21 Myths That Undermine Educational Effectiveness

November 9th, 2014 No Comments Features


In the past year, education researchers have done much to turn commonly held beliefs about learning on their head.

In her controversial new book, Seven Myths About Education, published by Routledge earlier this year, Daisy Christodoulou draws on her recent experience of teaching in challenging schools to show us just how much educational practice contradicts basic scientific principles. In 50 Myths & Lies That Threaten America’s Public Schools: The Real Crisis in Education, a new book by David Berliner and Gene Glass, two of the country’s most highly respected educational researchers, several decades’ worth of research comes together to challenge traditional theories about policy and practice.

Below we explore some of the most striking myths outlined by Christodoulou, Glass and Berliner, and offer up some of our own observations as well.

Myth #1: Facts Prevent Understanding.

“Facts are not opposed to understanding; they enable understanding,” Christodoulou writes. “This is because of the way that our minds work. Our long-term memories are capable of storing a great deal of information whereas our working memories are limited. Therefore, it is very important that we do commit facts to long-term memory, as this allows us to ‘cheat’ the limitations of working memory. The facts we’ve committed to memory help us to understand the world and to solve problems.”

Myth #2: Teacher-Led Instruction is Passive.

Rousseau, Dewey, and Freire sparked the pedagogical movement that rejects teacher-led learning, and instead encourages pupils to discover knowledge for themselves. “Teacher-led instruction is stereotyped as passive and boring,” says Christodoulou, citing examples of good practice from modern educational settings. “[Critics] all tend to assume that independent enquiry and discovery are good and teacher explanation and direction are bad.”

Christodoulou says teacher-directed learning can in fact be an extraordinarily active process for the pupil, as evidenced by the remarkable story of Siegfried Englemann and Direct Instruction.

Myth #3: The 21st Century Fundamentally Changes Everything.

Some of today’s most popular educational advocates have argued that the speed of modern technological change means the education world needs to change equally quickly. Christodoulou shows that, in practice, the kinds of changes these ideas lead to are not modern at all, but are remarkably similar to Rousseau’s prescriptions in the 18th century.

She also discusses how these theories consistently exaggerate the extent to which our knowledge of the world is changing. “In fact, fundamental bodies of knowledge and basic inventions are just as important as they ever were and are highly unlikely to change significantly in the future,” she writes.

“I argue that the newer an idea is, the more likely it is to become obsolete; whereas those old ideas which are still useful to us are likely to go on still being useful in the future.”

Myth #4: You Can Always Just Look It Up.

We hear it all the time: Because of the Internet, we no longer need to know facts–rather, we need to know what to do with them.

Christodoulou argues that this is not the case: “Actually, the limitations of working memory mean that we have to have a store of facts in long-term memory in order to be able to think. Not only that, but in order to use reference tools like Google and Wikipedia effectively, you need a great deal of knowledge to begin with.”

Myth #5: We Should Teach Transferable Skills.

Guy Claxton, Chris Quigley, and the RSA Opening Minds Curriculum all promote the idea that there are generic skills that are possible to teach in the abstract. By teaching pupils such generic skills, they will then have them available to transfer to whatever new content they wish. “Of course, if this were true it would be a very efficient way of proceeding,” Christodoulou says, “but unfortunately it isn’t.” Skills are tied to domain knowledge, she argues.

“If you can analyse a poem, it doesn’t mean you can analyse a quadratic equation, even though we apply the word ‘analysis’ to each activity. Likewise with evaluation, synthesis, explanation and all the other words to be found at the top of Bloom’s Taxonomy. When we see people employing what we think of as transferable skills, what we’re probably seeing is someone with a wide-ranging body of knowledge in a number of different domains.”

Myth #6: Projects and Activities are the Best Way to Learn.

The theory here is that in the real world, problems do not come neatly wrapped in boxes labeled ‘Maths’ or ‘English.’ Thus, teaching pupils in these ‘subject silos’ is ineffective. Instead, we should teach pupils using projects or activities which more accurately reflect the problems they will face in the real world. Such projects also have the benefit of being more intrinsically motivating for pupils, and will help promote ‘independent learning,’ a popular buzzword in modern education.

Christodoulou thinks not: “I argue that it is a confusion of aims and methods. Our aim should be for pupils to be able to tackle real-world problems by the end of their education; that does not mean that our method should involve endless practice of real-world problems. This is because real-world problems often involve a great deal of distracting information which overwhelms working memory.

“Likewise, our final aim should be for pupils to work independently; this does not mean that constant independent learning will achieve this aim. ‘Independent learning’ often just means discovery learning or unguided learning, which are highly inefficient and ineffective ways to learn new material. There is also a novice/expert issue here–experts are good at solving real world problems, but we shouldn’t ask novices just to mimic what experts do, otherwise we’re into cargo cult territory. Experts think in a qualitatively different way from novices.”

Myth #7: Teaching Knowledge is Indoctrination.

