Fourteen Educational Myths

I am sometimes reminded by conversations with other teachers that there are educational myths which refuse to go away. We have to keep reminding ourselves that they are myths, or they begin to resurface and undermine our effectiveness. Here are a few which seem to be particularly persistent:

Myth 1: You remember things better when you find them out for yourself

Discovery learning only works when you are already an expert. At school level, pupils need fully guided instruction. This is because the process of discovery overloads working memory, preventing the retention of material in long-term memory. Pupils can be intensively engaged in project-based learned for hours and retain nothing whatsoever in long-term memory.

Myth 2: You learn best in your preferred learning style

This is one of the most persistent edu-myths. We may prefer certain ways of learning over others, but this does not mean they are the most effective. The most effective method of learning something depends not upon the learner, but upon the material to be learned.

This myth is particularly persistent because it appeals to the common sense truth that people are all different: we are all unique individuals. While this is true, the architecture of the human brain is consistent, and therefore the most effective ways of learning material are consistent across different individuals. We all have a limited working memory and an almost limitless long-term memory.

Myth 3: You can improve your generic ‘thinking skills’

Thinking depends upon knowledge. You can think well about something when you know a lot about it. Generic ‘thinking skills’ do not exist. ‘Brain-training’ applications and activities are educational snake-oil.

Myth 4: You can measure learning

A pupil’s performance within a given lesson or test is no guarantee that they have learned the material. They could score 100% on a test and have forgotten everything within days or even hours. Long-term learning can only happen through repeated, spaced practice, which cannot be observed in one isolated performance.

Myth 5: There’s no need to memorise now that we have Google

We must distinguish between knowledge and information. Endless information is available on the internet, but it does not become knowledge until we have assimilated it into our minds. It is only then that we can think with it. Consider language acquisition. Is someone able to express themselves in a language when they have to look up most of the words they need to use?

Myth 6: As a professional, I know how much practice my pupils need

As subject experts, we are particularly prone to underestimate how much practice our pupils need. The better we know something ourselves, the more we assume that others will learn it with little practice. As an antidote to this ‘expert blindness’, teachers should study the materials designed by Siegfried Engelman and his team and published by the National Institute for Direct Instruction, which have a proven track record of success, based upon the principle that lessons should be roughly 80% review and only 20% new material.

Myth 7: Pupils learn best when we focus on only one topic

It’s a lot more relaxing for teachers to spend a whole term focusing on only one topic, but it is disastrous for pupils’ long-term learning. We need to interleave current topics with frequent review of previous topics, otherwise pupils will not get the practice they need, and their memories of previously studied material will quickly fade. Once again, it is worthwhile to study Direct Instruction courses for an illustration of how to interleave old and new material effectively. DI uses a ‘track design’ which builds in frequent practice of previously taught material.

Myth 8: Pupils learn best through memorable experiences

We need to distinguish between episodic and semantic memory. Episodic memories are memories of events. Semantic memories are memories of information, independently of any associated experiences. It is the latter which we need to build in our pupils’ long-term memories. If we create lessons which are full of varied experiences, pupils will remember the experiences, but not the material which the experiences were supposed to teach. Their working memories will have been occupied by processing the novel experiences, and there will have been little room left for processing, and therefore for remembering, the material which we wanted them to learn.

Therefore, if we want to ensure maximum learning return on time invested, we need to establish routines and stick to them, so that pupils can pay the maximum attention to the academic material which we wish them to learn, and minimum attention to the method by which it is being learned.

Myth 9: Pupils need to learn from their mistakes

Whatever we do repeatedly, we become good at doing. We need to preempt errors to ensure that pupils make as few mistakes as possible. If pupils spend lesson time making mistakes, they become good at making mistakes. They are learning, but they are not learning what we want them to learn. Their misconceptions are being firmly embedded, creating problems which will be difficult to dislodge later on.

In a well-designed course of instruction, pupils will make few mistakes. Typically, in a Direct Instruction course, most pupils will score near 100% because all of the work they are doing has been carefully prepared through repeated practice to the point of mastery.

Myth 10: Understanding is what counts, not memorising

Pupils can understand something without having mastered it or being able to apply it fluently. The majority of our pupils understand, for example, that proper nouns need capital letters, but many do not use them consistently. This is because they have not practised giving proper nouns capital letters until it has become a habit. When something is thoroughly memorised and recall is automatic, pupils do not even need to think about doing it. We need pupils to practise not until they get something right, but until they can’t get something wrong.

Myth 11: It’s a waste of time for pupils to revisit content they have already mastered

The things we know really well are things that we have repeatedly practised even after we have learned them. This is what we do with our native language, until we know it so well that we cannot forget it. Imagine forgetting that a four-legged piece of furniture from which we eat food is called a ‘table’. We just couldn’t do it if we tried. That is the measure of true mastery, and it is achieved not by moving on to new topics rapidly, but by overlearning (see below).

Myth 12: We should move able pupils on quickly when they are getting 100%

The principles of repeated practice and overlearning apply to everyone, regardless of ability. The best way to understand this is to make an effort yourself to master material in an unfamiliar area. You are an intelligent professional. Just look how much practice you need to master that material to fluency! And if you get something right one day, does that mean you will get it right the next?

Myth 13: Pupils need to work in groups in order to develop their team-working skills

Team-working skills are normally developed through ordinary, everyday experiences. Lesson time must be spent upon activities which build knowledge that children will not acquire in this way.

When children appear incapable of working in a team, the causes of this are moral rather than intellectual. Schools need to teach children virtues such as self-control and perseverance so that their natural selfishness and laziness does not impede their ability to work productively with others.

Myth 14: Teachers need to allow the natural goodness of children to flourish

This is one of the most dangerous and damaging myths, not only in education, but more broadly in our culture. It derives from the ideas of the Romantic writers, who held childhood to be innocent and sacred, and believed that formal education interfered with this natural goodness.

On the contrary, children are not naturally good. They must be trained in good habits. They must practise self-control, for example, by being required to listen in silence to the teacher whether they like it or not. Over time, through repeated practice, self-control will become a habit, and this habit will serve them well throughout their life.

On the other hand, if we indulge children and allow them to do what they want, they will grow up selfish and lazy, and have unhappy, unsuccessful lives.

Update: Andrés Bello has translated this blog into Spanish here. It isn’t just in the English-speaking world that these zombies keep rising from their tombs!

[Image from Wikimedia Commons.]

5 thoughts on “Fourteen Educational Myths

  1. Pingback: How do you plan on voting? What worries you about your school? Plus four other intriguing findings from this weeks' Tapping! - Teacher Tapp

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