Myths Come From Values, Not From Ignorance

Like many interested in how we apply basic cognitive science to education, I was interested in the recent finding that many teachers still endorse many myths and misconceptions about neuroscience and cognitive psychology. Here is the original paper, and an excellent op-ed by Chris Chabris and Dan Simons in the Wall Street Journal. One interesting element of the experiment was that teachers who knew the most were also the most misinformed (from Chabris and Simons):

Ironically, in the Dekker group’s study, the teachers who knew the most about neuroscience also believed in the most myths. Apparently, teachers who are (admirably) enthusiastic about expanding their knowledge of the mind and brain have trouble separating fact from fiction as they learn. Neuromyths have so much intuitive appeal, and they spread so rapidly in fields like business and self-help, that eradicating them from popular consciousness might be a Sisyphean task. But reducing their influence in the classroom would be a good start.

I have spent a fair amount of time trying to change one of these myths, the learning styles myth, and I have learned some lessons that I think apply to the rest of them. By way of reference, here are a couple of past posts and writings of mine on the topic: Dialogue with a teacher who defended learning styles. An article (accessible to non-scientists) with Dan Willingham in Change Magazine (picked up by Andrew Sullivan!).

Despite my strong belief that these myths are have a pernicious effect on education, I think it is important not to simply dismiss those who hold them as ignorant or thoughtless. In fact, as this study showed, those who hold the myths are just as often the most thoughtful, reflective, and knowledgeable, rather than the least. How can a myth which seems to signify a lack of knowledge be an indicator of someone who is knowledgeable? Because many myths, and these myths in particular are rooted not in ignorance, but in strongly held values.

In the case of learning styles, many well-meaning people hold a strong value that all children can learn. I too hold this value. However, when we take this to its extreme, it becomes: all children can learn all content equally well and quickly. Unfortunately, this is false. There are differences in cognitive ability, which have consequences for how quickly and easily some children learn some material. the temptation of learning styles is partly a hope that students who struggle with a subject simply have not found the right “channel” yet. Their unlimited reservoir of intelligence simply hasn’t been tapped properly. Unfortunately, some of us have bigger reservoirs than others (although we do all have different reservoirs for different content).

To dismiss the learning styles myth, we have to let go of equating cognitive ability (or intelligence) with some sort of larger social value. Further, ability also does not have to stand in as potential. I may have little artistic ability, but if I was inspired to draw, struggled with  drawing classes for a few years, I have no doubt I could become a capable at drawing. We can nurture interest while acknowledging that some will struggle more than others. As I write in the links above, in confusing ability from style, the learning styles myth also distracts us from the dimensions that really matter, such as individual attention and presenting content to be interesting for all students.

Similarly, the “we only use 10% of our brain” myth reflects a belief that we have untapped potential. This is surely true. Most of us at any given moment we have an awareness that our mind is not as focused as it could be. This might be because many of us get to occasionally experience those great moments that psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls “flow” when we are totally immersed in the task at hand. In all other times, we can observe our own mind wandering and feel the cognitive costs. We have also observed experts at work, doing things effortlessly which we could not even imagine. If we could only use 25% of our brain, that would be within our grasp! Like many brain myths, this doesn’t hold up to any scientific scrutiny. But the point is that most who endorse this myth in this see it as a neuroscientific translation of their belief in untapped cognitive potential. And they are right! We do have untapped potential. There doesn’t seem to be a limit to how much you can hold in your long term memory. And it seems to stay there forever! But this is not because we only use 10% of our brain.

My final point is that these myth studies often reveal language differences between scientists and the public. One of the myths in the study is the following:

“Environments rich in stimuli improve the brains of preschool children.”

A scientist such as myself might zero in on this and ask “hmm, what do they mean by stimuli?” I could follow the logic that I know certain interventions do help preschool children learn. I also know that a home environment rich in vocabulary helps some preschool children enter school with a larger vocabulary. This greater content knowledge has huge implication in elementary school. Like any kind of learning, there must be some sort of brain change involved. But the critical part of this myth is the “rich in stimuli.”  Simply adding stimulation (colors, mobiles, toys) does not improve your child’s brain. But to the teachers who endorsed this myth, I would imagine that it simply reads as “Good environments help the brains of preschool children.” This is obviously true, but it doesn’t begin to address what is good (or even what counts as environment).

