There are a number of myths regarding teaching, training and learning that have been around for years and just won’t seem to go away. In some cases it is simply a matter of, “you don’t know what you don’t know”. You have heard some of these terms and references for years and in some cases from some highly educated and credentialed individuals. You have even read them in books written by some smart people. You may even have been taught these in some of your instructor certification and instructor development courses I know I was. I have been guilty of perpetuating some of these myths in the past. I have written about these before, but I continue to hear them so I wanted to share this information again so we as a training community can move on from them.
Muscle Memory – Muscles don’t have memory. As Andrew Huberman PhD, a professor of Neurobiology and Ophthalmology at the Stanford School of Medicine and Founder of the Huberman Lab at Stanford says, “There is no such thing as muscle memory. Muscles are dumb. They don’t have a history or a memory. It is the neurons that control those muscles and their firing patterns in which all of the information for motor patterns are stored. It is therefore neural memory, not muscle memory.”
In the interview for The Excellence in Training Academy talking about myths of motor learning Dr. Lee explained, “Skills and motor skills that we retain are a result of changes in the brain, new neural connections being made over time and that, working with the central nervous system allows us to perform motor skills in skilled ways. Skills aren’t store in the muscles, they are stored in the brain.” Lee uses the example of writing your name to explain why muscle memory is a myth. While you generally write your name with your dominant hand you can also write it with your non-dominant hand, your big toe in the sand at the beach and with a paintbrush held between your teeth. While they would not all look exactly the same, there would be consistent traits in all of them. If memories were stored only in the muscles of your dominant hand you would not be able to do this.
The same is true for the first time you fired a gun, used a conductive energy weapon, handcuffs or a baton with your non dominant hand. It may have felt a little awkward but you did not have to relearn the skill because the memory of how to do it was stored in the muscles of your dominant hand and arm. The neural connections already existed so you were able to perform the skill.
Perfect Practice Makes Perfect – If we want to make the most out of practice then there has to be some struggle, some friction, some mistakes from pushing to the outer edges of our skill level, followed by reflection and inherent (internal) and / or augmented (external) feedback. If you are trying to be perfect in practice then you are likely not pushing yourself, learning and growing. There is also no such thing as “perfect” in performance or in the real world we live and work in. Tim Lee reinforced Anders Ericsson’s philosophy that making mistakes, correcting mistakes and getting feedback from coaches (augmented), or from yourself (inherent feedback), and to not just repeat, but change and specifically improve parts of your performance that you think are lacking is key to improving. Dr. Lee explained, “Some people have this underlying belief that by making errors in practice you are learning to make errors and I think nothing could be further from the truth. By making errors I think you’re exposing things that you need to work on, things that you need to learn, things that you need to learn about yourself and how you go about making corrections. Avoiding those in practice or training avoids the opportunity to expose those weaknesses. The problem is that they are going to get exposes sooner or later and if they are exposed out in the real world the consequences are much more dramatic and dangerous than they are in training.” He went on to say, “I think avoiding errors in training is probably one of the single biggest mistakes and myths that we make in training.”
“Desirable Difficulties” is a concept referenced in much of the literature on how humans best learn and retain information. The concept of Desirable Difficulties was first introduced in 1994 by UCLA psychology professor Robert Bjork. Bjork shows that conditions that lead to learning and retention create challenges and slow the rate of apparent learning, making them uncomfortable, but necessary challenges. Desirable difficulties include concepts of variability in the learning conditions, interleaving, spaced practice and testing (retrieval practice).
Learning Styles – Almost every law enforcement trainer I have asked, confirmed that they were told in Instructor Development training that people are either an auditory, visual or kinaesthetic learner. This however, is not supported by the research. This myth is debunked in numerous books on learning. Below are excerpts from two books and an article on this topic.