Christodoulou combats various political arguments against teaching knowledge–the idea that it is impossible to make a politically ‘neutral’ selection of knowledge to teach to pupils, and that we should therefore not teach knowledge at all. “The problem with this argument is that it relies on there being a dichotomy between ‘bad’ brainwashing knowledge and ‘good’ empowering skills,” she writes. “In actual fact… no such dichotomy exists. We can’t teach pupils to sift opinions and weigh up evidence unless they have some knowledge to work with.

“Education is often defended in economic terms, as a tool for making countries and individuals richer. But it undoubtedly has an important democratic role too, as a tool for making countries fairer. If we don’t teach powerful knowledge in schools, we end up with social inequality, because richer pupils will gain that knowledge from their parents and private tutors, whilst poorer children will not.”

Myth #8: Teachers Are the Most Important Influence on a Student’s Achievement.

Parental Involvement On Academic Achievement

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Teacher accountability is important but, as Berliner and Glass point out in their book, it has become the “cornerstone of the education reform movement, putting teachers in an untenable position.” Do teachers control the economic struggles of their student’s families? Do teachers have the autonomy to make every decision about curriculum and instruction? Does the average teacher have at her disposal a wide range of effective and sustainable professional development opportunities?

Berliner and Glass argue that accountability should be based on a metric that is a little more reality-based. “Families, communities, school boards, state and federal government – society in general – all bear responsibility for student achievement,” the authors write. “Asking teachers to bear more than their share is shameful.”

Myth #9: Homework Boosts Achievement.

Cooper (2006), one of the leading experts in the relationship between homework and student achievement, has noted that homework completion may aid test performance because teachers often create tests using material that is similar to homework material. But the positive correlation ends here.

Most studies lack solid evidence that homework boosts achievement; in some cases, it reverses performance. Cooper also found no correlation between homework comlpetion and standardised test scores. Berliner and Glass support this view, adding, “It is the motivation and drive of the students that produce the effects we see, not the homework, per se.”

Myth #10: Course Size Does Not Matter.

With smaller course sizes, teachers beleive they are able to contribute more significantly to their students’ learning, and research backs up that claim.

“As teachers attempt to engage their students individually, as we hope they will, teachers need time to understand the needs of their students. This is less likely to occur if class sizes rise too much… Curricula that feature critical thinking, discussion, debate, and group projects, the kind of curricula called for to develop 21st century skills, necessarily will be curtailed. So, large course sizes may hinder our production of citizens suited for the modern world.”

Myth #11: A Successful Program Works Everywhere.

There is considerable evidence against the idea that a program successful at one institution or in one country will work in another. Context is the main variable. A program has to fit the specific needs of the institution, culture, and students. Finland gets a lot of hype for its education system, but what works well for Finland might not work well elsewhere.

Myth #12: Immersion Programs for ELLs are Better Than Bilingual Education Programs.

“Because bilingual education has been blamed for the high dropout rates and low English literacy levels of many immigrant children, proponents of English language immersion programs have been able to curtail or completely eliminate bilingual education programs across the [U.S.].”

However, the “bilingualists,” as the authors call them, are able to cite empirical research in the field of second-language acquisition that supports their view, and can offer “a better theoretical understanding of the cognitive processes undergirding language acquisition for second-language learners.”

In addition, there appears to be very little to no evidence that ELL students are doing better as a result of immersion programs.

Myth #13: Tracking is an Efficient and Productive Way to Organise Learning.

“Studies show that tracking, or separating students according to academic ability, provides little to no benefit for low-achieving students and, at best, modest academic benefits for high-achieving students,” the authors write. “We should note however, that special accommodations probably should be made for the profoundly gifted–students who display unique talents in a curriculum area, or test at 180 or thereabouts on an IQ test.

But for the vast majority of those who are labeled in our schools as gifted and talented, or high-achieving, ability grouping by such attributes appears not to work as well as commonly thought.”

Myth #14: Subject matter Knowledge is a Teacher’s Most Powerful Asset.

What makes a good teacher? A keen grasp of content knowledge? Of course, but teaching is obviously not just about the transfer of knowledge. This isn’t a new concept, but we continue to ignore it in teacher preparation programs across the world.

As Berliner and Glass point out, “Telling, talking, lecturing, showing Powerpoints, putting students online or showing films is not what makes a teacher good. Teachers need to know how to start a lesson, motivate, act on information from formative assessments, design tests and evaluate performance. There are literally hundreds of skills necessary for effective teaching. And these are quite separate from content knowledge.”

The authors also question how far subject area knowledge alone can take teachers who have to teach students 21st century skills such as critical thinking, collaboration, decision-making and creativity.

“The best teachers will have to know their content. But if that is their only asset, they will fail as teachers and fail the country.”

Myth #15: Teachers Thrive on Competition.

Putting aside the problems in trying to measure teacher effectiveness with a test score, the widespread potential for cheating, and the drill-and-kill instruction behind value-added measurements, Berliner and Glass argue that boosters of competition are making a number of damaging faulty assumptions. First and foremost is that students will benefit.

“Teachers are pushed to score the highest, which means others must lose. It means that many teachers are likely to abandon their collaborative efforts of helping students of all classrooms succeed in order to increase the chances of their own classroom’s success. It means that teachers who seek a bonus, or fear getting fired, must plot to get the more affluent students because, as history shows, these are students with winning records.”

