5 popular psychology myths prevalent in education 

In a world flooded with information, it’s not surprising that the most popular or easily understood voices appear most true. But this often leaves us wide open to misinformation. 

psychology myths in education
Cluey Learning Friday, 11 October 2019

How much of what you believe about the psychology of learning is wrong? 

The answer, most likely, is kind of a lot. Here are five popular learning myths still prevalent in today’s classrooms.  

1. Learning styles

This is the idea that students have different learning styles and that they will learn better if the teacher delivers materials in their preferred style. If you’re a visual learner, you will learn best from material presented visually. Auditory learners will do better if that same material is delivered via an auditory format. 

In my experience, this is one of the “stickiest” pieces of misinformation in education. And I’m clearly not alone. In fact, Work Learning is in its eighth year of a USD$5000 challenge to anyone who can prove teaching to learning styles actually works. 

Why it’s a myth 

The idea of different learning styles is not supported by scientific evidence. Whether learning materials are presented to students in their preferred or other format has no effect on their learning. If we stop and think about this for a moment, it makes sense, because it also matters what you’re learning. Even if you have a preference for auditory learning, you’re probably not going to do very well solving quadratic equations just by listening to them explained without anything visual written down. 

While there’s no evidence that teaching students in their preferred style has any benefit, there is evidence that the novelty of presenting learning materials in a variety of styles can improve students’ attention and lead to stronger learning outcomes. 

2. Grit

The concept of grit has become particularly popular in recent discourse and suggests that perseverance and passion for long term goals will determine achievement, rather than talent alone. This doesn’t feel like an especially outlandish claim, perhaps because the concept of grit seems to be a rebranding of personality traits that have been investigated for decades. 

Why it’s a myth 

The popularity of grit doesn’t match the quality of the evidence supporting the idea. While having grit may play a part in success and performance, there’s good evidence to suggest that it’s not the most important trait, and that qualities such as conscientiousness and self-regulation are better predictors of school success. 

3. Males are better at maths

Males are better at mathematics and spatial tasks like map-reading than females. On the other hand, females outperform males when it comes to language, writing and grammar. Right? 

Why it’s a myth 

The gender stereotype above is widely, and sometimes even unconsciously, held to be true, but there’s actually very little evidence to support it. We tend to overemphasise the difference between the genders. A recent analysis of gender differences across a huge variety of psychological functioning relevant to learning found support for the gender similarity hypothesis – that is, males and females are much more similar than they are different. Where there are differences, these are so small that there’s a huge overlap between the two genders. This is an especially important myth to overcome given that gender stereotypes can influence a child’s interests. 

4. People are either right-brained or left-brained

This is the belief that your abilities are somehow linked to whether or not you typically rely more on the left or right hemisphere of your brain. The left-brained amongst us are the logical, objective ones, and right-brained are the creative, intuitive ones. 

Why it’s a myth 

The brain can now be examined in greater detail than ever before and there’s no evidence to support this myth, as neither hemisphere is solely responsible for a particular set of abilities or personality. Similar to the erroneous belief that we only use 10 percent of our brain, scientists are not even giving airtime to this idea because it simply isn’t true. 

5. Brain-training games make you smarter

There are some impressive claims made about the benefits of brain-training games — like playing them can help improve your memory, attention and even your intelligence. 

Why it’s a myth 

The only likely benefit of brain-training games is that you’ll become very good at the game. This, however, does not translate to improved performance in other contexts like school. Research suggests that brain-training games aren’t making us smarter and don’t offer any general improvement in users’ ability to think, remember, or pay attention. 

Why it’s so important to overcome these myths

Misconceptions like the ones above can dominate the time and resources of teachers, which are already stretched, and offer little or no benefit to student learning. In addition, if these beliefs are held by students, they may inadvertently limit their own potential (“I’m just not creative because I’m left-brained”, “I can’t learn this because it’s not visual” or “there’s no point trying, girls just aren’t good at science”). We can all help to limit the negative effects of misconceptions about learning by discovering and challenging claims that don’t hold up. 

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