From Make it Stick: The Science of Successful learning By Brown, Roediger and McDaniel:
“The popular notion that you learn better when you receive instruction in a form consistent with your preferred learning style, for example as an auditory or visual learner, is not supported by the empirical research. People do have multiple forms of intelligence to bring to bear on learning, and you learn better when you “go wide,” drawing on all of your aptitudes and resourcefulness, than when you limit instruction or experience to the style you find most amenable.”
From Urban Myths about Learning and Education By Bruyckere, Kirschner, and Hulshof
“First, there is a great difference between the way that someone says he or she prefers to learn and that which actually leads to better learning.”
“In 1982, Clark found in a meta-analysis of studies using learner preference for selecting particular instructional methods that learner preference was typically uncorrelated or negatively correlated with learning and learning outcomes. That is, learners who reported preferring a particular instructional technique typically did not derive any instructional benefit from experiencing it. Frequently, as Clark later explained, so-called mathemathantic (from the Greek mathema, learning, and thanatos, death) effects are found; that is, teaching kills learning when instructional methods match a preferred but unproductive learning style.”
“This is a particularly stubborn myth. Rohrer and Pashler summarize it as follows: “The contrast between the enormous popularity of the learning style approach in education and the lack of any credible scientific proof to support its use is both remarkable and disturbing”
From the April 2018 article in The Atlantic titled The Myth of ‘Learning Styles’: A popular theory that some people learn better visually or aurally keeps getting debunked.
“There’s evidence that people do try to treat tasks in accordance with what they believe to be their learning style, but it doesn’t help them,” Daniel Willingham, a psychologist at the University of Virginia, told me. In 2015, he reviewed the literature on learning styles and concluded that “learning styles theories have not panned out.”
“This doesn’t mean everyone is equally good at every skill, of course. Really, Willingham said, people have different abilities, not styles. Some people read better than others; some people hear worse than others. But most of the tasks that we encounter are really suited to only one type of learning. You can’t visualize a perfect French accent, for example.”
“The “learning styles” idea has snowballed—as late as 2014, more than 90 percent of teachers in various countries believed it. The concept is intuitively appealing, promising to reveal secret brain processes with just a few questions. Strangely, most research on learning styles starts out with a positive portrayal of the theory—before showing it doesn’t work.”
“Willingham goes so far as to say that people should stop thinking of themselves as visual, verbal, or some other kind of learner. “It’s not like anything terrible is going to happen to you [if you do buy into learning styles],” he said, but there’s not any benefit to it, either. “Everyone is able to think in words; everyone is able to think in mental images. It’s much better to think of everyone having a toolbox of ways to think, and think to yourself, which tool is best?””
The 10,000 Hour Rule – There is no 10,000 Rule. This is a phrase created by the author Malcolm Gladwell in his 2008 book Outliers: The Story of Success. Gladwell claimed it was based on the work of Anders Ericsson, a Swedish psychologist and Professor of Psychology at Florida State University. Ericsson is recognized as the world’s foremost authority on deliberate practice and is an expert in the field of professional development. Gladwell took a small slice of Ericsson’s work, misinterpreted it, coined the term “The 10,000 Hour Rule” and a myth was born. Ericsson worked to dispel that myth from the time Gladwell published that book in 2008 until Ericsson’s death in June of 2020. Ericsson’s position was that people who have obtained expertise in an area of performance generally do so after hundreds, or thousands of hours of purposeful and deliberate practice and they continue to enhance their skills through continued deliberate practice. As trainers we need to pay attention to Dr. Ericsson’s work on Purposeful and Deliberate Practice and stop the myth of the 10,000 Hour Rule. Ericsson’s book Peak: Secrets from the new science of expertise, is a good read to understand his work and the concepts of purposeful and deliberate practice.
It is important for all of us as trainers to strive to be aware of the best evidence as it pertains to teaching, learning, understanding, retaining and application of skills and information. If we become aware of a substantial body of research that disproves something we have been taught, or believe to be true, we need to be willing to change our beliefs and share the accurate information. We owe it to our training participants, our organizations, the profession and ourselves.
Personally, the more I learn the more I realize how much I do not know, which inspires me to keep learning.
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