And In The Darkness Bind Them: The Biggest Education Myth Of All

On Medieval Elitism, The Mythological Underworld and Magical Fellowships

Wading Through the Fog

There is a thick layer of myths in education. We are surrounded by things that sound as if they should be true, but are not. Despairingly, most of these untruths are perpetuated by well-meaning teachers, who get hold of a flawed study, a bad analogy, a cherry-picked anecdote or some piece of pseudoscience and take it as truth. Add a noxious mixture of confirmation bias, wishful thinking and fallacious appeals to authority, and these myths become entrenched.

Some of the more prevalent myths in education include the following:

Homework is like a practicing sports, or like a musician rehearsing: the more you do it, the better you get.

This simply isn’t true. If a tennis player simply hit balls over a net, they wouldn’t get much better.
Practice is only meaningful in sports if players receive high quality coaching, are mindful and focused on what they are doing, and are challenged to go beyond their current level – and it is the same with homework. But I’ll let Alfie Kohn tell you more.
Kids know how to use technology.
They may know how to use social media, but they are by no means as computer proficient as people think. They need training and coaching in the same way as most adults do.
Group work is a ‘twenty-first century’ methodology.
Group work can be dangerous – unless it is very carefully managed. Only if group challenges are authentic learning opportunities, and if a classroom culture of respect and tolerance is established prior to any collaborative learning, does this methodology hold any value. Similar constraints apply to ‘project based learning‘.
STEM subjects are more important than the wishy-washy arts and humanities.
No they are not. They are as important. Go and watch Sir Ken Robinson again if you want to know why.
Asian countries have the best education systems in the world.
The list of the top performing countries in education is based on a survey and methodology which is highly flawed.
Intelligence is genetically inherited.
Parents love this one when kids shine in the classroom, kids fall back on it when they don’t, and teachers love trying to find a connection. The truth is that environmental factors and family dynamics pay a far bigger role.
Standardised Tests provide a good benchmark of a child’s abilities and current level of understanding.
This is wrong in so many ways I actually don’t know where to begin. In a decade or two from now, we’ll be looking back at all the tests and exams we administered with such alacrity and wonder how we could be so narrow-minded and cruel.

And there’s a slew of other crap masquerading as sound pedagogy. Amongst others:

The nonsensical neuromyth that some kids are ‘left-brained’, some are more ‘right-brained’.

The underground belief that we only use 10% of our brain (and the associated implication that if we could ‘unlock’ the rest, we would have amazing superpowers).

The belief that technology is distracting and has no place in the classroom.

The delusional conviction that kids need ‘tradition‘, structure and strict discipline.

The absolutely idiotic, dangerous and nonsensical view that IQ is an accurate measure of intelligence, together with the misapprehension that intelligence is fixed and cannot be changed. This is a favourite of the vast majority of educators.

The practice of educating kids in batches sorted by age (and the underpinning notion, based on misreading Vygotsky, that they can only handle more advanced concepts later in life).

The silly idea that classical music is good for the brain.

The mistaken notion that more experienced teachers are always more effective.

Treating introverts as if they are disabled and then trying to get them ‘more involved’ to ‘grow their self-esteem’.

Seeing kids’ minds as empty receptacles to be filled.

Thinking ‘brain training’ software can actually make you smarter.

The misguided notion that kids need some kind of ‘spiritual grounding’ through religious indoctrination education.

Believing that smaller classes are better because they allow for more contact time. (Thanks to Malcolm Gladwell for this one.)

The myth that getting good grades in school is a formula for a successful life. (The flip side of which is the veiled threat that if students do not do well in school, they will slide down a slippery slope and be miserable failures for the rest of their lives.)

And so on.

Honestly, you can see how many teachers and schools would like these things to be true. In fact, I contend that most of these myths are perpetuated exactly because they suit the teacher, the school and the system, but not the students themselves. Kids learn despite having to wade through the fog of edu-myths, not because of them. It’s an underworld which forms the insidious backdrop to our students’ cognitive growth.

In The Darkness

You may be tempted to add a few more myths to the list above. Such as the notion that teaching to intelligence types doesn’t have any measurable effect, or that a focus on emotional intelligence has no quantifiable benefits, and that gender based learning is pointless. But you would be wrong. These are not myths. The fact that so many people believe they are, points to the biggest myth of all. And it is a myth which is accepted as fact even by educational and neurological researchers, who in turn spew out ‘findings’, which spawn further myths. Almost every myth in education is caused by one ugly and evil misconception.

And the evil, warty monster which underlies a lot of educational malpractice and mythologizing is this: that intelligence equates to remembering facts.

Whether it is a on game show, at a dinner party, or in the classroom, those who seem to be able to retain a greater number of facts are considered to be smarter.

A great many academics and researchers who explore the nature of learning use the ability to remember facts as the acid test when evaluating particular learning methodologies or interventions. Hence, emotional and multiple intelligence training, gender-based learning and similar techniques seem to have no effect on learning.

This kind of conception of intelligence is medieval. It harks back to the days where sources of knowledge where in short supply and closely guarded – mostly by churches and the wealthy. And it’s the same reason church services were conducted in Latin, even though most of the lay audience didn’t understand a word of it: knowledge was a rare commodity, available only to, and through, the select few. (Tacitly underlying this notion, though, was the fact that the protectors of knowledge thought that only a select few could create and understand this knowledge in the first place.)

You don’t need me to expand on why this is no longer valid in the modern world, I’m sure. What I do want to say is this: Knowledge is so ubiquitous, open and easy to find these days, that critically evaluating and understanding facts, as well as the generation of new knowledge needs to become the new holy grail. And this is what needs to be at the forefront of educational and neurological research as to ‘what works’ in education, as well as how we implement it in our classrooms.

We’ve gone a long way towards democratizing the acquisition of knowledge, but making this our sole focus as educators and researchers, we disguise (perhaps intentionally?) the importance of understanding, critiquing and generating it ourselves.

Orks and Elves

When you talk to me about the latest findings on what works and what doesn’t in learning and education, please know this: if it isn’t aimed at improving critical and creative thinking, and if it’s based solely on how well students can or can’t accumulate knowledge, then you’re perpetuating the biggest myth of all: that knowledge is arcane and difficult to come by. And if kids succeed in their difficult quest to get it, they are somehow special. You’re perpetuating a type of Dark Ages elitism.

Our goal in education needs to be about strengthening what works to develop higher order thinking in young people. Knowledge of facts is important, make no mistake, but in making this the sole purpose of our quest, we get stuck in a mythological underworld of irrelevance. And we condemn many of our students to being Orks instead of Elves.

Instead of focussing on what we can make our students remember and recite, we need to set our sights on the true prize: a magical fellowship of understanding and creation.

As usual, I look forward to your responses…

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  1. Good read! I enjoyed the link about the top performing countries. I’ve had my suspicions about how the news reports such findings but have never investigated the results for myself. Thanks for the legwork! I agree that teaching children how to think and not what to think is vastly more important than simple rote memorization. Interesting blog, I look forward to going back in your archives.


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