Zombie Ideas in Education

Recently in the ASCD blog, Bryan Goodwin published an interesting article in which he identified six “zombie” ideas in education, those ideas that “keep returning to life, despite researchers’ best efforts to put them six feet under.” Below are excerpts from this piece:

(Un)dead idea #1: Students have different learning styles

Serious research has found little evidence students use so-called “intelligences” in one field (like dance) to learn another (like astronomy), or that people learn best with experiences that match their learning style (Pashler et al., 2008). Yes, kids are different. And yes, we sometimes prefer one way of learning over another (group vs. independent work, for instance), but that does not mean we learn better with a particular modality. At best, research shows benefits from learning in multiple ways—for example, reading about a scientific phenomenon, seeing it in a video, and experiencing it.

We might put this zombie idea to rest by substituting the word preference for the word style and noting that preferences are just that. Preferences.

(Un)dead idea #2: Students learn best through unguided discovery

A meta-analysis of 164 studies found students learned significantly more from direct instruction than from unassisted discovery learning (Alfieri et al., 2011). Further, this kind of minimally guided learning—that is, giving students a complex problem to solve with little prior instruction—is particularly ineffective for lower-performing and younger students, as they tend to learn skills incorrectly and develop misconceptions (Kirschner, Sweller, & Clark, 2006).

The best approach (even better than direct instruction) is “guided discovery”—providing students with learning objectives, direct instruction, modeled examples, and feedback during the process of discovery, thus ensuring they develop accurate conclusions and proper skills (Alfieri et al., 2011).

(Un)dead idea #3: Students should learn to read through authentic reading

Decades of research point to a straightforward approach to teaching reading, based on these key principles:

· The fundamental building block of reading is being able to make sound-symbol connections (Castles, Rastle, & Nation, 2018).

· There is nothing intuitive about the connections between symbols (letters) and sounds (phonemes), so we must teach them directly to students (Moats, 1999).

· Students must practice making these connections through reading and writing practice until they become automatic in their brains, allowing them to read fluently (Castles, Rastle, & Nation, 2018).

· Ultimately, fluency is the key to comprehension; only when students read with automaticity can they comprehend what they’re reading (Castles, Rastle, & Nation, 2018).

(Un)dead idea #4: Students don’t need facts, just critical thinking skills

Student critical thinking isn’t a skill in the typical sense of the word—something learned in one area that transfers easily to another (Abrami et al., 2015). Rather, it tends to be interwoven with domain-specific knowledge. Students employ scientific thinking with science knowledge, textual analysis with literature, quantitative reasoning in mathematics, and so on. Students must think critically about something—namely, facts and content knowledge.

(Un)dead idea #5: If it’s worth teaching, it’s worth grading

Grades have a finality to them. They imply something is finished and hence ready to be certified with a number or a letter. Yet learning is iterative—it’s less a process of learning and more one of re-learning from mistakes and experimentation. You wouldn’t grade an artist in the midst of creating a masterpiece (“Looks like a block of marble to me, Michelangelo”), but that is, in effect, what we do when we grade learning at every step along the way.

(Un)dead idea #6: Smaller classes are better

This last zombie idea is hard to kill because it’s true—at least in theory. Students are better off in small classes. A comprehensive review of class-size research (Whitehurst & Chingos, 2011), for example, concluded that significant reductions in class size (shrinking classes by as much as seven to ten students per class) can result in significant, positive effects on achievement—equivalent to three months of improvement in learning over a nine-month school year.

But teacher quality has far more effect on student learning than smaller class sizes. Students can gain as much as a year’s worth of additional learning in a classroom with a highly effective teacher than with a highly ineffective one (Hanushek, 2011). In fact, school systems might actually be better off increasing class sizes to be able to recruit and retain great teachers with higher pay.  

For more, see https://www.ascd.org/el/articles/zombie-ideas-in-education