Myths in Education, or How Bad Teaching Is Encouraged

“Opinions don’t affect facts.

But facts should affect opinions, and do, if you are rational.” (Ricky Gervais)

I thought I would not have to blog about these fads again but it seems they have the strange ability to be reborn every single year and surface in professional development courses as well as in tweets, blog posts, and conversations within the education community. The reasons are different, ranging from ignorance to vested interests, but the effect is the same: poorer teaching. And no, you are not a bad teacher because you used them but you are a less effective one. We need to learn to dissociate our practice (which can have flaws) from our beliefs formed in the background of consistent bad professional development provided by schools.

Let’s see these monsters in their entire splendor:

  1. The Cone of Learning / The Learning Pyramid
  2. Learning Styles
  3. Right-Left Brain
  4. Brain Gym
  5. Brain-Based Learning
  6. Multiple Intelligences

The Learning Pyramid – a complete bogus

Where does it originate? Edgar Dale’s Cone of Experience (1946) was an exclusively theoretical model for audio-visual media, it did NOT include any percentages, and Dale himself insisted that the classifications should NOT be regarded as “any sort of hierarchy or rank order”.

Where did the percentages come from? Don’t laugh. They were first published by an employee of Mobil Oil Company in 1967, writing in the magazine Film and Audio-Visual Communications. This employee, D.G. Threichler, provided NO evidence for the figures but the education community accepted the percentages nonetheless.

PicMonkey Collage


The Learning Pyramid Deception, Institute for Learning Professionals

Will Talheimer, PhD – People Remember 10%, 20%…Oh, Really? 

Neuromyths and Why They Persist in the Classroom , Sense About Science

Cone of Learning or Cone of Shame? , Daniel T. Willingham

I could go on and on with evidence – just type “cone of learning debunked” and you’ll see hundreds of papers on the topic.

Learning Styles – no, really, they do not exist

I am sure you came across this numerous times and some of you, more unfortunate, had to design lesson plans accordingly and meet the “various learning styles of students”. Well, they were debunked over and over again by experts, from psychologists to educationalists and research.

The studies that purport to provide evidence for learning styles “fail to satisfy key criteria for scientific validity.” (Hal Pasher et al, Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 2009)

“VAK (n.n. visual, auditory, kinesthetic styles) might, if it has any effect at all, be actually harming the academic prospects of children.” (Professor John Geake, Neuormythologies in Education, 2008)

Many blogs were written and research evidence piled up for more than a decade yet this myth continues to be embraced by schools and, consequently, teachers.


Learning Styles Debunked, Psychological Science

Learning Styles Don’t Exist, Neuroscientist Daniel T. Willingham

Neuromyth 3 – Center for Research and Innovation, OECD

Learning Styles – What Does the Research Say? Dylan Wiliam

Learning Styles, a Mega Myth , Dr. Mark Evans

Urban Myths About Learning and Education, Paul A. Kirschner et al

Make It Stick, Peter C. Browns et al

Learning Styles Are Not an Effective Guide for Learning Design , The Debunkers Club

Left-Right Brain – no such thing

“The myth probably took root in the 1800s, when scientists discovered that an injury to one side of the brain often caused a loss of specific abilities. The myth gained ground in the 1960s, when scientists studied epilepsy patients who had surgery to sever the connection between the two hemispheres. 

But more recently, brain scan technology has revealed that (…) the two hemispheres are in fact highly complementary.”  Brain Myths, BrainHQ

” The application of this notion to educational practice seems, therefore, overly simplistic and even dubious.

