Myths Come From Values, Not From Ignorance

by CKF
November 19th, 2012

Today’s guest post is by Cedar Riener, assistant professor of Psychology at Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, Virginia.  It originally appeared at Cedar’s Digest, Riener’s blog about “education reform, college teaching, history and philosophy of science” and other subjects. 

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.


  1. Your argument is false on its face, and fraught with the kinds of myths which obscure its own premise.

    For one example, “all children can learn all content equally well and quickly. Unfortunately, this is false.” ANY definition of “learning,” style or content, recall or recantation, involves the imputation of values: “72″ is meaningless by itself; meaningful – to some – when there are 72 items on a test, or in Centigrade vs. Fahrenheit, age or on a scale of 100. And that meaning is derived by applying an acknowledged value to derive a verifiable fact. You’ve concatenated a lot of subjectivity when you presume “content,” “well,” and “quickly” into metrics that only quantify and deny qualified understanding: for some of us, “content” means coming to the room on time and NOT “how long was the 7 years war”; for some, “well” may mean “enough to distinguish between big and small, hot and cold”; for some, quickly may mean as soon as asked, or as quickly as 40% of the group, or as soon as the data has utility. These are all values, and presuming they exist independent of those values is, frankly, crazy.

    In other words, valuing a number for its own sake is both pointless and meaningless, while applying context gives it both meaning and utility. It is hardly the “weakness” of language that its application lacks the precision of a number, but, rather, it’s strength.

    I suggest you examine phenomenology before inferring phenomena: Objectivity is pretension; relevance and meaning are both human, humane, and gives data utility.

    And, for that matter, all of your brain is NOT always “on,” since it depends on what that “on” means. Get in touch with yourself. Smoke a little of the newly legal medicinals and recognize that it’s your perspective we value, not your data.

    Comment by Joseph Beckmann — November 19, 2012 @ 2:04 pm

  2. The “philosophy” espoused here approaches a bit too closely to the different intelligences of Howard Gardner. In and of themselves, they have some value, but as THE guiding dogma for learning, please be careful.

    After a career as a classroom teacher I also must respectfully disagree with your (non)-”proof” regarding learning styles. I believe some kids do learn better visually than auditorily, but competent classroom teachers more than address this possible reality by presenting lessons in multiple formats. Additionally, these “styles” should in NO WAY guide the operation of any classroom.

    When you state, “… all children can learn all content equally well and quickly” as false, you’re absolutely correct. My primary tenet of education is that all children are different and should be treated accordingly…but they seldom are; especially when a teacher spends the majority of their day teaching one lesson to the whole class. All kids learn to walk, talk, even become toilet trained, at different ages. This is irrefutable. So how, then, when they turn six should any teacher then magically/enigmatically address them as all at the same level with one lesson for all?

    Your mention of environment rich in stimuli makes sense until you consider certain variables such as rich vocabulary and loaded basic/core knowledge. These stimuli clearly have a positive impact on early childhood learning, especially if instituted first at home, before a child even arrives at the school house gate.

    Many other interesting points here, too abundant to address in one post. Bring Cedar back more often, Robert.

    Comment by Paul Hoss — November 20, 2012 @ 7:51 am

  3. Cedar does make a very important point that myths or misconceptions by well-meaning people can cause problems for educators. One thing I have observed lately is scientists saying that IQ is not completely fixed and can be increased through instruction which is true to some extent. However as a special education teacher this can become a very frustrating idea when politicians, administrators, or even parents suddenly latch on to this idea and believe that through your wonderful instruction the child with a 50 IQ will suddenly become a child with an IQ of 100. Therefore they can pass the state test and function at grade level. This does not typically happen and is not really what the scientists were saying. This feeds into the myth that if children are failing all they need is better instruction and they would be at or above grade level. I believe all children can learn and certainly all children deserve an opportunity to learn. However children with severe cognitive disabilities seldom become Einstein no matter what type of instruction we offer. It can be very damaging to the child if we refuse to accept the child where they are at because we are waiting for the school to “fix” them.

    Comment by Mary Sulgrove — November 20, 2012 @ 6:17 pm

  4. Thanks so much for the comments and kind words.
    @Paul – I agree that there are similarities, but Gardiner’s multiple intelligences is critically different in that it is about abilities, not styles. He is saying that some children have artistic ability, not that one could apply this artistic ability to learn math. Dan Willingham’s book has a good chapter on this difference. Much agreed with the rest of your post, including the “stimuli” part. I made a similar point in a comment on my own post on my blog, when someone took issue with some of the myths themselves.
    @Mary – Absolutely. Acknowledging that everyone has some cognitive flexibilty, in that everyone can learn should not entail a mindless acceptance that all students can (and should) all become equally proficient in everything. I think many of the blanket assertions and generalizations coming from national ed policy are a real disservice to everyone, and particularly to those students who you serve.

    Comment by Cedar Riener — November 21, 2012 @ 11:43 am

  5. @Joseph, you actually misquoted Reiner at the outset of your aureate critique.

    Comment by Jeffrey Miller — November 21, 2012 @ 4:18 pm

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