Home Learning Theories 27 Educational Myths and How to Debunk Them

27 Educational Myths and How to Debunk Them

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Educational Myths are often embedded in our teaching practice, either at a whole school or teacher level. Many times, these are followed because “it’s the way we do it” or that some rising star has had a “bright idea”. Often based on nothing more than opinion or subjectivity, educational myths can be hugely damaging to the education of our students.

What are the 27 most damaging Educational Myths?

  1. Learning Styles – VAK
  2. Left and Right Brain Dominance
  3. Comic Sans
  4. Differentiated Learning Objectives
  5. Lavish Praise
  6. The Learning Pyramid
  7. Teacher Talk – Sage on the Stage vs Guide on the Side
  8. Motivation Breeds Success
  9. Sitting in Rows
  10. Fun and Engaging are Not the Same Thing
  11. Marking or Grading
  12. Independent / Discovery Learning
  13. We only use 10% of our Brains
  14. Girls and Boys have Different Cognitive Ability
  15. Intelligence is Fixed
  16. Multi-Tasking
  17. Self-regulation
  18. Brain Games
  19. It’s all on the Internet
  20. Knowledge is Perishable
  21. Student Discussion Always Works
  22. Carousel Activities
  23. Problem-solving
  24. Streaming vs Mixed Ability
  25. Public vs Private Schooling – Teacher Quality
  26. Re-reading and Highlighting are Effective Revision Strategies
  27. Growth Mindset

Let’s be honest from the outset; there is a certain amount of satisfaction, nay smugness, in knowing that something you are being asked to do or seeing unfold is inherently wrong.

You feel good that you know more – who wouldn’t?

However, there is with this the flip side of the moral imperative; we cannot allow things that don’t work, things that are hindrances more than help, to continue unquestioned or unchallenged. 

According to Sweller et al (2006), (that’s right, him from cognitive load theory) and indeed the new Ofsted Inspection Framework, learning is a change in long-term memory. In their excellent book ‘How Learning Happens’ (2020), Kirschner and Hendrick state that:

“Any attempt to do this which ignores the cognitive architecture of the brain is unlikely to be successful and may even hinder long-term learning”.

Ultimately we want to optimize, not hinder learning.

That’s our job right?

However, so shiny is a new idea, so glittery is the concept, so tempting is the fruit, that sometimes we make decisions in classrooms, at leadership level, as a Trust, that seems the ‘right thing to do’ but often are so far wrong that they become a barrier, not a gateway.

In the introduction to Daisy Christodoulou’s ‘Seven Myths About Education’ (2013) Dylan Wiliam states that the “disconnect between what cognitive science has revealed about learning and what happens in our classrooms has for me been a growing source of unease for many years“.

Too often decisions are made – as Kirschner states above – without a thought for the long-term implications or the efficacy of the process being adopted in relation to achieving a state of learning for students.

There are many stories that help introduce the concept of myth and how it perpetuates, the most famous being that of Ignaz Semmelweiss and his attempts to introduce handwashing by doctors in the Vienna General Hospital where he worked in the 1840s.

Despite his research and subsequent actions proving successful he was disregarded and ridiculed – why change what we have always done?

This story gives rise to the Semmelwiess Reflex – a term coined to refer to short-sightedness that rejects new ideas based on evidence because they contradict the status quo. 

In his 2009 book ‘Evidence Based Teaching’ Geoffrey Petty outlines another tale:

Some medieval farmers used to sprinkle oxblood on their fields at the full moon, in the mistaken belief it increased soil fertility. What made them think it would work? If you had asked them they would have said, ‘Everyone does it!’ People often mistake common practice for best practice, and seem to prefer the comfort of the crowd to thinking for themselves using hard evidence“.

Many books related to the use of evidence contain similar tales of folklore and mistaken belief, understandably.

We see similarities; often our own bias, or our own comfort zones, prevent us from making the right decisions from the point of view of evidence and research.

Evidence helps turn our gut instincts into best bets; it shows us what has worked somewhere and explores the validity of the intervention.

