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Five more myths on education

More myths on education

As an education professional, you might have noticed that mainstream media are often careless in dealing with topics revolving around school, technology and new generations. In the second part of this review (find the first part here), we address five more myths on education, to help you navigate your way through a field full of conflicting opinions.

We have selected statements which we believe are more challenging than repeatedly refuted statements like alleged left- and right-brain differences, as well as beliefs from another age concerning gender differences.

As in the first part, we state in bold characters the scientific consensus, rather than the myth itself. We are still in great debt with authors Pedro De Bruyckere, Paul A. Kirschner and Casper Hulshof, and their books “Urban Myths about Learning and Education” (2015) and “More Urban Myths About Learning and Education” (2019).

6. There is no evidence that today’s “digital natives” need a different education than the previous generations.

None of the claims concerning the specificity of “digital natives” (defined as young people that have been immersed in technology all their lives) are supported by evidence. As such:

  • they aren’t innately experts in new technologies;
  • they aren’t especially multitaskers or more collaborative than their elders;
  • they don’t particularly prefer gaming, interaction and simulation;
  • they don’t especially need immediate and constant gratification.

The concept of « digital natives » is ultimately a non-existent category and should never be used.1 The existence of a new generation of students cannot be used as a motivation to act on the introduction of digital tools in education. Technologies used for communication, socialization, entertainment, or personal empowerment (all covered by basic computer skills), do not automatically cover the needs of effective education.2

Of course, the Internet and digital tools certainly have their place in the classroom. They also can’t be ignored: the world of education needs to keep links with the real world. However, new technologies should be used for valid content and didactic reasons.

7. Students are not brain dead during lessons and lectures.

One of the urban legends spread even by award-winning professors is that students’ brain activity during traditional lectures is the same as when watching TV: plain dead. It turns out, the study that is cited3 did not measure brain activity, but rather electrodermal activity. Even worse, this measurement was performed on a single student, invalidating any meaningful conclusion on a general population.4

That being said, lectures play a key role in education, and are sometimes very effective. Most of the time however, they cause the audience’s attention to drift. Less performant students (that is, the ones needing the most benefits from education) are unfortunately among the victims of this effect. Keeping students interested and appealed is maybe the greatest challenge for a teacher.

Quizzes are known to increase the effectiveness of lectures, as they involve well-known mechanisms such as the testing effect and the retrieval practice. Quizzes also close the performance gap by 50% between students from lower and higher socio-economic extractions.5

8. To record lectures and share them online is not always a good idea.

In a flipped classroom students discover new topics at home, by reading their textbook or watching a video; class time is then devoted to discussion and problem solving. Unfortunately there is very little evidence that flipping in education is beneficial. More studies are needed before conclusions can be drawn. Several risks are associated with this method6:

  • students that need to combine their studies with a job have a harder time in following the online lessons;
  • the availability of online lessons removes some motivation in following the “actual” lectures;
  • distraction due to social media and the web is an issue;
  • less frequent contact with the teachers reduces the pressure to learn;
  • more self-awareness is needed from students to decide what and when to consult online, increasing less proficient students to failure.

Research shows however that combining online and offline options however leads to better performance, but this could simply concern better students cross-checking with the online content what they learned in the live setting.7

Physical interaction still seems to be vital in the educational setting, and in summary it is difficult to blindly advise teachers to record their lessons. Many factors should be taken into account (the subject, the audience, the quality of the online lessons, etc.), and not all have been properly investigated.8

9. More lecture time does not automatically lead to more learning.

Sometimes simplistic ideas are applied to education and become official recommendations. Policy makers may base their decisions on indicators that fail to identify causality. In this case, correlations between learning and hours spent at school certainly exist, but no other connection is known. When Mexico9 and Germany10 increased the number of lesson hours, the outcome was underwhelming:

  • The learning gain was negligible.
  • The divide from students with different socio-economic backgrounds deepened.

