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learning myths

Learning Myths and Why They Persist

Posted February 22nd, 2024

Did you know that myths about learning have been around since the dawn of civilisation? This is because they provide a way for people to make sense of the world and their experiences. Humans are naturally curious and seek explanations for the things that happen around them. In the absence of scientific knowledge and understanding, people have often turned to myths to explain things around them, including how people learn and acquire knowledge.

Despite advancements in learning and development research and scientific evidence, many myths about learning persist, and they continue to influence how people approach education, training and the learning process. In this article, we will explore why learning myths persist in learning and development and then go on to debunk some of the more common myths in learning and development.

Learning Myth Problem 1 – Confirmation Bias

People are prone to confirmation bias, which is the tendency to seek out information that confirms their pre-existing beliefs while ignoring information that contradicts them. When people encounter information that confirms what they already believe, they tend to accept it without questioning its validity.

This phenomenon is prevalent in learning and development, where people may believe in certain myths and misconceptions, such as the notion that we remember 10% of what we read, 20% of what we hear, 30% of what we see etc., or the idea that we only use 10% of our brain, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary (more on these later).

Learning Myth Problem 2 – Inertia

Myths about learning are often perpetuated by tradition and institutional inertia. Many educational institutions and learning teams have long-standing practices and beliefs that are passed down from generation to generation, even if they are not supported by research. For example, the belief that a person’s intelligence is fixed and cannot be improved is a myth that has been perpetuated by educational institutions for decades, despite extensive research indicating that intelligence is malleable and can be improved through effort and practice.

Learning Myth Problem 3 – Lack of Understanding

Learning myths are often propagated by people who lack a deep understanding of learning and development. In many cases, people who hold onto learning myths are not experts in the field and may not have access to the latest research. They may also have a limited understanding of how people learn and the factors that influence learning. As a result, they may cling to beliefs that have been debunked by research because they simply do not know any better.

Learning Myth Problem 4 – The Media

The media can also play a role in perpetuating learning myths. Sensationalised headlines and inaccurate reporting can mislead people into believing false information about learning and development. This misinformation can be challenging to correct, as people may be more likely to remember the initial false information that they heard, rather than the correction.

What Are These Learning Myths?

Learning and development professionals often encounter a range of myths that can influence how they design, deliver, and evaluate learning experiences. Understanding and addressing these myths is crucial for creating effective learning environments. Here are five of the common learning myths with some ideas on how to overcome them.

  1. Learning Styles

The Learning Myth: Learners have specific learning styles (visual, auditory, kinaesthetic, etc.), and teaching should be tailored to each individual’s preferred style or learning preference.

Why it Occurs: This myth is attractive because it acknowledges individual differences and suggests a straightforward way to customise education. 

Balanced View: Despite its popularity, research does not support the effectiveness of tailoring teaching to learning styles in improving learning outcomes. Learners can benefit from diverse teaching methods, irrespective of their preferences. 

Alternative Thinking: Adopt a multimodal approach that leverages various content delivery methods to engage learners and reinforce learning through different sensory pathways, rather than focusing on individual learning styles.

  1. People are Right or Left Brained

The Learning Myth: Individuals are either right-brained (creative) or left-brained (logical), and this dominance influences how they learn. 

Why it Occurs: The myth simplifies the complex nature of human brain function into an easily understandable dichotomy, appealing to the notion that personality traits directly correlate with cognitive thinking. 

Balanced View: Neuroscience shows that while certain functions are more dominant in one hemisphere of the human brain, learning and creativity involve networks that span both hemispheres. The persistence of this myth might be attributed to its appeal in explaining complex behaviours through simple categorisation. 

Alternative Thinking: Rather than think of ‘left-brained people’ or ‘right-brained people’, encourage development strategies that engage whole brain thinking, emphasising that both creative and logical skills can be developed and are not fixed by one’s “brain dominance.”

  1. Digital Natives are Better Online Learners

The Learning Myth: Younger people, often referred to as “digital natives,” are inherently better at learning through digital platforms than older generations. 

Why it Occurs: This belief is based on the observation that younger generations have grown up with technology, thus supposedly making them more adept at using digital tools for learning. 

Balanced View: Being comfortable with technology does not automatically translate to being a more effective online learner. Success in online learning environments depends on a range of factors including motivation, learning strategies, and the ability to self-regulate. 

Alternative Thinking: Design digital learning experiences that are universally accessible and engaging, with clear instructions and interactive elements to support learners of all ages and tech-savviness levels.

  1. People remember 10% of what we read, 20% of what we hear, etc.

The Learning Myth: There is a specific percentage of retention for distinct types of information consumption, often represented in the “Learning Pyramid” or similar models. This idea comes from Edgar Dale’s ‘Cone of Experience’, although even he disavowed adding percentages to the model. 

Why it Occurs: The learning pyramid myth is appealing because it provides a simple, quantifiable way to understand and improve learning efficiency. It suggests that active learning methods are significantly more effective than passive ones. 

Balanced View: The percentages often cited in this myth are not supported by reliable research and vary greatly among individuals and contexts. Learning effectiveness depends on factors like engagement, relevance, and the application of knowledge, rather than the format alone. 

Alternative Thinking: Instead of focusing on specific modes of content delivery, emphasize active learning strategies that encourage engagement, critical thinking, and application of knowledge across all types of content.

  1. Learning Gets Harder as We Get Older 

The Learning Myth: As people age, their ability to learn new skills or information diminishes. 

Why it Occurs: This myth might stem from observable declines in certain cognitive functions with age, coupled with societal stereotypes about aging. 

Balanced View: While certain cognitive processing speeds may decline with age, the capacity for learning remains robust. Older adults can compensate with experiences, wisdom, and strategies accumulated over time. The myth persists partly due to ageist stereotypes and a lack of opportunities for older adults to engage in learning. 

Alternative Thinking: Foster a culture that values lifelong learning and provides learning opportunities that cater to all ages. Emphasize the benefits of experience and the ability to learn through different life stages, promoting an inclusive environment that challenges age-related stereotypes.

Conclusion

Addressing these myths in learning and development involves a nuanced understanding of how people learn and the factors that influence learning effectiveness. By embracing evidence-based practices, L&D professionals can design more effective and inclusive learning experiences that cater to the diverse needs of their audience.

It is essential for educators and learners to critically examine their beliefs and seek out evidence-based practices to ensure that they are not misled by myths and misconceptions. By doing so, we can create a more accurate and effective understanding of how people learn and how to facilitate that learning.​

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