The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

John Dabell

5 education myths we need to dispel

Grand ideas can carry a lot of gravitas, but these five educational 'cure-alls' came without a pinch of salt. John Dabell explains why they were too good to be true.

One of the most depressing things about attending CPD sessions is when the self-appointed gurus or odd-ball suppliers of Inset refer to educational research that is dead in the water.

Their PowerPoint presentations are littered with fake news, misconceptions and faulty messages often masquerading as neuroscience. Where have all the honest brokers gone?

Educational ‘experts’ are also guilty of peddling myths to harry and hoodwink the innocent. Either no one has told them what they are saying is defective, they choose to ignore it or they have some vested interest.

Spotting this stuff isn’t always easy. Some training sessions promise a deep sense of groove and an optimistic, driving energy, with contrapuntal rhythms and matching jazz hands. No wonder we come out buzzing. A good pitch will use the trappings of scientific respectability and seduce us with the PhD effect of brain metaphors.

In the wrong hands, CPD and ‘psychology for dummies’ can be dangerous, leaving the audience with their minds full of gunk and pedagogical gloop. Worse-case scenario: the muck and myths go viral and the toxic waste gets recycled in classrooms and messes with learning.

Of all the various educational myths, fakes and charlatans we need to debunk, below I name the five fantasy minotaurs that most urgently need lobbing into an active volcano.

1. Learning styles

Widely condemned as a ‘zombie theory’ and a ‘rusting can of worms’, the notion of preferred learning styles – that we have preferences for experiencing information presented in a particular style (e.g. auditory, visual, kinaesthetic), which can lead to better outcomes – is one of the most notorious pieces of edu-claptrap.

So unsubstantiated is the existence of learning styles that a group of eminent academics wrote to the Guardian last year in a plea for schools to ditch the idea.

The academic consensus maintains that no evidence exists to back a ‘matching’ hypothesis of learning styles. Although pupils can develop subjective preferences for studying or digesting material, there’s no proof that they learn better through a self-reported learning style.

Why did learning styles hold court in the first place? Most likely because the idea sounds appealing, and makes organising teaching and learning nice and easy. But the bottom-line is: no proof.

Perish the thought that in some schools, children wear lapel badges to indicate their preferred style and in others, children have labels on their desks to show whether they are auditory, kinaesthetic or visual.

2. The learning pyramid

This bogus favourite lingers in countless presentations and is plastered on many a classroom wall, but the learning pyramid is a tetrahedron built on sand and mystery.

It purports that we remember:

  • 10 per cent of what we read
  • 20 per cent of what we hear
  • 30 per cent of what we see
  • 50 per cent of what we see and hear
  • 70 per cent of what we say and write
  • 90 per cent of what we do.

A possible inspiration for the learning pyramid is Edgar Dale’s cone of experience, which caught on without any hard data to back up the claims.

Different approaches can influence the efficiency in learning, but Dale himself saw the visual aid as a visual metaphor without statistical data. Convincing as these rounded-off generalisations might seem, we need to give them a wide berth.

3. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs

Adding to the complex of phoney pyramids is Abraham Maslow’s so-called hierarchy of needs. In fairness, Maslow did not initially conceptualise his theory of motivation and personality as a pyramid. Although the most popular representations take the form of a hierarchy, this never actually appears in Maslow’s original work.

What about the content? Maslow’s theory was not based on any credible empirical research, but based on his own personal observations and his biographical scrutiny of individuals who he considered to be ‘self-actualized’.

The reality is this: Maslow’s work is flawed and research has found there to be partial to little or no evidence for the validity of the five-need hierarchy. Needs are not hierarchal but interconnected and part of a dynamic system.

4. Brain Gym

Pat your head, rub your tummy and press some ‘brain buttons’ all you want, but the supposed benefits of a ‘brain gym’ are pure moonshine, with no tangible benefit to your memory, concentration or intelligence. The reasoning is that moving and carrying out brain training exercises will lead to optimal learning, but there’s no actual evidence of this.

As Ben Goldacre noted at badscience.net, ‘banding your head repeatedly against the brick wall of teachers’ stupidity helps increase blood flow to your frontal lobes’.

Academics have also jumped in, cartwheeled and bent over backwards to point out that Brain Gym is just wishful thinking and should be renamed brainless gym.

5. Multiple intelligences

First articulated by Howard Gardner in 1983, the theory of multiple intelligences (MI) defines intelligence as being a set of specific types rather than as a single, general intelligence. Each person’s abilities within each intelligence type are different, and this variance determines our ability to acquire particular skills or knowledge.

One of the most tendentious words in education is intelligence, but the theory of multiple intelligences is based on an inaccurate description of the mind. Psychometricians point out that Gardner had not conducted any empirical research to test that his ‘intelligences’ are autonomous faculties, or anything more than talents, preferences or skills.

In a neuroimaging study, professor John Geake found that ‘through the activity of its fontal cortices, among other areas, the human brain seems to operate with general intelligence, applied to multiple areas of endeavour’.

Lead us not down the garden path

We need to base what we do in schools on what works, not what doesn’t.

Fads, trends and educational fashions are just that, and no one should feel ashamed for having bought into a myth or two in their time. But as consumers of information, be it in a professional or personal capacity, we need to know when to take a more sceptical approach to educational panaceas.

If there is no scholarly, peer-reviewed evidence of success, ditch it.

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