Sometimes I just want to start throwing things: myths in education

I love people discussing education. It means they are concerned, it means they care about how children and youngsters are being thaught. Sad thing is that quite often you still hear things that are in fact popular myths that have been debunked by science for years. Even more sad is that while I can understand this from someone who hasn’t studied educational sciences or who isn’t a teacher, I often read this kind of myths even in textbooks used in teacher training!

Ok, just to help out, some examples of myths that I have heard over and over again and sometimes make me feel I just want to start throwing things:

  • The Learning Pyramid

    To me this is the Loch Ness monster of education. Sometimes this pyramid is quoted as the Glasser pyramid, but this a first mistake, as Glasser has nothing to with it. More correct sources are Edgar Dale or NTL.
    But rather never quote this pyramid, ever. The first version was actually designed by Dale, but lacked the percentages.  It would be strange to find such neat percentages in research, so we can assume the percentages are made up even more because the research data that it allegedly is  based on can’t be retraced. Do check this blogpost for a nuanced review of the myth and this is one of the very few scientific works on the pyramid  by Lalley and Miller.
  • Learning styles
    They sound so logic, we feel they are right. People who rather learn visual or rather by listening. Maybe the types that Kolb described? One problem, science hasn’t been able to proof they exist and if you take them into account while teaching, they don’t have effect. Interesting reads: 50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology: Shattering Widespread Misconceptions about Human Behavior by Lilienfeld et al and Visible learning by Hattie, or just watch this video:
  • Left or right brain thinking
    This myth is becoming more and more popular when discussing reforms in education. Sadly, again, it’s a true myth. Lisa Collier Cool points out in her article for Yahoo Health, we’re not really right- or left-brained at all:

    This myth began in the 1800s, where doctors discovered that injury to one side of the brain frequently caused loss of specific abilities. Brain scan experiments, however, show that the two halves of the brain are much more intricately linked than was originally thought, so problem-solving or creative tasks fire up activity in regions of both hemispheres of the brain, not just half. It is true that the right side of the brain controls the left side of the body and vice versa, so a right-brain injury can cause disability on the left side of the body.

    Do check some more brain myths on Lifehacker.

  • Give me more, please
    Well, I already discussed earlier the digital natives myth, but if you want more, do check this paper by Paul A. Kirschner: ICT Myth Busting: Education is Not a Question of Belief, I Believe! you can find even more popular educational myths, namely:

    • Old learning doesn’t connect – Kids multitask
    • Learning results are low – It’s going wrong
    • The info-society requires different learning – Discovery learning
    • Teachers can implement inquiry learning
    • Education should mimic MTV – Homo zappiens
    • Society is more involved – student initiative

    Abstract of the paper:

    Mark Twain once said that “In religion and politics, people’s beliefs and convictions are in almost every case gotten at second hand and without examination”. Unfortunately this appears also to be true in present day use of ICT in education.
    Educational technologists, educational reformers, local and federal politicians, school managers, and advisory groups are all jockeying to show how innovative and up to date they can be, based not upon science but upon beliefs. As a result of this implementation of change based upon beliefs or philosophies, we now find teachers, parents and students revolting against many of these so called innovations. And the newspapers, television, and other mass-media are having a field day reporting all of this. And what is the root of all of this? The reforms that we often see are most often not based on science (and specifically the cognitive sciences) and/or good scientific research, but rather upon beliefs, plausible sounding rationale and/or arguments, poorly designed research and the strange idea that ‘stagnation means decline’. The reaction to these reforms – though it uses the word evidence – is also based upon beliefs about how education and educational research is and should be carried out. In my keynote I will look at both sides of the coin from the perspective.

49 thoughts on “Sometimes I just want to start throwing things: myths in education

  1. there are 3 people i feel sorry for after reading a post like this related to your slamming of the learning pyramid. 1 – the man that lives his life by science, and undoubtedly lets it lead his emotion too – how stale. 2. anyone who is vulnerable enough to be swayed in seminars or conferences by such rhetoric, and most importantly of all, 3. students who suffer as a result of a man waiting for science to confirm the most intuitive and blatantly obvious of all epistemologies. Besides which, there is so much theoretical evidence validating that experiential and participatory learning is the most effective pedagogical practice. I hope you’ve seen some light since this post was written.

    1. Everybody is entitled to their own opinions, but many ‘obvious’ and intuitive ideas are blatantly wrong, e.g. learning styles.
      All knowledge is of course ‘until proven wrong’, but still I rather also rely to science, If you don’t mind.
      Did I write that traditional lectures are better than experiential learning? No. But are the figures correct that someone has made up, again: no.

      1. Yes, everyone is entitled to their opinion, but my main concerns with some of the ideas in this article are that they damage significant movement towards a teacher reflecting on the inefficiency of traditional teaching styles, justifying to themselves that things don’t have to change. The notion of learning styles is a good case in point. To believe that students don’t prefer to learn in different ways allows things to just stay the same. Surely you must concede that some students prefer to learn by listening, some more through visual modes, some more through kinaesthetic learning? A teacher who reads that there is no science behind such an idea just keeps on standing out the front delivering the one size fits all lesson.

