8 myths holding back innovation in teaching

At the World Education Summit, Guy Claxton reveals the myths he believes are preventing positive change in education

Tes Reporter

At the World Education Summit, Guy Claxton outlined the eight myths that he believes are stopping innovation in teaching

School classrooms have always been places of constant change, and veteran teachers who have clocked up five or more years of teaching will be able to attest to the changes they've seen since they first picked up their board pens.

So, it makes sense to predict that more change is coming – and to embrace it.

However, Professor Guy Claxton, cognitive scientist and education author, foresees some obstacles slowing down the changes that need to come: “The future of teaching will be different,” he said. “But there is a log jam preventing innovation in teaching.”

Speaking at the World Education Summit, Claxton explained how he feels that the delay to progress is caused by persistent myths, the prevalence of which prevents teachers from innovating in their classroom teaching. 

But what are these myths, and why do they prevail? Claxton outlined what he sees as the main obstacles in his talk, which we have outlined below.

The myths that hold teaching back

Myth 1: The mind is like a computer

Claxton said the human mind is not like a computer, and cannot be compared to one.

“Evolutionarily, there is not much question that understanding things and making sense of things is what the brain is designed to do,” Claxton said.

“Remembering things you don’t understand, and that have no significance and have no salience for you, and that make no connection with the enormous web of impressions and ideas and opinions and understandings that are pre-existent in your brain, is a rather weird thing to do.”

WATCH: Guy Claxton on learning power and teaching with attitude


Myth 2: Memorisation frees up working memory

Claxton said a popular idea shared among teachers who subscribe to a traditional approach is that memorising key facts allows the brain to be "freed up" to focus on other things, and this belief prevents innovation.

“The idea that memorisation frees up working memory and reduces cognitive load is not true,” he said. “The problem is ‘working memory’ is not a place. Memory does not imply memorisation.”

Myth 3: Knowledge is about learning facts

Teaching cannot move forward while there are teachers who try to "ram facts” into their students, because it will not make them more knowledgeable, Claxton said.

The myth that knowledge is a series of facts is harmful, and facts are only good for pub quizzes. Indeed, he went as far as to say that teaching children facts to memorise should only be used as a “last resort”.

Myth 4: You have to teach facts before students can think and discuss

Following on from this, he argued that when a teacher begins to introduce a new topic or concept, beginning with facts is not a necessary step for the learners. “Understanding is developed through thinking and talking,” Claxton said.

“Some people say learning dates and key facts will be of immense use [to understand history], and I don’t think learning a list of dates and a couple of random facts is ever going to add up to historical understanding.”

Instead, Claxton suggested that students should be learning about the context, and building up a network for which the facts make sense.

Myth 5: There is no such thing as generic mental skills

The knowledge versus skills debate is partly redundant, said Claxton, because the idea that skills cannot be transferred is incorrect.

Claxton said there are ways to make skills transferable if taught in an explicit way, and time and effort should be put into highlighting to students where the skills they learn are transferable.

Myth 6: You can disregard skills and just teach content

Following on from this, he outlined his belief that skills like empathy can be taught alongside the content of the lesson and should not be seen as mutually exclusive.

“When teaching history, a teacher will also be teaching empathy,” suggested Claxton. “When teaching a child to read, you’re also teaching a love of reading.”

Myth 7: Developing skills competes with knowledge

Claxton said the development of skills should be not seen as a competition with knowledge. By way of analogy, he compared the development of knowledge to a river bed, with each separate part forming a different layer while also being part of the same system. These aren’t factors that operate in competition with each other, but rather exist together – something education should recognise more readily.

Myth 8: There are only two kinds of teaching

Most teachers know good teaching is nuanced and that different approaches are used at different times, said Claxton.

“Polarisation is unnecessary and misleading. Direct Instruction has its place, and cognitive science says taking many different approaches is the best approach.”

As such, he said that dividing teaching styles into traditional and progressive is unhelpful, and discarding this view will help any future changes be judged on merit, not through the prism of pre-established position.

“Leapfrogging over narrow conceptions will lead us to better teaching,” added Claxton.

Professor Guy Claxton was speaking at the World Education Summit. Tes is the official media partner for the event

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