18 Rules In Education That Should Be Broken As Soon As They're Learned

December 6th, 2014 No Comments Features


Rules are great. They provide order to an otherwise chaotic world and help preserve and perpetuate important ideas. If it weren’t for rules, and the willingness to follow rules, we wouldn’t have language or the ability to communicate. We wouldn’t have educational standards or scientific research, democracy or civil rights.

The trouble sets in when we don’t stop to question the rules that have been laid out before us. When the rules we follow start to impede learning and personal development, that’s when we need to take a step back and reassess our priorities.

The 18 rules listed below are warping the way we think about education. Some of them we still accept out of tradition or habit, others out of insufficient exposure to educational research. If we decide to let our students break any rules in school, let it be these ones.

1. Every good essay has five paragraphs and a thesis statement.

There is certainly something to be said for using a formula or outline to organise one’s thoughts, but we’ve taken it too far. In preparation for Advanced Placement tests and benchmarks, high school teachers are deducting points for thesis statements left unbolded and paragraphs without topic sentences. Structure only promotes deeper thinking to a point. After that, good ideas start to suffer.

2. You’re either a science person (left brained) or an arts person (right brained).

This is an unfair classification system we should eliminate from the learning experience. You can have absolutely no aptitude for math or chemistry and still approach life like a scientist. You can have no artistic talent to speak of and still find yourself appreciating and wanting to surround yourself with art. Why should students be pushed in one direction or another, and–perhaps more to the point–why are we perpetuating the misconception that science and art have nothing to do with each other? Plus, scientists say it’s bunk:

“The neuroscience community has never accepted the idea of ‘left-dominant’ or ‘right-dominant’ personality types,” says University of Utah professor Jeff Anderson, whose team published a study on the subject last year. “Lesion studies don’t support it, and the truth is that it would be highly inefficient for one half of the brain to consistently be more active than the other.”

3. If you ace the test, you’ve “mastered” the topic.

This unspoken rule–more of an assumption, really–completely undermines the idea of lifelong learning. Not only do students quickly forget the material they’ve learned for the test; they also lose interest in it because they think they’ve covered it. Let’s not treat learning like some kind of game that can be won.

4. You will always have to “go” to work or school.

The internet is a beautiful thing. You can now complete an entire course or degree program (or several!) from the comfort of your living room couch. You can also pursue a virtual career in fields as diverse as science, marketing, design, retail, and medicine.

According to Forbes, 40% of the workforce will be freelancing by 2020, and many of these people won’t even have to lift a finger off a keyboard, let alone drive to work.

Let’s just hope they keep their excercise routines in check.

5. Academic writing is good writing.

Consider the following sentence:

The principal aim of this study was the determination of the involvement of lipid-linked saccharides in the assembly of oligosaccharide chains of ovalbumin in vivo.

Compare it to this sentence:

The principal aim of this study was to determine how lipid-linked saccharides are involved in the assembly of oligosaccharide chains of ovalbumin in vivo.

Using fancy nouns like “determination” and “involvement” (called nominalizations) sounds more academic, but it’s not more academic. And it’s not good writing. In the second sentence, the nominalizations have been turned to verbs (“determine,” “involved”), and the writing is much clearer for that.

6. Compliance will earn you the best grades.

I remember receiving a B+ on my first philosophy paper in college and experiencing mild shock after coasting through high school with straight As. In her comments my professor wrote a critique I’d never heard before: “Doesn’t contribute anything new to the discussion.” When I met with her during office hours, she conceded that, in her mind, it was this one point–creative, original thinking–that made the difference between a product and a product of value.

I carried this advice with me throughout college and still follow it today.

7. Grades reflect how “good” you are at a subject.

We all know that grades reflect more than sheer mental capacity, but the finite quality of a big fat “A” or “F” always feels a little like an intelligence rating, especially when we compare ourselves to others. The fact of the matter is, you can fail physics and still have more practical knowledge of mechanics than anyone else in the room. But it’s not enough to ask a student to see things this way.

As educators, we need to do something to transform the traditional grading system into a more accurate measure of progress and performance.

8. Memorising key word definitions is an effective study method.

Sorry to disappoint all you flashcard lovers out there, but memorising definitions is a waste of time. If you shoot for overarching concepts instead–how things work together and contribute individually–you will kill two birds with one stone: you’ll be forced to learn the definitions anyway, and you’ll master the concepts and relationships you’ll probably be tested on.

9. Highlight or underline important points while studying.

The problem with highlighting and underlining is that it doesn’t set you up for a very effective study session come test time. All you can really do is re-read the words you’ve marked, and this does very little to cement concepts into your long term memory. The best study methods involve closing your textbook and quizzing yourself rather than reviewing material.

10. To master a skill, practice each part of it over and over again.

Let’s say we’re talking about baseball. In batting practice, a pre-game warm-up tradition that is older than most of the baseball teams following it today, the standard approach is to take the same pitch until you’ve mastered it, like you might reread a paragraph until you understand it. What research shows, however, is that you need to vary your inputs to get the most learning possible.

A recent experiment in batting practice by the team at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo, California, showed how the conventional method of training these skills gets it all wrong. As part of the experiment, players took two extra batting sessions a week using two different approaches. One group did the standard practice of 45 pitches divided into three sets: 15 fastballs followed by 15 curveballs followed by 15 change-ups. The other group mixed it up: three types of pitches were randomly distributed across the whole 45 throw session. After six weeks of training in this way, both groups were evaluated for their hitting effectiveness. Guess who did better? The group that faced randomly distributed pitches and struggled more during practice.

As authors Peter Brown, Henry Roediger, and Mark McDaniel argue in Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning, this misapprehension reveals our cultural misunderstanding of how learning really works. “It’s one skill to hit a curveball when you know a curveball will be thrown, it’s different skill to hit a curveball when you don’t know it’s coming.”

