irrelevant environmental stimuli and from irrelevant representations in memory. This led to the surprising result that heavy media multitaskers performed worse on a test of task-switching ability, likely because of reduced ability to filter out interference from the irrelevant task set. (p. 15583)”

Authors conclude by stating that the digital native does not exist (here I would qualify, does not exist as a necessary category, though some individuals may exhibit some few of the characteristics), the technological repertoire that is imparted to them is not occuring in practice, the multitasker doesn;t exist, and learning environments which attempt to enforce these conditions may damage learning.

Learning styles is dealt with elsewhere, and I will engage with the papers supporting the autors theses separately. Suffice to say that metastudies don;t support learning styles as impactful on learning outcomes. There is little evidence to indicate learning styles have an impact, and that evidence may only hold for extreme cases, there is significant evidence indocating that l;earning styles have no effect, or a negatove effect when catered to, and several interestng studies that show positives for the deployment of a single relective strategy.

This section, as interesting as the argument is, is not directly related to my research topic, so I’m going to delay an analysis, and continue on to the thord myth –  Learners as self-educators on the internet.

“These self-educators can self-regulate and self-direct their own learning,”.

The theory is typically presied on the abundance and obsolescence of information in the internet age (a standard Connectivist meme), and assertions about the shortening half-life of infpormation. The authors seem to be targetting Connectivist thinkers here (though there may, of course, be other thinkers who assert this as a basis).  The authors argue a distinction must be made between information obsolesence and information growth. More information/knowledge does not necessarily equate to obsolesence, and, in many fields, the core comopetencies and knowledges are expanding, but not discounting current and previous realities. Entropy still holds. Thermodynamics are unassailed. Plath still wrote the Bell Jar. Neither side of the argument engage in a meaningful quantitative argument here, but the onus is probably more on the side who are arguiong that knowledge and information have short half lives to provide meaningful substantiation.

Many of the same, or similar assertions that inform the digital native myth inform this one. Students are capable of seraching ands sifting expertly themselves the increased and abundant sphere of information. Digital literacy is assumed and imparted to the student population.

It’s difficult, if not impossible to assess the author’s claims about the inability of students to search for information effectively here. The papers they qupote are not explicated substantively, and a thorough and meaningful analysis of their claims would involve reading each paper. They don;t detail the empirical or quantitative details of the studies they quote.

The authors invoke prior knowledge as a key element in accurate search, arguing that itps presence or absence is a key determinant in search efficiency and accuracy. . Again, they quote research results, but not in an in depth manner, make claim evaluation difficult. They give individual instances of seacrh mistakes, but these can hardly be considered evidence on their own. Once again, an analysis and judgemnt of their claims would involve reading each paper quoted.

Their claims for second order shared control, and the paradox of choice, as well as the potential issues in self direction require study of the quoted papers. It’s impossible to form an opinion of their conclusions here without reading the relevant papers (in previous sections I had read some of the papers).

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