Learning myths — busted!

Learning myths have been prevalent in our industry for decades. Some fade away only to be replaced by others. Are learning professionals particularly susceptible to embracing these myths and, if so, then why? Judith Christian-Carter considers this and some current learning myths, including the urgent need for all of us not to embrace them but to challenge them.

It has always been a matter of considerable intrigue as to why so many learning professionals continue to embrace, usually without question, the many myths about learning. Of course, as professionals, we all need to know about and understand how people learn, especially with regard to adults and in today’s workplaces. However, while various theories about how people learn abound, all of which are useful even though not proven, there are also some potentially dangerous misunderstandings about how people learn. It is these misunderstandings that create myths and they are all to do with the psychology and science of learning.

Many learning professionals find themselves working in learning and development (L&D) almost by default. While some may have a teaching background and associated qualifications, and consequently will have a thorough grounding in the psychology and science of learning, a large number will not, which makes them easy targets for those who generate and promote learning myths. These learning professionals know they need to understand how people learn but are often not in a position to be able to sort the learning wheat from the chaff. Consequently, they readily embrace learning myths and continue to promote them. Even when these myths are challenged and exposed as such, they refuse to change their beliefs and still cling desperately to them, sometimes with extreme anger and contempt towards the challenger.

Here are five common learning myths, which are challenged below.

  1. Pseudoscience.

  2. Pyramid of learning.

  3. Learning process.

  4. Neuro-linguistic programming (NLP).

  5. Learning styles.


While much is known about the human brain and how it works, all of which helps learning professionals, it is also the case that at the same time there is a considerable amount of pseudoscience being promulgated. In particular, beware of any organisation which talks about tapping into the 90% of the brain that people do not use, or which offers to help to accelerate the learning process, as both of these are in the pseudoscience category.

Instead, in order to learn about the brain, learning professionals need to study subjects such as neuroscience, learning psychology and cognitive science. They also need to make sure that the sources they use are of good repute, ie are based on sound academic research and are written/presented by known experts in the relevant field.

Pyramid of learning

This is a classic misconception about learning. It shows typical learning activities with their associated retention rates.

This is often translated into the frequently heard: “People remember 10% of what they read, 20% of what they hear, 30% of what they see and 90% of what they do.” The problem with this, apart from the very convenient whole percentage numbers, is that there is no scientific evidence whatsoever to prove the pyramid’s hypotheses and it is highly unlikely that there ever will be.

Learning process

It is known that learning is an ongoing process; it is not a spasmodic occurrence. Yet, so many organisations, in particular, corporate ones, this fact is not recognised in practice. For example, take the annual performance review, where an individual’s performance is assessed against objectives or indicators, and then training courses or other learning activities are recommended to plug any gaps.

Such procedures fly in the face of learning as a process, something that takes place continually and which requires people’s progress to be assessed on a regular basis. The often called “sheep dip” approach to training is a top-down process, which bears no resemblance to how people learn. Working adults learn best through constant interaction with others, including managers, and through mutual support structures and feedback.

Neuro-linguistic programming

This one is an old but still lingering learning myth. NLP was created by Bandler and Grinder in the 1970s as an approach to communication, personal development and psychotherapy. There is no scientific evidence which supports the claims made by those who advocate NLP and it has been discredited as a pseudoscience by a number of experts, in that it is based on out-dated figures of speech of how the brain works that are inconsistent with current neurological theory and contain numerous factual errors.

Regardless of this overwhelming scientific criticism, NLP continues to be promoted and marketed by companies that run seminars and workshops on management training for corporate organisations. Moreover, learning professionals are still being encouraged to become NLP Master Practitioners or NLP Master Trainers through an existing multitude of certifying associations, which, in turn, have been described as “granfalloons”, ie proud and meaningless associations of human beings.

Learning styles

Like NLP, the myth of learning styles has been around for decades. Many learning professionals still believe that individuals have particular styles of learning and if they match their training/learning methods with these styles then they will be far more effective. However, not only does actual practice and experience show such a belief to be both false and misleading, recent research has now proved it to be the case.

Not only are there many models of learning styles, with some countries preferring one model to others, an individual’s learning style (or preference) is highly subjective and possibly unique to them. This means that even trying to slot them into neatly defined broad categories is completely flawed. Likewise, is the assumption that the link between learning styles and learning methods is linear, stable and unchanging. Learning professionals have their own preferences, biases and existing knowledge, as well as their own cognitive deficiencies, all of which influence the learning of others.

Challenging these learning myths

Relying on learning myths, whether consciously or unconsciously, at the very least serves to put obstacles in the way of the natural process of learning. Promoting such myths and refusing to take heed of the lack of scientific evidence is even worse and does major harm to the learning profession worldwide. It should be the role of learning professionals everywhere to question all learning theories, particularly as they are evolving constantly. Part and parcel of their job is always to be on guard, to look for reliable and proven evidence and, when none is found, to challenge and dispel any learning myth.

While this may sound to be a very tall order, especially for those learning professionals with a lack of knowledge and experience, it is far easier today than ever before to find the information and support you need. “Google” the learning topic to see if it is a myth and read articles and blogs on the topic to find out what others, particularly well-known luminaries, are thinking and saying. If you need additional support, in particular resources and links to scientific counterarguments, then join “The Debunker Club”*, originally set-up by Will Thalheimer, PhD, with the aim of helping to clean up the learning field. Under the “Debunking Resources” tab there is already a growing and impressive list of common learning misconceptions, including some of those mentioned above.

* www.debunker.club (Will Thalheimer’s Debunker’s Club)