Five Common Misconceptions about Learning

There are many books out there that deal with education myths. Daisy Christodoulou’s “Seven Myths about Education” is excellent and I have recently been sent “Urban Myths about Learning and Education” by De Bruyckere, Kirschner and Hulshof which I will review when I have finished reading it.

However, in this necessarily brief post I am going to characterise some common ideas as misconceptions rather than as myths. To me, this is how such views often present themselves; they are plausible, a wide range of people seem to arrive at them independently and yet the available evidence suggests that they are flawed. They feel ‘truthy’ in much the same way that it seems reasonable that something must be pushing the Moon around the Earth.

1. Novices should emulate the behaviour of experts

This misconception has legs. It is a key driver behind inquiry-based programmes in science, mathematics and history. For instance, in an article in The Telegraph, Jo Boaler contrasts the work of a PhD mathematics student with the sort of maths that takes place in classrooms, finding the latter wanting. But why should children who are just embarking on their mathematical journey need the same kind of learning experiences as someone much more expert? Experts have a vast amount of content knowledge that enables them to perform differently. It is easy to underestimate the scale of this. A key finding of cognitive science is that experts and novices benefit from quite different types of instruction.

If you ask a history student to read a source document then at least you are replicating the actual behaviour of experts. This may not be optimal for learning but it could have value as part of a range of strategies – students might enjoy it, perhaps. However, some strategies that are supposed to be based upon the behaviour of experts might not even reflect what experts do. For instance, the use of multiple cues or “searchlights” in reading instruction is meant to reflect experts’ strategies but it is unclear whether expert readers actually use these cues.

2. You understand concepts better if you discover them for yourself

I recently fixed the toilet. It was a frustrating experience because I didn’t know what I was doing. There was lots of cursing and plenty of, ‘what does this bit do?’ I spent at least the next week wondering whether an eruption of soiled water was imminent. Do I now understand toilets better than if a plumber had been alongside me, explaining exactly what to do? Definitely not.

So why do we have this intuitive preference for students figuring things out for themselves? In one seminal study, students were randomly divided into two groups. The first group were explicitly instructed in the fundamental scientific principle of controlling variables. The second group were given investigations to complete in which they had to figure out this concept for themselves. Unsurprisingly, fewer students in the second condition learnt the principle. However, those that did were no better than students from the first group at later evaluating science fair posters. There was no advantage to discovery.

Nowadays, advocates of student discovery tend to promote the less ambitious idea of ‘productive failure’. They concede that explicit instruction is needed but only after a period of open-ended problem solving. Interestingly, given the above discussion, it has been argued that many of the experiments that have been designed to test this idea fail to properly control variables (see the discussion at the end of this paper). A 2014 study by Manu Kapur is the best quality study so far but there is still a problem with it: The students given explicit instruction prior to problem solving then have to spend a whole hour solving a single problem which they already know how to solve.

3. Meta-cognition is a short-cut to expertise

So if simply imitating the behaviour of an expert will not make you an expert, are there other shortcuts available? Clearly, it would be great if we could find a way to develop expertise without students having to learn and practice all of the boring stuff. Perhaps we can teach general strategies which, if our students apply them, can be used in a range of situations. This way, we can teach them ‘how to learn’ and they can apply this to anything they need to learn in the future.

The picture here is actually quite complex. Take the example of reading comprehension strategies. These are general strategies that you can apply to anything that you read in order to help you understand it. Such strategies exist, although they pretty much boil down to one single strategy – asking yourself questions whilst reading. These strategies can also be explicitly taught to students and confer an advantage. However, they tend to provide a one-off boost which further repetition and practice doesn’t seem to increase very much.

The same can be said of critical thinking skills or ‘learning to learn’ skills. Asking yourself questions whilst reading a text is only helpful if you can answer those questions. Similarly with critical thinking; asking who wrote a source is only of any use if you can find the answer and know what this means. The fact that a source was written by a loyalist doesn’t help much if you don’t know anything about the American Revolution.

Similarly, learning to learn – when not presented vaguely – seems to reduce to study skills and, of these, the evidence for self-testing stands-out from the rest. It’s worth knowing that this is a good studying strategy but it acts to help consolidate the knowledge base rather than reduce the need for it. And it’s all rather prosaic when you consider the fact that these ideas are often sold as somehow teaching students how to think.

4. Knowledge-based education is really boring

We tend to conjure an image of some kind of nineteenth century classroom where the teacher beats facts into children at the end of a cane. And yet what is being proposed instead?

I cannot think of anything worse than spending hour after lengthy hour repeating reading comprehension exercises. In his recent book, David Perkins makes the case for authentic learning activities in which students – naturally acting like experts – engage in, “Project-based learning in mathematics or science, which, for instance, might ask students to model traffic flow in their neighbourhood or predict water needs in their community over the next twenty years.”


Set against this, a whole-class discussion of the dinosaurs or the possibility of alien life or the battle of El Alamein or the concept of infinity or whether Macbeth is a misogynistic play; these all seem positively in-tune with your average teenager’s interests.

The purpose of education is not to entertain; it is to educate. But if the criticism of knowledge-based education is that it is boring then the critics need to work a bit harder on the alternative.

5. Education must be personalised

Setting aside practical considerations, education should clearly work better if it meets students at their point of need. However, it needs to meet them there and then take them somewhere else. To borrow from Eric Kalenze, education should act like a funnel that prepares diverse students for college, careers and engagement in civic society.

However, it seems as if we have lost this clear mission. If students are pursuing their own interests and are expected to engage in learning only if we make it as easy and as accessible as possible then how are we preparing them for life after school?

Imagine a tour operator running trips to Greece. Of course, the tour operator needs to take account of where people are travelling from so that she can arrange planes and the like. But she still has to get them to Greece. It would be a poor tour operator indeed that told people not to bother going there and to go for a walk around their home town instead.

Students need to be able to read, write and do basic maths. These are functional skills that society demands and, in order to do the first of these, they will need a fair amount of general knowledge. As an advocate of the liberal arts, I would also argue that education must go beyond a merely instrumental role and seek to improve the quality of people’s lives. By taking academic studies further we open up opportunities for future study, careers or cultural interests.

This is the mission.



4 Comments on “Five Common Misconceptions about Learning”

  1. Pedro says:

    Reblogged this on From experience to meaning… and commented:
    A very good piece relevant to anybody involved in education, and no, not because our book is mentioned!

  2. Neil Brown says:

    A similar issue to #1 that I wonder about is bad practice. There are certain things that experts won’t do, but as a beginner are the easiest route to success. I struggle to find a good example in other disciplines so I’ll stick with the original issue programming (my discipline). A learner might want to add a second player character to the game they are programming. Easiest way to do it is copy-paste and tweak a bit. This horrifies experts, because it unnecessarily duplicates code. The right answer is to parameterise, but this is an intermediate to expert skill.

    So I would say it’s fine, beginners can take the shortcut, but they’ll probably learn for themselves why it’s a bad idea (uh-oh, am I committing #2?) and later on when they know more they can learn the best practice. But others would say that it is teaching bad habits that you must reverse later on. There are lots of microscopic instances of this, such as naming variables, code organisation, and so on. I can see teaching bad habits sounds like a bad idea, but I think there is an argument similar to #1 which means that it’s futile to try to teach best practice before the students have reached a certain proficiency, like worrying about sentence structure when they’re still learning to spell.

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