This study (and those like it) show that scientists must be careful and sympathetic in explaining our research to the public. First, we need to recognize that the reason people hold myths is that these myths become attached to values. If we simply try to yank the myths away through overwhelming force of logic and evidence, without addressing the values, the myths simply won’t come off. I see this often with debates over evolution (and I try to apply it in my own classroom when we cover evolution). We need to make the case that one can accept evolution without giving up their sacred values. With learning styles, we need to show that we can still give individual attention and value each student’s contribution while letting go of the learning styles myth.

Second, we need to recognize that the way we use language is often different and sometimes more precise than popular usage. In psychology, this is often the same words (such as “intelligence” or “emotion” or “attention”). When people say “we only use 10% of our brain power” they they don’t mean that only 10% of the neurons are active, or that each neuron is only used 10% of the time it could be, or that each mitochondria in each neuron is only running at 10% of capacity. They mean that humans have untapped cognitive potential. Let’s join them in agreeing with that first, before explaining that in fact, even though you can always learn more, all of your brain is always on.

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About Cedar Riener

College psychology professor, husband, father.
This entry was posted in education, psychology, science and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

26 Responses to Myths Come From Values, Not From Ignorance

  1. Concise and accurate; a good read. Thanks for sharing this. As I was reading I couldn’t help but recall the many, many times persuasive speeches from those assumed to be in authority (administrative, political, whatever) have included the phrase, “Research shows that…” without bothering to ever cite the actual research. It’s amazing how we hardly ever call those people out. If we did exactly that a bit more often then some of those pesky myths would have a harder time continuing to exist…and doing their nasty little bits of damage.

  2. As a teacher who was once a student struggling with dyscalculia, I have confronted all sorts of mistaken ideas about learning. In my own case, I simply cannot learn higher math in the manner it is typically taught. That is not to say that I cannot learn it, but rather that I must learn it in the manner that I can internalize the knowledge. I have had some success in learning differently, as I prefer to call it, but ultimately I wonder if there are simply channels of learning that one simply cannot grasp fully, or at all, despite normal to above average cognitive ability in other areas.

    • Cedar Riener says:

      Thanks for sharing Iain. Yeah, the fact that learning styles don’t seem to be a systematic way that learners differ doesn’t mean that people don’t learn differently. As you probably know, there are various different subtypes of dyslexia and dyscalculia. I’m glad to hear that you have found success, and I bet you are a better teacher for having struggled yourself. I think sometimes those who were always successful as students aren’t necessarily the best teachers, because things have come easily and they haven’t had to question the process of learning in quite the same way.

      • I completely agree with you here. My struggle with dyscalculia colored my entire public school experience and led me to enter teaching for the sake of appreciation and revenge. I would not say that I am the best of teachers, but I am fully devoted to my profession with a passion and an awareness that I see in too few teachers. I relate best to the student who hates being in school and questions why he should be there at all.

  3. Cedar Riener says:

    I thought I would pull in a few reactions from other places and put them here.
    Dan Simons over at his Google+ page points out that the 10% myth is also about untapped potential, and he adds that perhaps the motivation behind it is not purely a value of untapped potential, but also of wishful thinking about the effort and persistence that learning takes:
    “Good points about values and different terminology contributing to the persistence of some of these myths. That said, I think the 10% myth translates into a myth of untapped potential as well (Chris and I write about that extensively in our book). We all have the capacity to learn, of course, and to the extent that we almost never max out our learning, we have untapped potential. But learning takes effort and persistence.
    The 10% myth implies that the potential can be released just by starting to use that previously dormant part of the brain. That is, the potential can be tapped with minimal effort. That’s a myth, but a commonly believed one. And, belief in it can discourage the perseverance necessary for actual learning. It’s substituting the fantasy of hidden talents and dormant abilities that could emerge fully formed for the potential to enrich our abilities through practice”

    I agree with this, that holding some of these myths can also reflect our desire for things to be easier; a secret backdoor to learning and change, rather than the standard effortful and difficult one.