Read more about how to practice effectively.

11. Comprehension is the end goal of learning.

We tend to assume that as soon as we understand a concept, we’ve fulfilled our learning journey. This kind of thinking is perpetuated by the nature of tests: understand, prove you understand on paper, receive a good grade, move on. But what’s the use of learning something if you’re never going to use it or, worse, if you’re only going to forget it at the end of the term?

The end goal of every learning effort should be to act on what you’ve learned, whether it’s in a career or a casual discussion. If we treat every learning experience as another tool in our box, we’ll see two things happen: 1) we’ll be prepared to make practical use of what we’ve leared, and 2) we’ll cement what we’ve learned in our long-term memory by giving it more personal relevance and meaning.

12. Criticism is a bad thing.

Sure, we’ve all heard of constructive criticism, but we also know it’s just a euphemism for “criticism delivered politely.” No one likes criticism. It can feel very personal and discourage us from continuing our efforts. But it’s also socially constructed to do so.

For example, it’s very hard to separate any kind of criticism of our work from criticism of us as people. If we plant a different kind of seed in our students from an early age–one that values criticism as a means of improving ideas, not people–we will see a lot more learning going on.

13. Wait for inspiration before pursuing creative interests.

“There is a popular notion that artists work from inspiration, that there is some strike or bolt or bubbling up of creative mojo from who knows where, and artists channel this energy, or tap into it, or become the conduit for it,” says Mason Currey, author of Daily Rituals: How Artists Work. “Perhaps the single best piece of advice I can offer to anyone trying to do creative work is to ignore inspiration.”

This doesn’t mean that inspiration doesn’t exist, he says, or that some work is not more inspired than others. “It merely means that you should work each day regardless of whether you feel the urge to; it is the process of working itself that will give rise to new ideas. And with steady application, you can expect to hit inspired patches from time to time.”

14. Science happens in a lab, art happens in a studio.

From the time we enter pre-school, it’s drilled into our heads that science and art are two very separate things, as distinct from each other as boys and girls or yin and yang. We are exposed to both, but rarely shown how they overlap, if at all. We begin to realise we like one better than the other, or our parents like one better than the other, and when we choose a field of study it’s either in pursuit of a Bachelor of Science or a Bachelor of Arts.

This is a very limited perspective to be cultivating in our students. As practical disciplines, science and art certainly occupy their own spaces, but as ways of thinking or viewing the world, they overlap in innumerable ways. It’s slightly terrifying to think that a student who chooses to study chemistry won’t have the chance to cultivate an artistic sensitivity to her surroundings, or that a student who studies fine arts won’t benefit from the rigorous objectivity of the scientific method.

We need to make sure these two worlds overlap and inform each other if we’re truly passionate about educating future generations.

15. A hypothesis is always proven either right or wrong.

F. Scott Fitzgerald once said, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” Even in the hard sciences, you will see that the majority of published research falls in the grey area, where some parts of a hypothesis were proven right and other parts were proven wrong.

But we tend not to teach this way.

Answers are either right or wrong, decisions either good or bad. It’s important to overcome this notion of “yes or no” if we want to understand complex ideas and situations, both in academia and in real life.

16. Rereading and reviewing is a reliable form of test prep.

Researchers at Washington University in St. Louis found that middle school students earned an average grade of A- on material that had been presented in class once and subsequently quizzed three times, compared with a C+ on material that had been presented in the same way and reviewed three times but not quizzed. The benefit of quizzing remained in a follow-up test eight months later.

“When students are tested, they are required to retrieve knowledge from memory,” says Henry L. Roediger III, professor of psychology at Washington University. “Much educational activity, such as lectures and textbook readings, is aimed at helping students acquire and store knowledge. Various kinds of testing, though, when used appropriately, encourage students to practice the valuable skill of retrieving and using knowledge. The fact of improved retention after a quiz called the testing effect or the retrieval practice effect — makes the learning stronger and embeds it more securely in memory.”

17. You should pick one career and stick to it.

What are you going to be when you grow up? is a question we’ve all been asked. And we’re expected to answer with a single occupation, like astronaut or veterinarian. But why?

After nearly 10 years in corporate law, Marci Alboher switched to freelance journalism. She took a couple of classes in freelance writing and learned she had a knack for it, finally discovering an outlet for her itch to chat up strangers and get their stories.

“I also realised that being a lawyer would be a big help as I tried to break into the business pages of this newspaper and other publications,” she writes in an article for the New York Times. “I became what I call a ‘slash,’ a lawyer/journalist.”

Once she settled into her writer skin, she started shifting again. A few years ago, she began teaching freelance journalism, often to midcareer professionals like herself. Soon, she started lecturing about careers and writing, her twin passions. She wrote her first book, One Person/Multiple Careers in 2007.

“After doing hundreds of interviews with people who created their own slash careers by following and combining various interests, I’m convinced we all need to shift around until we find the mix that’s right,” Alboher says. “Until it’s no longer right, when we need to start shifting again. Because the idea of what makes a satisfying career is shifting. What satisfied us in our 20s and 30s, might not be what jazzes us in our 40s and 50s.”

Who says you can’t do it all? If you follow the path of a lifelong learner, it’s nearly inevitable…

18. If you’re not good at school, you’re not good at learning.

I know so many smart people who did poorly in school. The traditional formal learning setting, with its traditional expectations, just doesn’t work for everyone.

Educators do the best they can to address the individual needs of their students, but in reality it’s a larger problem that involves the whole system. What we can do on a daily basis is to remind these bright students that they do have enormous potential, even if their grades don’t reflect it, and that they will succeed in life regardless of whether or not they go to Harvard.


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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