“Competition is a repugnant motivator that will alienate teachers from one another and decrease the chances of all students succeeding,” Berliner and Glass continue. “A Darwinian survival of the fittest, applied to education cannot be healthy for an education system inside a democracy.”

Myth 16: The Brain is Static, Unchanging, and Set Before You Start School.


Explore the brain with our interactive infographic

The most widely accepted conclusion of current research in neuroscience is that of neuroplasticity: Our brains grow, change, and adapt at all times in our lives. “Virtually everyone who studies the brain is astounded at how plastic it is,” says Kurt Fischer, founding president of the International Mind, Brain, and Education (MBE) Society and director of the MBE graduate program at Harvard University.

High plasticity means our intelligence, talents, and ability to learn aren’t fixed, either. Great news for students and teachers alike!

Myth #17: Some People are Left-Brained and Some are Right-Brained.

“This is total nonsense,” says Fischer, “unless you’ve had half of your brain removed.” This may have emerged from a misunderstanding of the split-brain work of Nobel Prize winner Roger Sperry, who noticed differences in the brain when he studied people whose left and right brains had been surgically disconnected.

Surely, some of us are more “artsy” or more “sciencey,” but in reality this has little to do with some predetermined anatomical distribution of brain power and more to do with environment and genetics.

Myth #18: Memorisation is an Outdated Skill.

Memorisation has suffered from a close association with rote learning. The reality is, memory is an indispensble part of learning and should be emphasized across all subjects. “Long-term memory is vital if we’re to solve even the most basic problems,” says Christodoulou.

For example, if you don’t know your times tables thoroughly – and although some primary schools insist on learning them, plenty don’t – then you have to rely much more on your working memory to do the mental arithmetic that will fill your adult life, and that makes things much harder. Similarly, learning one historical date might help you in Trivial Pursuit, but learning a lot of them gives you a timeline, and a perspective on when significant changes occurred. And a broad general knowledge makes reading easier, particularly when we’re encountering a subject new to us.

Information swiftly and frictionlessly picked up online goes into “working” rather than long-term memory, or Tom Paine put it, “What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly.” So, if teaching is about giving students skills, then the knack of remembering, and training the brain to become better at it, is a skill worth having.

Myth #19: We Should Still Subscribe to Learning Styles Theory.

We need to wake up and hear the music: Learning Styles Theory is not backed by empirical research.

“If learning styles were obviously right it would be easy to observe evidence for them in experiments,” says educational psychologist Daniel T. Willingham. “Yet there is no supporting evidence. There are differences among kids that both seem obvious to us and for which evidence is easily obtained in experiments, e.g. that people differ in their interests, that students vary in how much they think of schoolwork as part of their identity (“I’m the kind of kid who works hard in school”) and that kids differ in what they already know at the start of a lesson.

All three of these have sizable, easily observed effects on learning. I think that often when people believe that they observe obvious evidence for learning styles, they are mistaking it for ability.”

Myth #20: Speed is Synonymous With Intelligence.

Speed of learning

Learning can become tedious when stripped of its playfulness and passion, and students begin to operate on automatic pilot or at an artificial speed. Students are not alone in this race: their teachers operate at an even more relentless pace. Teachers validate this belief in their rush to “cover” an untenably long list of content topics, skills, and strategies before a test date or before the end of the school year.

Not only does this mythical rapid pace cause significant stress in both teachers and students, it also creates rigidity in their minds and dialogues. The pressures to prepare students for standardised tests and curricular exams as well as the pressure to finish the curriculum over the course of the year makes it difficult for teachers to welcome alternate points of view, interpretations, ways of communicating, and solution paths.

In the desire to be more expedient, teachers are too busy to be supportive of the natural inefficiency of learning—figuring it out in your own way, in your own words, on your own schedule. Students who are quick to get the answer or who demonstrate fluency with a procedure become models for the rest of their peers; they provide relief and a sense of satisfaction that perhaps covering the curriculum in the time allotted is possible, at least for some.

Myth #21: We Should Praise Accomplishment, Not Struggle.

In a recent Khan Academy blog post, Salaman Khan writes about how his 5-year-­old son is just learning to read. “Every night, we lie on his bed and he reads a short book to me. Inevitably, he’ll hit a word that he has trouble with: last night the word was ‘gratefully.’ He eventually got it after a fairly painful minute. He then said, ‘Dad, aren’t you glad how I struggled with that word? I think I could feel my brain growing.’ I smiled: my son was now verbalising the tell­-tale signs of a ‘growth­ mindset.’

“But this wasn’t by accident. Recently, I put into practice research I had been reading about for the past few years: I decided to praise my son not when he succeeded at things he was already good at, but when he persevered with things that he found difficult. I stressed to him that by struggling, your brain grows.

Between the deep body of research on the field of learning mindsets and this personal experience with my son, I am more convinced than ever that mindsets toward learning could matter more than anything else we teach.”


Saga Briggs is an author at InformED. You can follow her on Twitter@sagamilena or read more of her writing here.

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