  4. Cedar Riener says:

    Maia Szalavitz on twitter pointed out that some of the myths themselves are misleadingly simple. For example, “extended rehearsal of some mental processes can change the shape and structure of some parts of the brain.” Maia points out that some learning *is* associated with brain changes. I think what I said in the post applies here as well, it depends on what you mean by “shape and structure.” Extended rehearsal of certain mental processes no doubt results in some sort of Hebbian learning at the synaptic level. Do we count changes at the synapse as “changing the shape and structure of the brain?” Most neuroscientists probably wouldn’t put it that way, but we probably shouldn’t treat teachers who are a little hazy on the difference between a receptor site, a synapse and a Brodman’s area as severely misinformed about basic facts about the brain.
    Maia says that making a simplistic generalization and calling it a myth is an unfair test of knowledge (athough you should check out her twitter feed to make sure I am doing her argument justice) and I agree. But I do think that this (myth) approach can be useful, because teaching cognitive science doesn’t just confront a lack of knowledge, but a lot of misinformation. It is certainly hard to phrase questions so that they are both scientifically precise and also comprehensible to the public, but I think we do need to acknowledge that there is real misinformation out there. I think Maia and I would both agree that we shouldn’t trick the people in these types of surveys, but I think even without the tricks we’d find a fair amount of belief in neuromyths, because of the reasons above. For your own easy reference, here are the myths from the study..

  5. Joe Riener says:

    I’m not so sure these myths, like learning styles, ought to be connected only to those holding egalitarian views of education. Remember that those supporting voter-fraud legislation were concerned, they said, about fairness in elections. “All children can learn,” can be a way to deny the impact of poverty and racism, the need for adequate funding for education, or justify the War Against Experienced Teachers. The use of myths may arise from much darker places in the soul than mere ignorance or thoughtlessness.

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  7. Pedro says:

    Reblogged this on From experience to meaning… and commented:
    Great post on myths in education, feels good to know we’re not alone :)

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  9. elfinkate says:

    Thanks for this interesting read. I think the notion of learning styles is an interesting one and I find the scientific dismissal of it you outline above problematic for two reasons.
    1) The theory of learning styles, as I understand it is evolved from Gardner’s theory of ‘multiple intelligences’, which isn’t really about being able to learn one thing (say algebra) better if it is delivered kinaesthetically say, but about acknowledging that an ability in art, or dance or with words is a kind of intelligence just as an ability in maths, or science is an intelligence. This is useful
    In the classroom because it increases confidence, allows students and teachers to attempt applying skills and overcoming limitations in innovative ways, and avoids ‘intelligent/stupid binaries’ that have dominated education because of the favouring of some kinds of intelligence over others in society at large.
    2) As an educator it is clear that offering a range of learning experiences does enhance both enjoyment of learning and attainment. It also allows students, who are often quite poor at noticing where they excel, to find out through trying different things. But this is nothing new – practicing one’s discipline, reflecting on results, innovating, discussing, thinking alone…these are all techniques a good teacher would use regardless of a knowledge of ‘learning styles’, because they allow our students to be adaptable. Learning facts by rote is not useful intelligence, being able to apply ideas in a multitude of contexts is.

    There are obviously many arguments that could be had about the value or otherwise of adopting a ‘learning styles’ approach to teaching, however I have found it to be useful. I think the science community run into difficulty when they argue that teaching in different styles are not ‘proven’ to increase individual students’ attainment in a particular area. This is because ‘proving’ learning styles attempts a black and white ‘this works or it doesn’t’, while most teachers are working with shades of grey, attempting to teach multiple students with multiple skills, and trying to employ techniques in the classroom that allow each student to apply their strengths and knowledge to understanding our subject.