Yes, we must be critical consumers but we can also use evidence to show us that certain ideas the prevail within the teaching profession are actually dangerous – they hinder as opposed to promote effective teaching and learning.

In this article, I will explore a few of the most common and also what we can do to counter them. 

Absence of evidence is not the same as evidence of absence – our focus is on the later; clear evidence that shows strategies that do not work and should not be used.

What is Educational Bias?

Let’s start with the reasons why we make decisions in the first place.

Often we have a problem to solve – we have identified through some means of assessment that there is an issue and we want to rectify it. Either that or we have decided that we want to do something different in an attempt to make an impact.

Often we will be doing things because that forms part of the Teaching & Learning approach and rationale for the place in which we work, and therefore our hands may be institutionally tied. 

Sometimes it comes down to the sad fact that Schools scared to admit that their current practice is ineffective – Semmelweis – and lack the humility to acknowledge it in the face of competitive environments when actually humility is key to implementing change.

To eradicate myth can often require culture change which is hard to bring about, but every now and then we must step back and sniff the air – what is the prevailing culture?

Is it working? Why not? Are we doing something wrong? If so, what can we do that is right?

The debunking of myths must take place in preservice and induction to prevent misconceptions forming and developing, exacerbating the problem sector-wide.

People don’t like finding out they’ve been doing it ‘wrong’, whatever level or stage they are, which includes ITE.

In 2020 Deans for Impact published ‘Learning by Scientific Design’, a paper in which they found that pre-service teachers express views ‘that do not align with the science of learning’ and that if ‘novice teachers possess a firm grasp of basic principles of learning science’ they will make better decisions about teaching from an earlier stage.

This shows how easily misconceptions can develop and set in if they are not addressed with evidence at an early stage.

One of the key forms of unintentional bias in decision-making comes from what is known as the ‘Curse of Knowledge’, coined by Wieman in 2007:

“Here I would like to offer an explanation for this disparity between good intentions and bad results and, on this basis, suggest how to improve teaching and learning. The explanation arises from what has sometimes been called the “curse of knowledge” by educational psychologists. It is the idea that when you know something, it is extremely difficult to think about it from the perspective of someone who does not know it.”

In the very recent words of Efrat Furst,teachers are experts who regain sight of the elements that build the knowledge structures that they are teaching’; essentially, they are not blinded or blighted by the ‘curse of knowledge’ outlined by Wieman above.

Some of the common types of ‘Bias’ are listed below, and each one can hinder appropriate decision-making or embed the adversity to change. 

As you will see, as with many of the reasons for why Myths perpetuate, there is a significant link between teaching and psychology…:

Types of Bias in Education

Dunning-Kruger (Kruger & Dunning, 1999)

Essentially, the lower your ability in or knowledge of a subject, the more you overestimate your ability or knowledge; the most competent actually under-estimate their abilities and are therefore saddled with the ‘burden of expertise’.

This can be combatted by a bit of humility, developing a greater sense of self-awareness and also trusting the evidence, not our own thoughts; however, this can be de-motivating. 

Talent Bias (Tsay & Banaji, 2011)

Here we consider the reputation of the source – if it comes from someone or somewhere already perceived as talented or ‘always right’ then we assume that whatever they say or do is better than any alternative.

This is also known as the Halo effect and can often lead us into making poor or ill-informed choices without full regard for the evidence in our decision-making.

Self-Perceived Expertise (Atir et al, 2015)

We naturally overestimate our knowledge and skills (linked to Dunning-Kruger, above) to the point where, if we see ourselves as experts in a field we exaggerate and make false claims about our knowledge base.

Yet again this can cause us to ignore evidence and research that perhaps contradicts what we think we know, or we shy away from using something seen as ‘supportive’ because we already have all the answers….

Ikea Effect (Norton et al, 2011)

Ultimately, this study (based on the construction of IKEA furniture!) describes how some people can overvalue and over-rate their own efforts and ideas compared to the equivalent done by someone else.

They become married to their own way of thinking and their own approach and are therefore unwilling to see it from another point of view or accept that others may have worked equally hard to come up with equally valid results.

