Confronting 5 Damaging Educational Myths

How certain teacher beliefs result in lower educational outcomes.
Photo: Joshua Hoehne/ Unsplash
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On Twitter, Eric Kalenze, a friend and veteran teacher with a well-honed BS detector, lamented the durability of the demonstrably false idea that teachers should focus on critical thinking at the expense of the knowledge building that fuels it.  

“What will it take for this misconception to go away?” he asked.  My earnest response was that we have to want it to go away. Alas, building knowledge systematically over time and across subjects is boring and unappealing compared to shiny concepts like discovery learning; tossing aside a set, effective curriculum in favor of projects and activities feels liberating, engaging, fun to teach, and thus more effective. Even though knowledge development and implementing well-designed curricula with fidelity are far more successful approaches to the classroom, they feel constrained and limiting compared to the things we prefer doing. In this way, we invest ourselves in any number of false ideas about teaching and learning.  

In recent years, there have been a number of calls for teachers to confront their own biases and “ally” with their students on issues of race, gender, or social justice. Perhaps we can be more effective allies and improve outcomes for kids by calling out harmful and false teacher myths.  

Here are a few for which no one should sit silently:

“I don’t teach facts. I teach critical thinking.”

You probably don’t. A recent piece at KQED’s Mind/Shift blog notes that teaching generic critical thinking skills, such as logical reasoning, “might be a big waste of time.” Critical thinking exercises and games haven’t produced long-lasting improvements for students.  “And the research literature shows that it’s very difficult for students to apply critical thinking skills learned in one subject to another, even between different fields of science,” writes Jill Barshay, who cites University of Virginia cognitive scientist Dan Willingham.  

One of the essential principles Dan laid out in his touchstone book Why Don’t Students Like School is “factual knowledge must precede skill.” The skills teachers want students to demonstrate “such as the ability to think critically, require extensive factual knowledge,” he writes. One gains expertise in a specific field of study through knowledge acquisition, not generally applicable ‘critical thinking skills.’ 

Don’t stay silent when colleagues dismiss “mere” factual learning. It’s the lifeblood of genuine “critical thinking.”

“Reading is a skill.”

That depends on what you mean by “reading.”  If you mean “decoding” – understanding letter-sound relationships, including a knowledge of letter patterns, enabling correct pronunciation of written words – then yes, it’s a skill. You can learn to “read” nonsense words like “plizzle” and “rigfap” with virtually no disagreement on how they’re pronounced. 

But reading comprehension is not a skill, like riding a bike (e.g. once you know how you can ride any bike).  It’s heavily dependent on vocabulary and background knowledge about the subject. Experiments have consistently shown that “poor” readers understand better than “good” readers when they possess more relevant background knowledge on the subject of a reading passage. Conceiving of reading comprehension as a transferable skill might be the biggest misunderstanding depressing reading achievement in the U.S.  When someone calls reading a skill, challenge them. “This is too hard/inappropriate/irrelevant for my students.” There are too many facets of this one to unpack in a single blog post, particularly the idea that students can’t be engaged by schoolwork that doesn’t reflect their personal experiences. But TNTP’s Kristen McQuillan had a terrific Twitter thread the other day on lessons for teachers gleaned from watching coaches in her son’s little league. 

“At practice, coaches take a ‘drills and skills’ approach, breaking down the game into smaller parts. They model, briefly, then the KIDS do it. I’ve observed hundreds of classrooms, and in many, I don’t see kids owning the work of the lesson. At baseball, the kids own the work.” 

Similarly, for those whose idea of “differentiation” means lowered standards or dumbed-down work, she notes “I often see the text or task change for students who struggle or aren’t as quick as their peers, sometimes in the name of ‘differentiation.’ At Little League, tasks remain the same for ALL kids. Those who are still learning or struggling get different feedback.” As teachers we’re encouraged to be guide-on-the-side coaches, eschewing direct instruction. But good coaches teach.

“Children have different learning styles.” 

They don’t. About 15 years ago, I predicted it would take 20 years before we retired the myth of learning styles once and for all.  In retrospect, that was overly optimistic.  The vast majority of people—more than 90 percent according to the American Psychological Association—believe people learn better if they are taught in their dominant learning style, whether it’s visual, auditory or “kinesthetic,” or what have you.  

But there’s absolutely no evidence that designing lessons that appeal to different learning styles accelerates student learning.  Zero. Zilch. Nada. Nary a study. Nailing shut the coffin of this pernicious neuromyth isn’t helped by more recent efforts to see differences in “learning styles” among students from various ethnic groups. When teachers use a range of different methods to keep kids engaged, or because the subject matter lends itself to hands-on learning, movement or a visual presentation, that’s good, thoughtful teaching — but not to adapt to each child’s “learning style.”  

“Teach kids to think like a scientist” (or a historian or other expert)Again, knowledge and skill aren’t two different things — they’re two sides of the same coin. You can’t think like a scientist or a historian unless you know what the scientist or historian knows. It takes years of study and practice. There are no shortcuts. 

“Who needs rote learning? You can just Google facts.”

E.D. Hirsch, Jr. effectively addressed this myth in an article in the American Educator over twenty years ago, before Googling had become a synonym for looking things up:

“Those who repudiate a fact-filled curriculum on the grounds that kids can always look things up miss the paradox that de-emphasizing factual knowledge actually disables children from looking things up effectively….Yes, the Internet has placed a wealth of information at our fingertips. But to be able to use that information—to absorb it, to add to our knowledge—we must already possess a storehouse of knowledge. That is the paradox disclosed by cognitive research.”

To understand any article that a student might discover on their own, they need to know something about the topic addressed. Even to effectively Google something requires content-specific vocabulary. Saying “hold on, let me look this up” is a poor replacement for quick recall of facts, relevant knowledge, or historical anecdotes for quick analysis and understanding.

By now you’ve surely noticed the through-line of many of the most pernicious and demonstrably false myths about teaching: a broad and general dismissal of the role of knowledge in educational thought and practice. Our most cherished and ambitious goals for our students—critical thinking, creativity, problem-solving, communication, et al.—tend to be domain-specific.  The idea that students can be taught or trained to be all-purpose thinkers or problem solvers irrespective of content is a global misconception. Don’t let it pass uncorrected.

Robert Pondiscio
Robert Pondiscio is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) and the author of many books, including “How the Other Half Learns: Equality, Excellence, and the Battle over School Choice.”