    • BB says:

      I think we can avoid some confusion by substituting the simple word “strengths” for the muddy (and yes, unproven) term “learning styles.” You are right that teachers have to be on the lookout for children’s strengths in order to help them learn as much as possible. But when a child’s strength is making beautiful and lifelike drawings, we cannot assume that that talent can somehow be used to help the child learn how to calculate ratios or conjugate Spanish verbs. Yes, we can use a visual aid to demonstrate ratios (we’d be crazy not to!) but that technique will help all of the children in the class, not just the good artist. At some level we have to admit that being a visual/artistic type of child will help the child greatly in learning more about art, and more techniques to use in art, but there is not going to be a whole lot of transference to non-art activities. To progress in history or auto mechanics or computer programming, that child is going to be (mainly) dependent on using learning techniques (reading, hands-on use of tools, writing code) that are specific to those topics.

    • Cedar Riener says:

      Thanks for stopping by Kate, and also for blogging about this yourself. I’ll also post this comment at your place over at Culture Vulture.
      In addition to agreeing with BB below, I think we actually are mostly in agreement. For me, the take home message is not to apply a scientific concept in the classroom unless we are sure that we can at least observe this scientific concept under controlled conditions in the laboratory. Otherwise, I am in favor of trusting the craft knowledge of teachers over shaky science. I see learning styles as a case were the science simply isn’t there to document that this difference in stated preference matters in general.
      As far as the difference between Gardner’s multiple intelligences and learning styles, I don’t think one grew from the other. Gardner’s book was published in 1983, and learning styles (of one form or another) have been around since the 70′s. Kolb’s theory (convergers/divergers, assimilators/accomodators) was published in 1984, but wasn’t really an outgrowth of Gardner as much as it was parallel.
      I think Gardner is about valuing different kinds of abilities (by valuing different tasks as well as content), and learning styles is really about applying a certain pedagogical approach across any subject area.
      I am agreement that varying mode of presentation helps everyone, mostly because it maintains everyone’s attention, as well as providing some repetition from divergent perspectives, which again, often helps everyone. I see two big dangers with approaching this in a learning styles, categorical framework. First, the idea that somehow you are only reaching the “auditory learners” when you are telling an interesting story is unfortunate, and to my mind divisive. Second, it is distracting from the things that really matter. If I design a lesson and try to find an audio portion, a video and a movement, that may come at the cost of me thinking about telling an interesting story, or spending a long time staring at a particularly striking piece of art.
      Again, I don’t disagree with most what you are saying at the end, and I think many scientists feel similarly. I do think that science is not black/white, and actually quite gray most of the time, which is part of the reason it is difficult to simply cut and paste scientific findings and apply them to classroom. We should trust teachers to decide which student preferences are to be respected and which should be pushed against (“no, you can’t always have a video, sometimes you do have to read” vs. “ok, you’d rather read this novel a few pages at a time rather than all in one sitting, let’s work with that”). Scientists (or simplistic policymakers) shouldn’t railroad teachers into teaching for different learning styles when we don’t have the evidence in the laboratory that they even exist.

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  13. I am always on the look-out for thoughtful discussion of these issues as well, and have written about them too. Several months ago I posted a two-part series in similar vein to yours, in an attempt to first provide a more grounded view of what learning actually is (see here: and then to follow that up with a similar discussion of why the zeitgeist that celebrates learning styles and theories like Gardner’s is bad for education ( Though the posts didn’t get a lot of attention here on wordpress, I posted as well to daily-Kos and had a lively – riveting in fact – discussion with some highschool and homeschool teachers who, in the end, took the points to heart. In fact, one high school teacher took my posts as starting points and tasked his students with digging in to the research themselves to “test” the validity of what I presented.

    What I find is that folks who mean well don’t always have access to information, making posts like these are all more valuable. If we don’t challenge the status quo, we leave no room for improvement, right? In this spirit, I am creating a new class (teaching it this coming January for the first time) called “the Psychology of Studying” where I blend cognitive, motivational, and relevant educational psych topics. So far, the students I’ve pitched the idea to are really excited about it and so am I.

  14. darinlhammond says:

    As a teacher in higher education, College level English and Literature, I appreciate your balanced discussion of the Wall Street Journal article and the insights you give on cognition.