The notion of different hemispheric thinking styles is based on an erroneous premise: each brain hemisphere is specialized and therefore each must function independently with a different thinking style. Furthermore, there is no direct scientific evidence supporting the idea that different thinking styles lie within each hemisphere. Indeed, deriving different hemispheric thinking styles from functional asymmetries is quite a bold venture, which oversimplifies and misinterprets scientific findings.” Neuromyth 6, Center for Research and Innovation, OECD

“The notion that people are dominantly left- or right-brained never had a solid foundation in neuroscience, and now the best evidence we have is convincingly negative.” Left-Brain Right-Brain Myth, Science-Based Medicine

LR Brain

Left Brain vs. Right: It’s a Myth, Live Science

Why the Left-Right Brain Myth Will Probably Never Die, Psychology Today

More Left-Right Brain Nonsense, Neurologica

Brain Gym® – more snake oil in education

This was one of the most entertaining nonsensical claims sold to and, unfortunately bought by educators. Did I tell you it is used in 80 countries?

The website is riddled with hilarious statements backed by zero evidence. We learn about “crawling, drawing, tracing symbols in the air, yawning, and drinking water” as efficient methods to enhance learning…except they do not.

“Brain Gym was created in the 1980’s by Dr. Paul Dennison and Gail E. Dennison, who ‘were seeking more effective ways to help children and adults who had been identified as ‘learning disabled.’ They drew from a large body of research by developmental specialists who had been experimenting with using physical movement to enhance learning ability.” They called their work Educational Kinesiology or Edu-K for short. Paul worked with chiropractor Richard Tyler,* a friend of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s and a proponent of “alternative chiropractic.”

Go figure. But there is more.

“Unfortunately, the research they drew on has been widely discredited (Bruer 2004; Hyatt 2007; Novella 1996) and the follow-up research on the program itself is laughably inadequate. There have been only a few published studies on Brain Gym. One involved four participants, one of whom was the author of the study. Three were published in a journal that requires the authors to pay for publication. Another study has serious methodological flaws.”

Brain GYm

Brain Gym, From Abracadabra to Zombies , The Skeptic’s Dicionary

Brain Gym Scandal , Ben Goldacre

Brain Gym – Proof That Some School Will Believe ANY Old Rubbish, Dr. Mark Evans

Brain-Based Learning – because learning does not happen in the brain, sic!

I know. You can hardly suppress a smile. Replace “brain” with any number of words you wish. For instance, “nose-based learning”. Or “chocolate-based learning”.

Besides the hilarious linguistic use  (it is the brain that coordinates all learning, regardless of the type of stimuli, i.e. visual, and the skills that are being built, i.e. motor), “brain-based learning strategies” seem to be the most dangerous *because* they seem supported by neuroscience and those promoting them intentionally misuse scientific findings. We all know that if there is “evidence” or some statistics thrown in, people are more prone to accepting claims.

“This is a common tactic. Many of these companies have an impressive-looking page of research on their websites. On closer inspection, these turn out to consist of articles only vaguely related to their claims.

Such marketing tactics are not new, and it is hard to get too morally exercised over a group of business people finding a new way of scamming another group. But consider the growth of businesses that target parents, teachers, and schools, using similar language.

Educational neuroscience is a thriving field of research, and there are many excellent and doubtless well-meaning researchers doing rigorous and valuable work in the area. Unfortunately, there are also businesses that want to exploit teachers’ lack of experience and middle-class parental anxieties about school attainment.” (Matt Wal, Researcher in Brain Imaging, Imperial College London)

In many ways, repackaging flawed research and selling it to schools so that they “improve” learning reminds me, sadly, about Dr. Fox lecture where the experimenters proved that even nonsense talk can be easily accepted by listeners since they are not experts in the field.

I recommend that you read Dr. Will Thalheimer’s latest post (Brain-Based Learning and What Neuroscience Says) as he has evidence, interviews, as well as a clear argument as to why these “strategies” can harm education in the long run.

Brain based

Multiple Intelligences – deceivingly optimistic

All of us know about Gardner’s MI theory. Unfortunately, it has never been supported by research for various reasons.

First, the use of terms was ambiguous and not even later was there an agreement as to what each of them stands for.

Secondly, little empirical research was conducted during this time: something that cannot be isolated and assessed (i.e. “naturalistic intelligence”) cannot claim scientific validity.

Thirdly, the greatest majority of scientists do not really accept the theory.

