Five myths about teaching and learning

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Five myths about teaching and learning

By Dr Nina Hood and Noah Kim

In recent years there has been a proliferation of articles and books discrediting educational “myths” (indeed The Education Hub contributed to this last year with our research guide, Five myths that limit your teaching potential). These books draw on educational research, and in particular research on the science of learning, to challenge a number of commonly held beliefs and practices in education. A few of The Education Hub’s favourites include: Daisy Christodoulou’s Seven Myths About Education; David Berliner’s 50 Myths and Lies that Threaten America’s Public Schools; and Tracey Tokuhama-Espinosa’s Neuromyths. At the start of a new school year, we have decided to again add to this myths genre, by briefly exploring the evidence behind five commonly held myths.

Myth 1: Students learn best when they set the pace of their education

Student-centred and student-directed learning, together with personalised learning, are common refrains in education. The logic behind the “learn at your own pace” mentality is that students will be more engaged and more motivated if they are given control over their own education. There is solid evidence to suggest that students are more engaged and learn better when, like the porridge in Goldilocks and the Three Bears, learning is pitched at the right level of challenge; not so hard that students are de-motivated and not so easy that they do not advance in their learning. However, research has determined that “learner controlled” environments have negligible or negative effects on student learning. Many students become complacent when setting their own pace, and become reluctant, or simply do not know enough about what they don’t know, to seek out new topics.

As a result, teachers need to find a balance between supporting and enabling student agency and providing the expert direction and knowledge needed to best support students’ learning.

Myth 2: Students learn best when their learning styles are catered to

As research on different learning styles has progressed, several popular theories have become prevalent, advising teachers to cater to the preferred learning styles of their students. For example, if their students show a proficiency in visual—rather than, say, auditory—learning, teachers are encouraged to incorporate more graphics into their presentations. However, there is virtually no evidence supporting the notion that teaching according to those preferences impacts achievement.

Instead, the research suggests that teachers match their pedagogy to the particular content they are teaching (reinforcing Shulman’s theory of pedagogical content knowledge from 1987). Research further suggests that teachers should provide multiple ways for students to engage with a particular topic.

Myth 3: Tests are best given to students infrequently

The word test has pretty negative connotations in education, conjuring images of high stakes summative assessment. However, in cognitive neuroscience research, testing is conceived of as a low-stakes formative assessment activity that provides students with the opportunity to consolidate their learning. Frequent low-stakes testing, together with accompanying feedback, has been shown to positively improve knowledge retention. Supporting the retention of knowledge is critical as research has clearly demonstrated that it is our knowledge-base that enables us to effectively perform higher-order skills, such as problem solving or critical thinking.

Myth 4: Re-reading important passages helps students retrain crucial information

Students frequently are encouraged to highlight and underline important information while they are reading. However, evidence on rereading via highlighting and underlining, has found that this technique is not an effective way to retain information. Instead, students should monitor their learning and describe that learning either aloud or silently to themselves while engaging with a new page of text. While they read, students should be asking themselves: What information on this page do I already know? What information is new? And how does the information I am reading relate to what I already know about this topic? This facilitates active rather than passive engagement with the text.

Myth 5: Teachers should seek to foster the “creative side” of their students

There have been numerous calls, perhaps most famously by Sir Ken Robinson, for schools to nurture and teach creativity. While we undoubtedly want schools to introduce children to the wonders of knowledge and learning, and to embrace and support their creativity, this should not be placed in opposition to building a deep foundation of content knowledge. Indeed, there is evidence to suggest that without a comprehensive grounding in facts and concepts, it is unlikely that students will be able to think creatively. As the researchers Robert Sternberg and Elena Grigorenko explain: “Teachers need to put behind them the false dichotomy between “teaching for thinking” and “teaching for facts,” or between emphases on thinking or emphases on memory. Thinking always requires memory and the knowledge base that is accessed through the use of memory.”

Written in collaboration with Noah Kim, who also undertook the research for this post.


Dr Nina Hood

Nina is responsible for the strategic direction and day-to-day operations of The Education Hub. She is a trained secondary school teacher, and taught at Epsom Girls Grammar and Mt Roskill Grammar in Auckland. She undertook an MSc (with distinction) in learning and technology, and a DPhil in Education at the University of Oxford. Since returning to New Zealand in mid-2015, Nina has been employed as a lecturer at the Faculty of Education at the University of Auckland, where she specialises in new technologies in education.

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