Why did that happen? In short, besides the obvious consideration that what happens during the additional hours is part of the equation, increasing the class time does not benefit everyone equally. “Richer” students benefit from their additional background, stimuli and help at home. The only way to compensate for this gap seems to allocate additional resources to the students that specifically need it.11

Additionally, we stress once again that time away from school and studying is beneficial to the learning process. In fact,

  • regular breaks at school,
  • expansive spaced practice and repetition,
  • physical activity during one’s free time,
  • getting enough sleep,

all lead to better learning.

10. Teachers do make a difference, but they’re not the only factor.

The factors that do or do not contribute to learning are especially hard to investigate, the main reason being that all factors (the teacher’s expertise, the individual student’s aptitudes, home environment, peers, schools and principals) affect each other in so many different ways. But claiming that the teacher has the largest impact on the students (30% being even an overestimation) is certainly a myth.12

There are in fact too many things out of a teacher’s control:

  • the fact that the states’ educational policies (or lack of) usually entrust a class of poorer students to inexperienced teachers (although they sometimes make wonders13),
  • the genetic make-up of students,
  • their home situations.

However this is no excuse for the teachers to lose hope or not to keep doing their best. Their impact is certainly positive. Expert teachers do make a difference when they are able to:

  • Set appropriate goals for the students to motivate them,
  • Deeply know their domain, and how people learn, providing an excellent organisation to the course and bridging the content to other disciplines, or students’ prior knowledge.
  • Monitor more demanding students and give appropriate feedback.

Find out more:

  1. Bennett, S., Maton, K., & Kervin, L. (2008). The ‘digital natives’ debate: A critical review of the evidence. British Journal of Educational Technology, 39(5), 775–786.
  2. Jones, C., & Shao, B. (2011). The net generation and digital natives: Implications for higher education. York: Higher Education Academy.
  3. Ming-Zher Poh, Swenson, N. C., & Picard, R. W. (2010). A Wearable Sensor for Unobtrusive, Long-Term Assessment of Electrodermal Activity. IEEE Transactions on Biomedical Engineering, 57(5), 1243–1252.
  4. Masters, K. (2014). Nipping an education myth in the bud: Poh’s brain activity during lectures. Medical Teacher, 36(8), 732–735.
  5. Pennebaker, J. W., Gosling, S. D., & Ferrell, J. D. (2013). Daily Online Testing in Large Classes: Boosting College Performance while Reducing Achievement Gaps. PLoS ONE, 8(11), e79774.
  6. Bettinger, E. P., Fox, L., Loeb, S., & Taylor, E. S. (2017). Virtual Classrooms: How Online College Courses Affect Student Success. American Economic Review, 107(9), 2855–2875.
  7. Bos, N., Groeneveld, C., van Bruggen, J., & Brand-Gruwel, S. (2016). The use of recorded lectures in education and the impact on lecture attendance and exam performance. British Journal of Educational Technology, 47(5), 906–917.
  8. Abeysekera, L., & Dawson, P. (2015). Motivation and cognitive load in the flipped classroom: definition, rationale and a call for research. Higher Education Research & Development, 34(1), 1–14.
  9. Agüero, J. M., & Beleche, T. (2013). Test-Mex: Estimating the effects of school year length on student performance in Mexico. Journal of Development Economics, 103, 353–361.
  10. Huebener, M., Kuger, S., & Marcus, J. (2017). Increased instruction hours and the widening gap in student performance. Labour Economics, 47, 15–34.
  11. Dietrichson, J., Bøg, M., Filges, T., & Klint Jørgensen, A.-M. (2017). Academic Interventions for Elementary and Middle School Students With Low Socioeconomic Status. Review of Educational Research, 87(2), 243–282.
  12. Hattie, J. (2003, October). Teachers make a difference: What is the research evidence? Paper presented at the Australian Council for Educational Research Annual Conference on Building Teacher Quality, Melbourne.
  13. Dietrichson, J., Bøg, M., Filges, T., & Klint Jørgensen, A.-M. (2017). Academic Interventions for Elementary and Middle School Students With Low Socioeconomic Status. Review of Educational Research, 87(2), 243–282.
Florian Zenoni

Florian Zenoni

Florian is a Data Scientist at Wooclap, an online platform with which to stimulate classes and measure student understanding of material thanks to smartphones.