“Lynn Waterhouse in 2006 found no published studies at all that supported the validity of the theory. Even though Gardner first made his theory public in 1983, the first empirical study to test the theory was not published until 23 years later (Visser, et al., 2006a) and the results were not supportive. Multiple intelligences theory can hardly be described as scientifically generative.

Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences looks to be a confused and nebulous set of claims that have not been empirically validated. Many of Gardner’s proposed “intelligences” appear to be explainable in terms of existing concepts of personality and general intelligence, so the theory does not really offer anything new. Additionally, some of the proposed “intelligences” are poorly defined (particularly intrapersonal) and others (e.g. musical) may be more usefully thought of as skills or talents. The popularity of Gardner’s theories in educational contexts may reflect its sentimental and intuitive appeal but is not founded on any scientific evidence for the validity of the concept.” (The Illusory Theory of Multiple Intelligences, in Psychology Today, Scott A. McGreal MSc)

Professor John Geake on Multiple Intelligences: “Neuroimaging studies do not support multiple intelligences; in fact, the opposite is true.” (Neuromyths and Why They Persist in the Classroom, Sense About Science)

Gardner himself admits that “the theory is no longer current” and he never carried out tests” to prove his claims. See here.


Inadequate Evidence for Multiple Intelligences, Educational Psychologist

Separating Neuromyths from Science in Education, The New Scientist

A Debate on Multiple Intelligences, Howard Gardner PhD and James Troub


In conclusion, do not just roll your eyes when one or more of these fads are discussed in your PD meetings. Show the evidence and help discourage bad practice. We owe it to our students to teach better than this. And to our stakeholders to stop wasting money on programs that hardly make any real difference in learning, or worse, may cripple it.

And I leave you with a chart I created two years ago – how to deal with any claims, ed. program, or research (I am @surreallyno on Twitter).

DT WIllingham (2)


A report on neuromyths and teacher training was released in January (see below) – please read this article prior to the paper – We Need to Rewrite the Textbook on How to Teach


*Update 2 – Thanks to @Frank Lee on Twitter I am able to share the video whose link he sent (thank you, Frank).

“Learning Styles and Why the Myth Persists”

Dr. Tesia Marshik is an Assistant Professor of Psychology at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse. Her research interests in educational psychology include student motivation, self-regulation, and teacher-student relationships.


26 Responses to “Myths in Education, or How Bad Teaching Is Encouraged”

  1. I’m writing a post very similar to this. I’m so glad I found this post. It should be noted that there was never a lot of research that supported any of these myths. Not sure why we educators got behind such weak science so willingly.

    In other news: I recently heard a presenter talk about multiple intelligences, learning styles, and introvert v. extrovert learners. My brain started crying.

  2. Reblogged this on orgcompetet and commented:
    Mitos educativos…

  3. Wish you’d also covered that “only 7% of the information we get from verbal communication comes from the actual words used” nonsense often attributed to Albert Mehrabian. It’s somewhere between false and nonsensical – what would it even *mean* for this to be true? Mehrabian was talking about emotional reactions, not conveying information, and used simple one- and two-word cues that probably don’t generalize to any context involving speaking in complete sentences. Yet I’ve been told that line of crap four times now in, of all things, a security course that is otherwise remarkably woo-free.

  4. I like this post and respect the position. In ref to multiple intelligences, while I am no advocate, I know of some schools that base their teaching model on this. It seems to represent a cultural value based system rather than something that requires scientific validation. It seems that people who it appeals to value the curriculum offer that comes with it. Perhaps in line with your quote: “. The popularity of Gardner’s theories in educational contexts may reflect its sentimental and intuitive appeal but is not founded on any scientific evidence for the validity of the concept.” (The Illusory Theory of Multiple Intelligences, in Psychology Today, Scott A. McGreal MSc)
    Is science always needed? I’d say it would sometimes be rejected where values are concerned.