      2. But must I lie if there is really no science proof? Or just shut up?
        I don’t think so. There are plenty of good reasons to differentiate in approaches and a bit of a serious teacher knows there is no one size fits all approach. But I rather have people investing time in things that work and have some evidence than stuff that don’t have any influence.
        I rather see teachers learning about e.g. the dual channel theory than learning styles.

  2. Thanks Pedro – you certainly have my brain alert now, but I am not convinced by your reasoning. Having said that, I would like to apologise for my first post, which was too harsh. Good afternoon

    1. As someone who trains trainers I’m very interested in this discussion about learning styles. I don’t talk about learning styles any more, I talk about learning preferences and I think there’s a difference. paulgmoss says above that students “prefer to learn” in different ways and I think this sums it up.

      We all have preferences about how we approach learning, for instance whether we prefer to work alone or in groups, whether we like to read or watch videos, whether we learn in silence or need noise around us. These approaches may be based on our past experiences, our culture, our educational backgrounds, aspects of our personality and probably just habit. These aren’t learning styles, they’re just preferences. They may not even be the most effective ways for us to learn, they’re just the ways we’ve grown accustomed to doing it.

      We may also find that some things do seem to work better for us than others. For example, I find I can recall visual maps much more easily than written or verbal directions when finding a destination. That doesn’t’ mean I’m a “visual learner”. I tend to learn best when it’s quiet rather than noisy. Does that mean I’m not an “auditory ” learner?

      The idea of learning styles seems to involve 3 assumptions. One – there are such things as learning styles which people “have”, e.g. visual, kinaesthetic – and these labels actually mean something. Two – there is some way to identify these styles, e.g. a questionnaire (and I’ve seen some really ridiculous questions used to try to identify styles). Three – if you find someone’s “style” you should teach them using that approach, whatever the subject, as they will learn anything more effectively using their own “style”.

      All these assumptions have been challenged, whichever model of learning styles you choose to look at. Peter Honey has said he wishes he had never used the term “learning styles” when he and Mumford drew up their model. It was never meant to indicate a fixed approach to learning, more of a guide to preferences. I’m happier to use their model, and the others, in that way.

      I agree that teachers and trainers shouldn’t just stand at the front and talk, they should use a variety of methods because their learners have different preferences and because we all learn using all our senses and from a variety of media. But teachers and trainers shouldn’t get bogged down in trying to identify people’s “learning styles” and then teach according to those.

      1. Great discussion gents. I agree with the ‘learning styles’ debacle – evidence suggests (Hattie’s book, Bennett’s book) that they have no impact on how well people learn and that’s the key idea. You can have a preference but just because ‘I’ decide that the best way to present this information is visually, doesn’t impair your ability to ‘learn’. Likewise I disagree most respectfully with Paul’s comment about what we ‘instinctly’ know works with regards to the Learning Pyramid. Having been trained with this particular graphic haunting my mind, I applaud the scepticism of these accepted bastions of pedagogy. Are you telling me they instantly forget the majority of what you said regardless? We obviously need to be self-critical about why we might teach something in a given manner but I prefer the idea that all these methods have their place and purpose and it’s up to us to decide how best to use them. This is a complex problem with no silver bullets. I confess to enjoying the ‘wild abandon’ there is in the practice at the moment. Nothing should be left to chance. Accepted wisdom is unacceptable. If it has an impact it should be measurable.Then you can show someone how well it works. Keep up the great work Pedro. Bloomin’ marvellous

      2. Thx! For our book I’ve digged much, much deeper into the story of the pyramid and discovered that the figures are actually probably older than Dale’s version of the Cone of Experience. A HR-person of an oil company probably has joined them in the late sixties.

  3. Presumably you have seen Teacher Proof by Tom Bennett – a good summary of myths about teaching, not specifically in the context of ed-tech. Though Tom concludes that “experience beats theory every time”, which to my mind undervalues the importance of getting the theory right.

  4. Hi Pedro!
    Thanks for this article. It’s so impressive and touches many aspects of learning as the process. I totally agree that education is full of myths and something can be understood and explained in a twisted way. Learning pyramid is an awesome example of separation and segmentation. I’d like to upvote to the latest section of teaching others as it’s the crucial one. I guess that even teach others to be honest in their educational findings and realization of their hopes. In this case, some tools for preserving academic integrity are worth mentioning, for example, plagiarism checker. Due to this stuff, one may defend his intellectual property. It’s on edge when there are so many dubious points of view and the original source is hard to be detected.

  5. Dear Pedro,
    I just wanted to thank you for the title you had chosen for your article. Even though you posted it almost a decade ago, it helped me but yesterday to alleviate the debilitating pain inflicted by having to face again another version of the active-passive-learning-pyramid-Glasser-Dale-theory-with-cute-percentages mutant, this time during a lecture within a master’s course on technology-enhanced learning. Luckily, the lecture was online and I was muted. So, thanks for speaking up even back then, saving my sanity and Christmas for my family.

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