All of these biases, however conscious or unconscious they may be, affect our ability to make rational and evidence-based decisions which may be to the benefit of our students, and therefore can lead to the continued use of strategies and techniques perceived at one point to be valuable but now debunked by robust evidence and research.

We must also consider the difference between fashion, fad and commonly-held belief (myth)

  • the former are transient and often fall away through under-use or proof of inadequacy (lollipop stick questioning anyone?).
  • the latter remain present until properly and institutionally dispelled.

We have a moral and ethical duty, surely, to not promote systems and approaches that actually hinder learning?

Intuition is the enemy of Teaching & Learning!

Here are some of the ‘biggest hitters’ and how we can combat them.

Solutions offered are suggestions only; the best way to avoid falling foul of myths and misconceptions is to understand the craft of teaching and focus on what ‘works’; this will help get rid of what doesn’t!

1. Learning Styles – VAK

This is a sadly still prevalent and widely-held misconception; that students have a learning ‘style’ – Visual, Auditory or Kinaesthetic – that, when used to inform the way they are taught, enables better performance.

Solution? Pashler et al (2008 determined that although we have preferences we do not have dominant stylistic requirements and in fact what is being taught should determine how it is taught, not any pre-conceived need to cater for non-existent ‘styles’ in the classroom cohort.

Start with the content, then determine the methodology for instruction.

2. Left and Right Brain Dominance

Our brains are the same in terms of make-up and function.

To quote from Yana Weinstein’s excellent book Understanding How We Learn (2018), ‘just because some tasks require more resources from one hemisphere, does not mean individuals differ in terms of their brains’.

It is appealing to ascribe labels to people to help us understand them and their choices, but ultimately this is detrimental to them and to you.

Solution? Don’t do it; there’s no evidence to support this supposition so don’t believe it.

Again, teach the student in the context at the time, not with a pre-judged approach according to a label. This is similar to the Rosenthal ‘Pygmalion’ theory around expectations and students rising to them (or not – Golem)…

3. Comic Sans

There is no denying that students with Dyslexia benefit from more support, more teacher time and more ‘friendly’ typefaces.

However, Comic Sans is not the sole solution; in fact, its use often causes more ire than joy!

Solution? Don’t make the ubiquitous selection or ‘font of choice’ to cater for your dyslexic students; consider the need before the solution and plan accordingly.

Often pastel coloured paper can help, as can any typeface that meets these requirements: ‘Sans serif, monospaced and roman font styles significantly improved the reading performance over serif, proportional and italic fonts’. Good Fonts for Dyslexia, Rello & Baeza-Yates, 2013

4. Differentiated Learning Objectives

Here we look at the persistent ‘All, Most, Some’ approach; this is of no benefit and achieves nothing beyond capping the expectations of certain students and creating an exclusive, not inclusive classroom.

Solution? Teach to the top, scaffold and support below.

5. Lavish Praise

In the excellent ‘What Makes Great Teaching’ report from 2014, Coe et al cite a range of ineffective practices unsupported by evidence.

One such example is the use of lavish praise as a motivation technique; heed their words: ‘For low-attaining students, praise that is meant to be encouraging and protective can actually convey a message of low expectations’.

Once again our expectations of our students and our own mindsets can be so instrumental in effective (or ineffective) instruction.

Solution? Praise where praise is due and where the effort has clearly warranted reward; don’t set the bar too low by showering praise on what would otherwise be adherence to basic requirements – no one rises to low expectations or standards.

A ‘rising tide lifts all ships’ (Renzuli).

6. The Learning Pyramid

Although perceived as a useful indication of the effectiveness of different forms of teaching,  it is ultimately bunkum and there is no foundation for the percentages indicated.

According to Kirschner & Hendrick, ‘the pyramid is simply a corruption of Edgar Dale’s cone of experience (1954)’. Even if it was an accurate deconstruction in terms of percentages related to effectiveness, it is ultimately flawed as no lesson contains all the aspects therein!

Solution? Teach content appropriately, choosing your methodology based on the suitability for the content itself.

7. Teacher Talk – Sage on the Stage vs Guide on the Side

In the excellent Education Myths (2019) Mark Enser states that there is a ‘pernicious education myth that teachers need to limit their time talking’ which led to work like the Learning Pyramid above.

