Education Myths Hinder Learning

7 Myths                                      A Mind for Numbers

“We’ve got to drop rote memorization and teach critical thinking!”

How often we hear the above sentiment or some variation thereof.  Unfortunately this popular anti-memorization cliché is one of several education myths that may actually prevent the kind of critical thinking educators claim they want to teach.

In her book, Seven Myths About Education, UK educator Daisy Christodoulou analyzes several destructive trends in modern schooling, many of which are related to an antipathy to memorization and core knowledge.  She provides examples of how myths like “facts prevent understanding,” or “you can always just look it up” permeate schools in both the U.S. and the U.K.

But contrary to popular belief, these so-called new ideas for “21st Century” education are actually rehashed, re-packaged educational theory from the 18th and 19th centuries, including theory from the problematic architect of the American public school system, John DeweyDewey although often vague, essentially set up a false dichotomy in which facts and knowledge (bad) are diametrically opposed to critical thinking (good).  He also promoted the idea that students should learn transferable skills instead of knowledge.  Applying Deweyan ideas, some modern curricula have literally called for “lessons in walking, digging and planting wheat” to replace rote learning in traditional academics. *

While digging and planting wheat may certainly be valuable skills, (and one hopes walking skills can still be acquired sans government-approved curricula,) memorization of traditional academic knowledge is not only not antithetical to so-called critical thinking, it is essential to it.

In her book, “A Mind for Numbers: How to Excel at Math and Science,” Professor Barbara Oakley uses neuroscience to explain the role of rote memorization.  With few exceptions, the working memory can only juggle about 4 pieces of information at a time, but sufficient information stored in the long-term memory supplements the thinking process and allows for greater flexibility and understanding of new information.  Rote memorization is the process by which we put necessary background information into the long-term memory, and which consequently allows for more advanced processes in the working memory.  Without those background facts, students are unequipped for higher level thinking.  And as for the myth that students can just “look up” missing information, to borrow another but better supported cliché, “you don’t know what you don’t know.”

Christodoulou and Oakley both emphasize that more lessons from neuroscience need to be applied to improving education.  Unfortunately, as Christodoulou notes, modern pedagogy seems more heavily reliant on unproven (and sometimes disproven) social theory.  She includes this ominous quote from Nobel Prize-winning researcher Herbert Simon:

New ‘theories’ of education are introduced into schools every day (without labeling them as experiments) on the basis of their philosophical or common-sense plausibility but without genuine empirical support.

By contrast, Dr. Oakley offers scientifically proven techniques for improving learning and memorization, such as the “memory palace,” mnemonic strategy, or just taking old-fashioned hand-written notes.    While neither Christodoulou nor Oakley eschews technology, both authors recognize that technological devices are mere tools that offer limited value, and may actually interfere with learning.  Recent studies indicate that reading on electronic devices not only reduces comprehension, but may reduce the brain’s ability to read, and might negatively impact learning as early as the toddler years.  Apparently unaware of these studies, many K-12 educators have been positively giddy about providing E-devices to “teach technology” for the “21st Century.”  Meanwhile, a growing number of professors and enlightened teachers have banned laptops,  tablets, and smartphones from their classrooms due to reduced achievement and the constant distraction such devices seem to create.

Parents exploring their educational options would benefit from reading both Seven Myths About Education and A Mind for Numbers before choosing a school.  School leaders who understand the difference between education myths and proven scientific studies on learning can make a significant difference in student success.  Ironically, classical education, which rejects edu-fads in favor of the ancient trivium of learning, correlates with what the latest neuroscience suggests.  The classical model provides younger students with various techniques to memorize facts about math, history, culture, geography, science, etc.  In the middle school years students learn about and begin to apply logic to the knowledge they’ve stored.  Finally, in high school, or the “rhetoric stage,” they engage in discussion and analysis.  That latter rhetoric stage is where critical thinking can really take place, but it would not be possible without the core knowledge students stored in long-term memory during the first two stages.

In evaluating educational models, parents, educators, and legislators should reject the misguided myths outlined by Christodoulou.  The truth is that the 21st century did not “change everything.”  We may have new tools at our disposal, but neuroscience shows that the human brain hasn’t morphed into some new unknown creature.  Memorization and practice are still essential elements of learning and prepare students for the kind of higher level thinking we all claim to value.



*Daisy Christodoulou, Seven Myths About Education (New York:  Routledge 2014), 17.

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