    My experience is a bit different from the typical. I began studying cognitive science through a linguistics course which aligns itself closely with cognitive science and has connections going all the way back to Chomsky. I became passionate about all things relating to the brain, linguistics, cognitive science, neuroscience, neurophilosophy, etc. through primary sources rather than educational ones. In fact, at that point I knew nothing about education theories.

    I finally took an Theories of Learning in Higher Education class about 7 years of study in cognitive science as an approach to the interpretation of literature. When I delved into the sections involving cognition, I was so excited. However, I was supremely disappointed. I found just what you describe, that educators adhere to pop-psych and/or outdated visions of cognitive science. In many areas, the text (copyright 2011) invoked outdated psychology as if it were current views of cognition. Teachers are ignorant, which is not pejorative, but just means that they are unaware of the truth. In ignorance, we often cling to values we hold, finding research which supports our preconceptions.

    While this is forgivable, as you say, because it emanates from values, it certainly doesn’t benefit teacher or student and inevitably hinders progress in education. I have seen educators making progress, but as with many fields and disciplines, we tend to follow at least a decade or more behind cutting edge science. An extreme example of this is in my specialty area, Literature. Most scholars still discuss Freud, Lacan, Strauss, Saussure, and Foucault as if they were the cutting edge of research. I find it hilarious, but so many scholars think that science is not science until it ages like a fine wine. Currently, literary studies resist theoretical approaches that use cognitive science, evolutionary psychology, linguistics, neurophilosophy, and the like.

    Having said that, there are many scholars who are more enlightened and accomplishing some great interpretative work with the very best resources, but they work at the fringes. Only very recently are they gaining some recognition.

    Pure educational theory, however, is more entrenched in the old ways. More importantly, I see them drifting toward their own brand of cognitive research, which could be a real danger. While interdisciplinary research is excellent, educational theorists, supposing that they are specialists in cognitive science, independent of the scientists themselves, forming conclusions and speculations could be disastrous.

    • Cedar Riener says:

      Very interesting comment, thanks for coming by. I agree that acting as if Freud represents accepted psychological science is not the right way to go, but I can also understand the apprehension of humanities scholars in adopting cutting edge science that isn’t necessarily consensus. For example, what appears under the banner of evolutionary psychology has some science, but also a lot of storytelling, theoretical pontificating, in addition to interesting tidbits which are not really applicable beyond the small niche of the study.
      Your last paragraph reminds me that it is important to keep the boundaries clear about what science can do and what it isn’t qualified to do, and what teachers can and aren’t qualified to do. Obviously scientists should try to help delineate how their findings might apply to the classroom, and teachers should be somewhat well versed in appropriate theories of how the mind works, but each does have an expertise (and a set of questions) that do not entirely overlap.

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  17. emma says:

    I love this blog. Great blog.

  18. Niki Stashuk says:

    There is pressure from district and school administrators that these myths are true and that we teachers should be showing them how we incorporate them into our classrooms. So called specialists are brought into schools on teacher education days to push us into accepting the latest fad in education.

    @BB – I just retired from teaching art in middle school for 20 years. Art and science have been (and still are) my two great loves. There are numerous crossovers between knowledge in various subjects areas that can reinforce learning. I always looked for ways I could reinforce and further understanding of other subjects in my art teaching. I brought in science (light, color, chemistry, planning & experimenting), math (measuring, ratios/proportions, basic arithmetic), language (new vocabulary, how to read and discuss about art), history and culture, as well as fine tuning observation skills and problem solving. I also said repeatedly that the art skills students learned in class were learnable by anybody who wanted to put in the time to learn it. Drawing, for instance, is a skill, not a talent. It is what an artist does with those skills that makes he or she an Artist.

    It is certainly true that some students came to class with more art skills than others. But everyone was capable of learning more than they already knew. My great joy was having students come back and tell me that they never knew that they could draw until they had my class.

    The greatest disappointment for me was having such large numbers of students in a class. Be able to address a student’s misconceptions is often a one-on-one process; I wanted to understand what they saw or even what they thought they heard me say.

    I’m sorry to say that when I retired, there was no one hired to replace me. It’s a shame.

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