Solution? Sometimes teachers need to spend a long time explaining things, modelling processes, answering questions and giving feedback; all this is done in a teacher-led fashion to make it more effective.

Don’t be afraid of being the expert in the room!

8. Motivation Breeds Success

Sadly not.

In order to achieve motivation, there must first be success, which then may trigger the desire to feel that success again.

Solution? Low stakes testing and retrieval practice to start a learning session, aiming for the optimal success rate – Rosenshine (2012) cites 80%, and suggests that ‘a high success rate during guided practice also leads to a higher success rate when students are working on problems on their own’.

Coe et al (2014) also reference this approach as ineffective:

Attempts to enhance motivation prior to teaching content are unlikely to succeed – and even if they do, then the impact on subsequent learning is close to zero. If the poor motivation of low-attaining students is a logical response to repeated failure, starting to get them to succeed through learning content will improve motivation and confidence.

Learning leads to the motivation needed to learn more!

9. Sitting in Rows

There is nothing wrong with sitting in rows!

In fact, in post-COVID schools with limitations, this will again be the norm. There is robust evidence that sitting in groups can be detrimental as attention is compromised and other students are the biggest source of distraction for their peers!

Back in 2002 Hastings & Wood stated that teachers should organize ‘their classrooms flexibly, but also strategically, to support children’s learning’.

Solution? Be flexible, but don’t be afraid of rows when rows would work. Different activities and tasks require different learning environments.

10. Fun and Engaging are Not the Same Thing

The key thing here is the mistake made by many new into the profession; lessons need to be fun in order for students to fully engage and therefore remember the content and enjoy the session.

Yes, to the latter but not the former – memory, not memories.

There are many tales from many experienced teachers of how they prepared a lesson full of all the bells and whistles in the world, but all the students actually remembered were the bells and the whistles, not the content.

There were too many ‘seductive details’ (Harp & Meyer), too much distraction, too many things that hindered learning as opposed to reinforcing it.

Coupled with this idea is that of overload and unnecessary distraction in resources – PowerPoint presentations full of animation, lots of colours and unrelated images – all too much. Sweller’s work around Cognitive Load is vital here, as is research from Hobbis in 2019 that showed students are actually distracted by displays, not helped by them.

They become what Erickson (2017) called ‘visually noisy’.

Solution? Keep it simple, keep it relevant; don’t overload presentations or displays, don’t distract from leaning with irrelevant or incongruous content. To paraphrase Rob Coe, engagement is a poor proxy for learning.

11. Marking or Grading

There is a lot of discussion around assessment and written marking; to quote the Independent Teacher Workload Review Group (2016), ‘all marking should be driven by professional judgement and be “meaningful, manageable and motivating”.’.

All assessment must have a purpose, be it summative or formative, and must be used to elicit evidence which is then used to make decisions.

If it is marking for the sake of marking, or worse still to simply make it look like feedback has been given (there are always myriad witnesses to verbal feedback – everyone in the class!) then it is not meaningful, it is not manageable and it is certainly far from motivating!

Solution? Advice given by the EEF Marked Improvement review (2016) is worth heeding:

  • ‘Pupils are unlikely to benefit from marking unless some time is set aside to enable pupils to consider and respond to marking
  • Awarding grades for every piece of work may reduce the impact of marking, particularly if pupils become preoccupied with grades at the expense of a consideration of teachers’ formative comments
  • Some forms of marking, including acknowledgement marking, are unlikely to enhance pupil progress. A mantra might be that schools should mark less in terms of the number of pieces of work marked, but mark better.’

12. Independent / Discovery Learning

To quote directly from Kirschner, Clark and Sweller in their 2012 paper Putting Students On The Path To Learning:

Decades of research clearly demonstrate that for novices (comprising virtually all students), direct, explicit instruction is more effective and more efficient than partial guidance. So, when teaching new content and skills to novices, teachers are more effective when they provide explicit guidance accompanied by practice and feedback, not when they require students to discover many aspects of what they must learn.

