6 Misleading But Popular Myths In Education

crash course in evidence based teaching smallThe education sector is awash with popular myths and fads that have little, if any, grounding in evidence in all. Yet, many teachers accept these popular myths as fact. Some do so because of the indoctrination they received during their initial teacher training, others do so because an advisor or consultant told them it was a good idea. These popular myths are so well entrenched that you will even find them referenced in some appraisal systems.

Here are 6 commonly held beliefs that research has proven to be popular myths.


6 Popular Myths In Brief

The 6 popular myths are that:

  1. Your teaching degree helped you to be a better teacher
  2. Children learn best when they discover things on their own
  3. Students learn more when they are in control of their learning
  4. Kids learn better when you cater to their learning style
  5. Repeating kids helps them but accelerating them doesn’t
  6. Special diets help children to behave better (or worse)


The 6 Popular Myths In Detail

Myth 1: Your Teaching Degree Helped You To Be A Better Teacher

Teaching degrees should prepare people to teach well and to help students achieve great results.

Sadly, John Hattie’s review of research shows that this is not the case.

The effect size of teacher education on subsequent student outcomes is negligible.
John Hattie

The problem is that teaching degrees promote and peddle theory. Why is this a problem?

The first reason is that theory doesn’t always meet the practical demands placed upon a teacher as they go about their work. There is a difference between knowing what to do and actually being able to do it – let alone do it well. `

The second reason is that a lot of the theory being peddled by universities is not backed by hard evidence. From whole language in my day, to constructivism today – the untested theories being pushed by universities are often little more than fads.

Myth 2: Children Learn Best When They Discover Things On Their Own

The idea that children learn best when they discover things on their own is well entrenched in the minds of most educators – but it is a myth.

This myth is promoted in many teaching courses (see Myth 1), and it is reinforced by educational systems whose staff were indoctrinated many years ago. However, it is a myth because it based on a theory (i.e. someone’s idea about how learners learn) rather than on evidence.

Research shows that when teachers actively teach kids, they have over 3 times the effect on students’ results than they do when try to facilitate learning.

While we want our students to become freethinking, independent citizens – leaving them to learn independently is not the way to do this((Kirschner P.A., Sweller J. and Clark R.E. Why minimal guidance during instruction does not work: An analysis of the failure of constructivist, discovery, problem-based, experiential, and inquiry-based teaching. Educational Psychologist 2006; 41: 75– 86 )).

Myth 3: Children Learn More When They Have Control Over Their Learning

There is another popular theory that has no grounding in evidence. It’s called student-centred learning, and it has been blindly accepted by many educators as a good idea.

Rather than having the teacher decide what students will learn, advocates of student-centred learning believe that you need to be guided by students’ interests. The idea is that giving students choices about what they learn helps them to learn more effectively.

It doesn’t!

Research shows that giving students control over or choice about what they learn has absolutely no impact on their subsequent results((Niemiec, R. P., Sikorski, C., & Walberg, H. J. (1996). Learner-control effects: A review of reviews and a meta-analysis. Journal of Educational Computing Research, 15(2), 157–174; Patall, E. A., Cooper, H. M., & Robinson, J. C. (2008). The effects of choice on intrinsic motivation and related outcomes: A meta-analysis of research findings. Psychological Bulletin, 134(2), 270–300.)).

Interestingly, research shows that giving students choices about trivial things (e.g. what colour pen to write in) does have a small but positive effect on student outcomes.

Myth 4: Children Learn Better When You Cater To Their Learning Style

The idea that people prefer to learn in different ways is well accepted in schools. According to one popular learning styles theory, some kids prefer visual learning, others prefer auditory learning, and kinesthetic like to learn while moving around.  

