The Myths of Learning Are Informed by what Students Experience

As a full-time education consultant, Allison Zmuda works with educators to grow ideas on how to make learning for students challenging, possible and worthy of the attempt. Over the past 19 years, Zmuda has shared curricular, assessment, and instructional ideas, shown illustrative examples, and offered practical strategies of how to get started.

Facebook Twitter LinkedIn Google+ YouTube 


By Allison Zmuda

Learning is not the product of teaching; it is the product of the learner. You have to volunteer for the experience. That is very different from the “carrot and stick” mentality that dominates many schools around the country right now. A place where students generally are:

  • asking what the teacher wants and doing what is expected
  • working to get through to the next hurdle (assignment, grade level)
  • focusing on one subject and one topic at a time
  • training to get good at school (so they can graduate and attend more school)

This type of education is training students to be low-level bureaucrats — the goal is to make it through learning experiences rather than inspiring you to think deeply through problems, challenges, and texts to produce something meaningful.

When students experience this “bureaucratic” education over and over again, they may have picked up one (or several) of these nine myths about learning. This would be interesting to discuss in your opening days of schools for upper elementary – high school students. The student directions might be…

As you read the nine myths, consider:

  • Which of these myths have you experienced?
  • On the margins of the page, give concrete examples to illustrate the connections.


Nine Myths from Breaking Free

Myth #1: The rules of this classroom and subject area are determined by each teacher. Many students see classroom rules, protocols, scoring tools, and expectations as driven by the teacher’s personal choice about how to structure the learning environment. This perception is profoundly different from seeing them as expectations driven by a specific discipline—what professionals in the field do to create, develop, and analyze ideas and information; produce quality work; and communicate effectively with others.


Myth #2: What the teacher wants me to say is more important than what I want to say. Students come to believe that if they can figure out what the teacher wants, likes, and thinks, they will succeed in the class. Many have learned to stifle their own points of view, ideas, creative impulses, and problem-solving approaches, deeming them unworthy of pursuit. Students who adopt this way of thinking often elicit direction from the teacher to ensure that their work “fits” what the teacher wants.


Myth #3: The point of an assignment is to get it done so that it’s off the to-do list. Students who believe this axiom typically feel as if they are drowning in work—there are always more problems, more readings, and more tasks to complete. They become overwhelmed by the volume of work and the scarcity of time, feeling significant stress about how to manage the completion of their assignments.


Myth #4: If I make a mistake, my job is only to replace it with the right answer.

Students who think this way routinely erase incorrect answers during class work or homework reviews and replace them with the correct answers. These students do not attempt to learn what went wrong in the original attempt or to confirm whether, in fact, their response was a legitimate alternative approach.


Myth #5: I feel proud of myself only if I receive a good grade.

Students use grades to identify and sort themselves as learners: being a straight-(or C or F) student becomes an identity, not just a grade point average. Often, students only glance at the comments that accompany their grades even though this explicit feedback is the most time-consuming for teachers to communicate as well as a powerful tool for students to use to improve their performance on similar tasks.


Myth #6: Speed is synonymous with intelligence. Students who hold this belief watch other students finish first and become envious. Often these students either try to work at a pace that is unnatural for them—too quickly to focus on the details, nuances, development, and mechanics of the task—or they work at their own pace but berate themselves for being slow or stupid. This generalization is further magnified when students feel little connection to the work that they are doing in the first place.


Myth #7: If I get too far behind, I will never catch up. Students who believe this assume that teachers and other students label, sort, group, and schedule them differently than other students. They think that teachers are giving them easier work, which only widens the gap between them and their peers. While their struggles may be normal given the complexity of the subject matter, lack of prior knowledge, or disconnect with personal frame of reference, the farther behind a student becomes, the more frustrating he or she is to teach.


Myth #8: The way I want to be seen by my classmates affects the way I conduct myself as a learner. Students who think this way project an image of what learning is like for them that may or may not reflect their genuine experience. Students and teachers alike become accustomed to the character the learner plays with little consideration as to its authenticity.


Myth #9: What I’m learning in school doesn’t have much to do with my life, but it isn’t supposed to—it’s school. Students who think this way have resigned themselves to the idea that school is boring. School is what happens in between more meaningful learning experiences, such as communicating with friends, researching topics of personal interest, and learning how to solve authentic problems in their own lives.


Impact of these myths on learning

What impact do these myths have on students? One student described her job as a learner as doing “bad karaoke” of what the teacher already thinks. Another described learning as “going down a path walking in someone else’s footsteps.” A third student stated, “If the students had more to say in what they think, then the teachers might learn more of what they think instead of just saying that they’re right or wrong. If we had more of an opinion, the teachers might learn more of what we think of certain things and could make their lessons more interesting so they could have more engaged learners.” This passivity erodes students’ engagement, focus and achievement over time and makes it difficult to engage them in developing profound questions, big ideas, innovative approaches, and creative expressions when given the opportunity.


Call to action

As educators, use the Act, Learn, Build cycle to establish and grow a learning environment that pushes students to think, to explore, to struggle, and to share. For, the point of school is to have students wisely and strategically apply their content to solve real-world, messy problems. That is where the magic is — relevance, rigor, and (most importantly) joy.


0 0 votes
Article Rating
Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments