Myths Matter Mostly at the Margin

Bad_MarginsPeriodically, when somebody tries to confront an educational myth or misconception, they are rebuffed with the claim that they are attacking a straw man and that nobody really holds the false belief in question.

So, for example, we are told that nobody really believes that “students don’t need knowledge because they can always Google information if necessary” so we should just give the argument a rest and admit that search engines are awesome.

Harry Webb has recently been doing an admirable job of demonstrating that many people really do at least talk as if they really hold various misconceptions, which suggests that the supposed “straw men” are in fact very real and worthy of debunking.

Still, it’s worth remembering that misconceptions, especially in education, are rarely “all or nothing”; individuals can be said to possess a misconception and yet still frequently act as if they hold the correct conception. In such cases the danger posed by the misconception is not that it will always dominate a person’s decision-making, but that it will lead them astray in marginal cases.

Consider the “you can always just Google it” myth. My experience is that even teachers who talk as if they hold the purest form of the misconception nevertheless provide their students with some background knowledge in their classrooms.

Or think about the claim that “inquiry/discovery learning is superior to direct instruction”. Science teachers say things like that all the time, but I have yet to meet a science teacher who does not rely on direct instruction to some degree or another.

Is this evidence that the misconceptions aren’t “real”? Of course not. It’s just that people hold simultaneously – and make decisions on the basis of – many, and often contradictory, beliefs.

This doesn’t mean that individual misconceptions aren’t important, just that they are important mostly in situations where a person’s decision-making could “go either way”. A person who believes “you can always just Google it” will tend as a result to emphasize knowledge somewhat less in the classroom. A believer in discovery learning will tend to allocate a bit less instructional time to lecture and a bit more to less-guided problem solving. And so on.

The problem, in other words, isn’t that lots of teachers are abandoning entirely facts and knowledge in their classrooms. Rather, the problem is that a great many teachers are having their instruction systematically – and deletriously – biased away from facts and knowledge at the margin as a result of the misconception’s prevalence. Kids are still being taught facts, and the extent to which they are taught facts still varies across classrooms, but the misconception is shifting the entire distribution in the direction of less knowledge.

All of which is to say that while it’s worth highlighting the most egregious examples of widely-held misconceptions, you don’t have to hold an extreme version of a misconception to have your behavior biased by it.

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One Comment

  1. ChrisN
    Posted March 17, 2014 at 10:25 AM | Permalink

    Fantastic post.

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