Solution? Enough said, I think. Teachers are there to teach, not to supervise. Sorry, Bruner.

13. We only use 10% of our Brains

If this were true, surely our brains –through a process of natural selection and development – would be much smaller now than they were?

90% of our brain is not redundant!

Areas of our brain have specific functions, but we use it all. Perhaps a belief in this particular statistic also explains why, in recent surveys, over 90% of teachers believe Learning Styles are important and that hemispheric brain dominance explains individual quirks and patterns.

Solution? Simply, don’t let this thought enter your head. Yet again we put ourselves at risk of capping the outcomes for our students and dampening their potential by ascribing falsely-derived labels and limitations.

A great place to further explore this Shimamura’s excellent paper ‘MARGE – A Whole-Brain Learning Approach.’ 

14. Girls and Boys have Different Cognitive Ability

No, they don’t!

In their ‘Boys Don’t Try’, Pinkett and Roberts dispel this straight away – good teaching is good teaching and learning is learning – ‘memory is the residue of thought’; gender doesn’t come into it.

Solution? Belief in this myth can lead to teachers designing ‘Boy-friendly’ or ‘Girl-friendly’ lessons when in fact this is a waste of time!

15. Intelligence is Fixed

No, it isn’t!

16. Multi-Tasking

No-one can properly Multi-task.

We can be doing lots of things at once but in reality, all we are doing is switching between them in terms of our focus and the requisite schema, each time at the expense of the others; we compromise the efficiency of completion of each one.

To quote Kirschner & Hendrick, ‘if we try to do two or more things at the same time that require thought, we do things worse and it takes more time in total than if we had done them one after the other’.

Solution? Plan according to importance and deadline and then do things in order, not simultaneously! This is the same for activities in lessons for students.

17. Self-regulation

Difficult one this.

Essentially, it is easier to self-regulate the more you know and the closer to expertise you are: the cycle of plan, monitor, test, orient (Kirschner) is only feasible when students have relevant schema and skills fluency.

Novices do not have this so self-regulation is not possible, at least for the purposes of efficiency in the classroom.

Solution? Focus on the differences between Novices and Experts and support accordingly. Don’t expect self-regulation when the students cannot manage it effectively; it’s not fair.

18. Brain Games

Activities such as Brain Gym (remember that) maybe ‘fun’ and have a claim to be linked to cognitive science but sadly brain games do not make you smarter; these sort of games work only for what is practised, not for far transfer etc.

Solution? Beware the lure of the shiny siren-like programme that claims to solve all your identified problems; you will end up spending more time undoing what has been done.

19. It’s all on the Internet

Possibly it is, but where?

The internet is a massively powerful tool but it is dry; there is no-one guiding you through the material, explaining it or contextualising it as necessary.

Also, what you search for is guided by what you already know, coupled with your own understanding and ability to absorb.

Solution? Don’t assume that students can simply ‘go and find out’ – if you must, teach them researching skills and synthesis through models and guidance. 

20. Knowledge is Perishable

No, it isn’t.

‘Old’ knowledge doesn’t change; ‘old’ knowledge isn’t suddenly wrong. Old knowledge is essential in helping us choose, analyse and evaluate new information.

21. Student Discussion Always Works

Sadly not.

Discussion is great and Oracy must be promoted, but unless the discussion is monitored, guided or modelled it may not be of any use at all!

As we looked at above, sometimes it is important as a teacher to lead the learning.

22. Carousel Activities

Often suggested as an engaging and interesting way of setting up content in lessons, but ultimately flawed; lesson time is lost, the content is not studied in the right order and there is always a need to explain and model which isn’t possible in the Carousel format.

Also, unless you plan to check for understanding at every stage and switch, you can never tell whether or not the material has been successfully learned!

Solution? Again, present content to be learned in the most appropriate format, replete with models, explanations and checks.

I am sure you are noticing that so many of these myths are intertwined and borne out of each other. 

23. Problem-solving

It is a commonly held belief that problem-based learning works and that the best way to learn how to solve problems is to solve them; not so.

Glaser & Chi (1988) tell us that, essentially, we need to know facts in order to solve problems.