    • You’re right that science is not always needed where values are concerned. For example, it is a value judgment to decide that each child deserves a chance at success and that we should differentiate to meet each child. There is no scientific way to prove or disprove what each child deserves. Once we’ve decided that we should help all students, the question becomes “what method is most effective.” And this most certainly IS a scientific question. Not only is there no scientific evidence to support the learning styles theory, there is actually evidence that disproves its effectiveness. If we decide that students deserve an education that meets their needs, we must reject systems that claim to be research-based and use pseudo-scientific language, as they take away valuable time and resources from methods that are proven to be effective.

      • I just think that even though Science will suggest some ways as most effective, that people’s values and culture will in spite of evidence make them resist those methods. Eg drilling to learn by rote is highly effective, as is the “study test test test” model. But many people don’t like their children constantly tested and drilled.

      • I agree that people’s values play a role in methods chosen, but I challenge your assumption that “kill and drill” is effective. There is plenty of research that shows these methods not only fail to produce deep learning and metacognition, but they also fail to help students retain even the most basic knowledge – if you look at what a student has “remembered” the next day or two days later, you might think these methods work, but kill and drill has proved a failure in providing meaningful growth over the long term.

  5. I disagree, Carol.
    Firstly, if it were a value system, that is no argument to be *imposed* on schools and teachers.
    Secondly, these myths have always been masquerading as “scientific facts” which led to their power within educational systems.

    As far as your last question is concerned (re: “Is science always needed?”) the post does not question the importance of values in education – after all, it is values that mostly drive education.

  6. The existence of such schools does not prove the invalidity of the research findings. You are making a logical leap. An analogy would be smoke addiction – the fact that medical research has proved its negative effects does not stop people from smoking.

    Schools are free to adhere to whatever values they seem fit – my post is not about that. But when programs are rolled based on flawed research and imaginary results then we do have an issue because that ultimately affects students (and parents’ money).

    Besides, we all know that these myths were pushed via political agenda as well. An example? The VAK questionnaires and programs; teachers were also assessed based on their ability to “adapt their teaching according to the learning styles of students”. This is not a minor problem at all – having teachers assessed based on myths. Imagine a similar situation in the medical area – doctors’ expertise questioned unless they conform to methods proven wrong time and time again by research.

    • I definitely see your point. But I’m talking about private / independent schools. Parents pay to send their children. And they subscribe to the notion that values underpinning eg multiple intelligences are a good thing. I’m saying that, like smoking, people like a certain offering, and value it more than what science says.

      • If you are trying to equate multiple intelligences with smoking, I guess I’m starting to agree with you – many people think they look cool, but in the end, you’ll wish you’d never started using them. 😉

      • Based on my experience with independent schools and the parents who choose them, I think there’s a very, very small fraction of parents who choose a fancy prep school for reasons that have anything to do with educational theories, good or bad. Mostly, they like the small class sizes and the culture engendered by most all the classmates coming from homes like theirs.

      • Not so in the UAE. The independent private school I was working at when I wrote that comment was just one of 600 or so private schools in the country. It had a marketing based USP founded on multiple intelligences. It was not a fancy prep school. Class sizes capped at 24. But EYFS to A level provision. International student cohort. British curriculum. Last rated Good at inspection. Fairly bog standard UAE school. No similar homes of parents.

  7. Parents are unlikely to understand how education theory and research work since they are not experts in the field. What such schools do is using a value system as a cover for wrong programs that, in fact, do not cause better learning. And parents cannot tell the difference, let alone have time to read the research themselves.

    • But you must admit, there’s a large portion of mankind who believe in the journey versus the destination?
      Also: Frankenstein. Just because we can do things based on science doesn’t mean we should. The end results are not always desirable. Suicidal exam cultures etc.

  8. Ironically, the “end results” of these programs are the ones not desirable… despite the original intention.

    And..let’s not conflate topics. Exam culture has nothing to do neither with my post nor with research – high stake testing is *not* recommended by researchers.

  9. Thank you for the eye-opener. I am guilty of embracing some of these things in my past practice. Speaks to a general willingness to accept first before understanding. Also means employing a more critical stance on what’s new.


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