Intuitively, it makes sense to cater to these different styles of learning. However, research((Kavale, K. A., & Forness, S. R. (1987). Substance over style: Assessing the efficacy of modality testing and teaching. Exceptional Children, 54(3), 228– 239; Stahl, S. A. (1999). Different strokes for different folk? A critique of learning styles. American Educator, 23(3), 1– 5; Coffield, F., Moseley, D., Hall, E., & Ecclestone, K. (2004 ). Learning styles and pedagogy in post-16 learning: A systematic and critical review: (Report from the Learning and Skills Learning Research Centre); Pashler, H., McDaniel, M., Rohrer, D., & Bjork, R. (2008). Learning styles: Concepts and evidence. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 9 (3), 105– 119.)) shows that this is not the case.

Rather, reviews of independent research show that catering to learning styles is at best a waste of time, and at worst, a strategy that has a negative impact on learning.

Learning styles has as much scientific basis as the magic crystals you can buy in the King Arthur shop in Glastonbury.
Tom Bennett

Myth 5: Repeating Kids Helps But Accelerating Them Doesn’t

Many schools, often at the behest of teachers and parents, repeat children who are struggling academically or who are developmentally immature.

They do so in the misguided belief that an additional year in the same grade will help struggling students to catch-up, or that it will give developmentally immature students time to mature and a safe environment to adjust to a school setting.

However, research((Allen, C. S., Chen, Q., Willson, V. L., & Hughes, J. N. (2009). Quality of research design moderates effects of grade retention on achievement: A meta-analytic multi-level analysis. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 31, 480– 499; Jimerson, S. R. (2001). Meta-analysis of grade retention research: Implications for practice in the 21st century. School Psychology Review, 30(3), 420–437; Shepard, L. A., & Smith, M. L. (Eds.). (1989). Flunking grades: Research and policies on retention. London: Falmer Press.)) shows that repeating students does not help kids to catch-up, to mature or adjust to whole idea of school. In fact, struggling students who progress to the next grade outperform their peers who repeat.

It would be difficult to find another educational practice on which the evidence is so unequivocally negative.
Ernest House

At the other end of the spectrum, schools and teachers also struggle with the question of how to cater for academically gifted students. One of the least used methods involves accelerating them into a higher grade.

Ironically (given the ineffectiveness of repeating students), acceleration works and works well((Kulik, J. A. (2004). Meta-analytic studies of acceleration. In N. Colangelo, S. G. Assouline & M. U. M. Gross (Eds.), A nation deceived. How schools hold back America’s brightest students (Vol. 2, pp. 13–22). Iowa City, IA: The Connie Belin and Jacqueline N. Blank International Center for Gifted Education and Talent Development, College of Education, The University of Iowa.)). Accelerated students surpass the achievements of their non-accelerated peers (i.e. kids of similar ability) by nearly one whole year. Furthermore, accelerated students tend to just as well as the bright students within the grade that they were accelerated into.

And, despite a popular belief to the contrary, academically gifted students have more social problems when they are not accelerated than when they are.

Myth 6: Special Diets Help Behaviour

Many parents and teachers believe that certain foods lead children to misbehave.

One common belief is that sugar leads to hyperactivity and subsequent misbehaviour. A review((Wolraich, M. L., Wilson, D. B. & White, J. W. (1995). The effects of sugar on behaviour or cognition: A Meta-analysis. Journal of American Medical Association, 274, 1617-1621.)) of 16 double-blind, placebo-controlled studies investigating the link between sugar and hyperactivity found that no such link exists.

Rather, the misbehaviour of some children can be attributed to parental (or teacher) expectations, the child’s expectations (many children have been told that sugar makes them hyperactive), an externalised locus of control and poor discipline.

Another common belief is that food additives cause higher levels of hyperactivity in some children. John Hattie’s review of meta-analyses on the topic, showed that there is little if any link between food additives and how children behave in the classroom.


In Closing

These 6 common beliefs are nothing more than popular myths because they are not supported by scientific evidence.

As researchers continue their work, new insights will undoubtedly arise. If you are aware of any independent meta-analyses on any of these topics, please let us know.

This is the last article in our Crash Course In Evidence Based Teaching series.