Solution? Skills are domain-specific and you need knowledge (facts) in that domain to solve problems in presents. You can’t set an attacking field for a fast bowler in cricket without first knowing how to play cricket. 

24. Streaming vs Mixed Ability

Evidence on the effects of grouping by ability – either by allocating children to different classes or to within-class groups – suggests that it makes very little difference, if any, to student learning outcomes (Coe et al 2014).

It can result in you as a teacher failing to accommodate for different needs within an ability group and exaggerating differences between groups, going too fast with high-ability groups and far too slow with perceived ‘lower’ ones.

25. Public vs Private Schooling – Teacher Quality

Ultimately there is no difference in the quality of teaching; the difference is in context and socio-economic factors.

John Hattie states that ‘What really matters is good leadership within a school, and how teachers are selected and developed’.

Solution? Trust your judgment as a parent and trust the teaching profession! Do what you think is best for your children, as a parent; as a teacher, do the best for those in front of you.

26. Re-reading and Highlighting are Effective Revision Strategies

Students, in particular, will state that this is an effective method to help them to study/revise. They are wrong. However, they will continue to use it if it is promoted by teachers.

Solution? Research from Dunlosky, among others (including TeacherOfSci (Paul Stevens-Fulbrook) himself), testing yourself, trying to generate answers and spaced practice to allow forgetting are all more effective approaches to study.

27. Growth Mindset

Carol Dweck’s work on Growth Mindset is well recognised but, as ever, a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.

Simply offering aspirational statements or laminated posters to students and claiming you are developing a Growth Mindset within them isn’t quite meeting the brief!

In fact, recent studies have found that Dweck’s claims have actually shown a minimal impact of GM on actual student outcomes.

Solution? High expectations and teach to the top, regardless of what you call it!

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Conclusions

To quote from Daisy Christodolou again:

‘ If I had to come up with a word or phrase, to sum up, the intellectual rationale behind these myths, then I would prefer educational formalism, as many of these myths work on the assumption that form is more important than substance. If I had to come up with an intellectual trend that underpins them, then I would choose postmodernism, not progressivism. Postmodernism is sceptical about the value of truth and knowledge, and many of these myths have at their heart a deep scepticism about the value of knowledge.’. 

In their book, Urban Myths, Kirschner, Hulshof and Bruyckere tell of the Hawthorne Effect:

‘You are more focused, possibly more enthusiastic; perhaps your pupils are curious or even surprised. These are all explanations for the temporary positive effect. But what happens once the shine has worn off the new idea? When its novelty value has disappeared? This is when disappointment sets in, so that you often return to the “old” ways, more frustrated than ever before, and determined not to try anything new ever again!’

Research and evidence help us make better choices; helps us solve problems we have identified; puts outcomes and efficiency at the heart of the matter.

What it does also require is humility; a belief that we can all continue to improve, no matter how experienced we are, how much perceived expertise we have or how we think we know.

School does not kill creativity; we can still introduce students to wonderful worlds and magnificent situations within our own domains – we can enrich them beyond the ‘limited borders of their own experience’ (Kirschner & Hendrick).

We just need to make sure that we do it properly!

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Educational Myths FAQs

FAQs

What are educational myths?

Educational myths are commonly-held beliefs in the world of education that often lead to poor or inefficient practice; like all myths they are unfounded in fact but seem to perpetuate through popularity!

Why do educational myths exist?

There is a desire to be ‘new’, to be ‘engaging’; there is also a lack of detailed knowledge of cognitive science present in educational decision-making in some areas. 

How can we eradicate educational myths?

We can use research and evidence based teaching strategies, along with a dose of humility and a view to the future, to promote what works. 

Henry Sauntson
Henry Sauntson
Henry Sauntson is an experienced teacher, Senior Leader and SLE working in Peterborough. As well as teaching he oversees trainee development, both at his school and for the local SCITT. He enjoys hosting and presenting evidence-informed professional learning opportunities for colleagues and believes strongly in collaboration and a collegiate approach to improving teacher effectiveness. He also acts as a facilitator for the delivery of NPQs and contributes pieces to Impact (Chartered College) and TES, among others.
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