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11 Harmful Myths About How We Learn

by Staff Writers

Learning happens. Everyone picks up information at their own individual pace, yet myths painting different demographics and techniques with a broad brush still creep their way into classrooms and the public consciousness alike. Feeding into them, however, proves exceptionally problematic to child and adult students hoping to eke through life with the skills they need to accomplish their goals. Parents, administrators, faculty, and even the students themselves might want to start chipping away at the following misconceptions first.

  1. Females are inherently worse at math than males: Science knows full well that gender holds absolutely no influence over math skills, yet overarching perceptions still assert that the ladies aren’t nearly as adroit in its tenets as men. University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Janet Hyde spent nearly two decades studying the phenomenon, proving the lack of correlation with more than a million participants. The danger here is quite obvious. Hammering alleged biological inadequacies into young girls’ heads will serve as a self-fulfilling prophecy compromising their grades and future careers alike.

  2. People with learning disabilities are of below-average intelligence: As University of Hawaii points out, learning disabilities only appear in individuals (of any age) of average to above-average intelligence; anything involving mental aptitude falls under a different definition entirely. Learning-disabled students actually hold a gifted rate around 33%, completely defying the unfortunate prevailing opinion. Once again, parents, teachers, administrators, and peers who adhere to this mindset only pile on the social anxiety, rendering it more difficult for them to succeed — even with all the tools necessary to help them get ahead. If they grow up thinking they’re somehow inferior, they might never strive toward being the best they can in the classroom, office, and beyond.

  3. Children from lower socioeconomic backgrounds are inherently poor achievers with little intelligence: Because up to 70% of a person’s behavior is determined by nurture rather than nature, it’s irresponsible — not to mention discriminatory — to act as if kids, teens, and adults from lower socioeconomic brackets genetically possess lower intelligence. Environmental factors play the most prominent role in the lower test scores educators, politicians, and parents use to illustrate impoverished kids’ alleged inadequacy. Poor performers may bring home report cards reflecting bad nutrition, exhaustion and stress from work and/or family demands, or other stimuli. Acting as if their very real problems only indicate stupidity creates a terrible, unjust cycle of suppression and denial of wonderful opportunities.

  4. Lecture learning is always the way to go: Yes, lectures most assuredly hold a place in education — nobody’s asking for schools to entirely dismantle the concept and stuff it into storage. But they aren’t the be-all, end-all techniques for getting students learning, either. Experts find the passive element disconcerting, but not nearly as much as how exclusive adherence to lecture-based learning takes such a "one-size-fits-all" stance. Different people process information in different ways, and the most effective classrooms blend together strategies and activities meant to engage everyone.

  5. Rote learning is the devil/Rote learning will save us all: Honestly, both demonizing and evangelizing rote learning cause roughly equal amounts of damage. Balance, as in most areas of life, proves key when navigating this volatile education controversy. Some students and subjects greatly benefit from the repetitive memorization approach, so calling for its demise isn’t responsible. But touting it as the greatest learning technique since, well, ever is equally detrimental. The trick is in finding rote learning’s proper place and relationships with other strategies.

  6. Standardized testing is an accurate measure of a school’s abilities: No Child Left Behind dishes out funding based on how schools perform on standardized testing, with higher scores meaning more money. The problem here is that support typically ends up going toward institutions in wealthier areas. Experienced teachers tend to gravitate toward these, and students enjoy far more access to learning enhancement technologies in the classroom and at home. Because intelligence and socioeconomic status do not inherently impact one another, all the legislation does is hand out rewards based on what’s available in the classroom. This creates a saddening cycle where economically deprived students do not receive equal opportunities before, during, and after their education wraps up — thereby perpetuating the nauseating myths that they don’t deserve anything because they’re just not smart enough.

  1. Race holds influence over intelligence: Stephen Jay Gould may have dismantled the notion that race (and therefore cranial size) determines one’s mental aptitude in 1981’s The Mismeasure of Man, but vestiges of the once-mainstream mindset still cling — especially when one factors in family income. DNA, of course, undeniably holds sway, but not the little bits and pieces dictating skin color and facial structure. Those are too busy with their own jobs to bother with what’s going on in the ol’ grey matter. There’s also the little fact that minority and majority students both perform poorly when racial bias creeps into the classroom as a result of self-fulfilling prophecies. Merely treating classroom denizens as the equals they are nurtures overall improved aptitude.

  2. Adults and kids can learn languages using the same approaches: Many second-language teachers — despite harboring good intentions — accidentally make coursework harder for their adult students by incorporating techniques used to teach kiddos a first. Children and adults obviously possess different learning needs, and primary and secondary tongues each require their own unique sets of strategies for effective absorption. To approach every situation armed with the exact same syllabus makes it much, much harder for adults needing to incorporate themselves in a foreign culture. Immersion, for example, is discouraged since most people over the age of 18 lack the time to fully submerge themselves in nothing but a new language.

  3. Average- to low-performing students do better when incorporated into gifted classrooms: Students do tend to enjoy better grades and soak up lessons more effectively in groups, but more intelligent participants aren’t quite the inspiring role models educational professionals think, intentionally, anyway. Actually, they perform more adroitly when grouped with others of similar aptitude rather than peers with average to low intelligence. The National Association for Gifted Children notes how "outperforming" kids and teens usually leave the rest feeling inadequate, which might very well lead to bullying, which knocks the higher performers down because of depression and isolation.

  4. Special education programs are only for severe cases and require special classrooms: Parents are far more likely to buy into this horrid myth than professional educators, which means denying their children access to resources needed for a well-rounded academic career. Because public schools accept federal funding to provide everything special needs students require, legally, districts must accommodate all the situations they encounter. It might even mean no more than an hour outside of mainstream classrooms a day, or the simple incorporation of lo-fi technology. Special needs come in all severity levels, so if a doctor says steps need taking, moms and dads better heed their instructions.

  5. Doing your best is … well … best: Whether teaching adults or kids, more clear-cut goals foster more solid results; most tend to find well-meaning sentiments like, "Do your best!" too broad and ambiguous. Ratchet up the difficulty levels when wanting to issue forth challenges, and make sure to help students outline clear goals for themselves. This strategy will help increase lesson absorption while preserving the same positive confidence-building present in the more common vagaries.