Myths about Education: What are they? Where do they come from? What do we think?

This post is inspired by Daisy Christodoulou’s book Seven Myths about Education (2014), a copy of which can be found in the school library.

We all know what a ‘myth’ is and we are probably all aware that we buy into them at times, whilst also identifying as logical, rational members of society. For example, how many of us claim to have caught a cold because we got cold and wet (not true – there is no scientifically established cause and effect here), or indeed, said that our children become ‘hyper’ having consumed too much sugary food (again there is no scientific basis for this common claim)? Education is also subject to numerous myths and the task and challenge of the educational researcher is to separate the long held conventional beliefs from the evidence-based reality. What are the consequences of what the French term ‘received ideas’ in education? Well, simply put, they are unhelpful. Continuing to reproduce myths and practices that do not further pupil progress and in some cases may even hinder it contradicts the aims of any practitioner. As intelligent educated people teachers surely have a responsibility to use and apply the most up to date research on what impact different approaches have on pupil learning?

So what are these ‘myths’ in education? In her book Seven Myths about Education (2014) Daisy Christodoulou lays out and debunks seven of the most common myths that also act as barriers to teaching and learning:
1. Facts prevent understanding
2. Teacher-led instruction is passive
3. The 21st century fundamentally changes everything
4. You can always just look it up
5. We should teach transferable skills
6. Projects and activities are the best way to learn
7. Teaching knowledge is indoctrination

At first glance this list did make me uncomfortable as I recognise a lot of my own pedagogical ideology and teaching style within these so-called myths. However, as with any social science, things are rarely black and white and context is key to understanding the value of any research. In this post and in three subsequent ones I will try to summarise the key arguments Chrisodoulou puts forward and to add my own thoughts and evaluations as I go along.
Christoloudou justifies her selection of these seven particular topics from both a theoretical and practical standpoint drawing upon clear examples from real classrooms. Her underlying thesis is discomforting as she summarises these seven myths as having been ‘around for decades, sometimes longer’ and further still that ‘the progress we are making in discovering how humans learn actually discredits these ideas’. ‘Taken together, all seven myths damage the education of our pupils’. (p. 7)
In each chapter she first addresses the ‘myth’ in question and the evidence that it is a widely-held belief. She then goes on to explain where this may have come from and then finally she explores why, in many cases, upholding the myth could in fact be damaging to our pupils.
1. Facts prevent understanding

Christodoulou argues that the English national curriculum has moved too far towards a skill-based curriculum focused on conceptual understanding, inquiry, evidence and communication and that this has been at the expense of subject content. ‘Facts’ have, she says, been demoted and are now perceived in opposition to learning skills, rather than as integral to the cognitive process itself. She draws upon evidence that strongly supports the knowing and learning of facts. This research indicates that facts are essential as they are interwoven into the way in which long-term memory actually works and helps us to solve problems.
Bloom’s taxonomy shows us that knowing is a low-order skill and that analysis is a high order skill – a polarisation which Christodoulou refutes. How, she asks, can knowledge be separate from skills when the two are in fact intertwined? Skill progression depends upon knowledge accumulation and one cannot be successful without the other.

2. Teacher-led instruction is passive and ineffective.

With this myth Christodoulou’s challenges the idea that children will learn as long as one creates the right environment to stimulate their curiosity and interests. She tackles the popularly held belief that drill and memorisation prevent children from understanding the true meaning of things and impair their ability to think independently. Amongst her arguments are two key questions: To what extent can new knowledge actually be unearthed through discussion? How important is the transmission of knowledge from teacher to pupil?
Obviously inquiry-based learning is the cornerstone of the MYP and is what many of us at Oakham are aiming to weave into our schemes of work. So is FOSIL really ineffective and a waste of time? Christodoulou argues that there is a happy medium to be found within inquiry learning between the ‘sage on the stage’ and the ‘guide on the side’. She asks us to consider the role of teacher talk; when it is necessary and when it isn’t.
‘Teacher instruction is vitally necessary to become an independent learner’. (p. 36)
Christodoulou’s thesis chimes with what John Hattie discovered in his meta-analysis of research into effective teaching models: teacher-led instruction ranks highly, in third place after feedback and quality of instruction.
We all know that practice is a key determiner of success, and perhaps it does not need to sit in opposition with discovery-style learning. Indeed, pupils may make the most progress when they combine prior knowledge with new (teacher led) information drawing links and reaching independent conclusions. This mixed-method teaching style allows for both teacher-led front loaded teaching and pupil inquiry – the foundations of FOSIL and inquiry based learning.

The main aim of Christoloudou’s book is, in her own words ‘to show how we need to change education based on the discoveries of modern science’. (p. 4). She contends that ‘much of what teachers are taught about education is wrong, and that they are encouraged to teach in ineffective ways’. (p. 5). She adds that ‘ideas that had no evidence backing them up had been presented to me as unquestionable axioms’. (p. 5). So what is ‘best practice’ and how can we be sure that we are applying it in our classrooms for maximum benefit to our students?
I think that the answer lies in having an open mind and being prepared to question and to change what we do. By asking ourselves why we teach something the way we have always taught it, we develop a mindset that will at least allow us to proceed with confidence and conviction. At best it will also ensure we reflect upon and improve our teaching and offer the best, most effective teaching and learning methods to our pupils.
Furthermore, there is rarely a clear ‘right’ path in Education and a mixed methods approach would seem to be the most sensible. Christodoulou may appear quite uncompromising in her investigation into the ‘seven myths’ but she makes a good point. The beliefs many of us hold about education and what constitutes best practice may not be entirely false but there is a need to question our methods. The best teachers know their pupils and why they teach them the way they do, but also recognise that there is a time and a place for rote learning, for inquiry-based learning and for teacher-led instruction. Adhering exclusively to any one method is surely narrow minded and unlikely to engage learners for long enough to be truly effective.
As a linguist and MFL teacher I know that constant repetition of language is key to pupil progress, whether it be drilling verb endings or repeating lists of vocab. In an MFL lesson pupils are unlikely to make significant progress without some teacher input – it is impossible for them to discover new language completely by themselves and to be expected to pronounce it correctly. Young children learn their mother tongue through constant repetition and exposure and, in many cases such as nursery rhymes, alphabet songs and chanting numbers through rote learning! Having said that, it is also important that pupils develop their metacognitive language skills – reading strategies, comprehension techniques through independent practice and also that they follow their own lines of inquiry or pursue particular interests in cultural topics.

For more information about Daisy Christodolou’s work visit: https://daisychristodoulou.com/about/

by Julie Summers

One thought on “Myths about Education: What are they? Where do they come from? What do we think?

  1. Pingback: Locating Ourselves in the Epistemological Landscape: a response to Myths about education – Oakham School Teaching & Learning Community

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