Debunking classroom myths

Lee Elliot Major, professor of social mobility at the University of Exeter, unpicks fact from fiction when it comes to what works in the classroom

Classroom myths lurk in schools like viruses – as one unfounded practice is exposed, another fad rears its ugly head. The most dangerous myths are those that have a scientific ring of truth to them. They often make intuitive sense. But behind many lie multi-million-pound industries, motivated ultimately by profits, not learning gains.

In our new book, What works? Research and evidence for successful teaching, we summarise over 8,000 studies to guide teachers on improving classroom practice. Research can tell us what has worked in the past for some classrooms but equally important is to know what hasn’t worked.

Below we list 10 common classroom myths.

  1. Group learners into sets

Grouping children into sets according to their current performance makes little difference to learning outcomes – and this is the case in maths, where setting is common, as in other subjects. In theory, it allows teachers to target a narrower range of pace and content during lessons. But in practice it creates an exaggerated sense that pupils are at the same level.

Schools also do not actually test for ability; they group on current performance. Otherwise you wouldn’t have so many summer-born children in what are called ‘low-ability’ sets. Consider carefully when you need to use the approach, and if you do, assign the best teachers to the lowest sets.

  1. Encourage re-reading and highlighting to memorise key ideas

Re-reading and highlighting are among the most common and apparently most obvious ways to memorise or revise. They give a deceptive feeling of being on top of the material. However, a range of studies have shown that testing yourself, trying to generate answers and creating intervals between study to allow forgetting are all more effective approaches.

  1. Improve confidence and aspirations before teaching content

Attempts to boost the motivation and confidence of pupils before teaching them new material won’t achieve much. The impact on subsequent learning is close to zero. Children become demotivated if they are failing in class. If they can succeed academically, they may gain confidence as well. Boosting achievement gives the learner a realistic chance of raising aspiration. Think of this as a spiral interaction: increase achievement – raise aspiration – increase achievement – raise aspiration.

  1. Teach learners in their preferred learning style

The widespread belief that students can be classified as visual, auditory or kinaesthetic learners is persistent, despite several reviews debunking learning styles. One survey found over nine in 10 teachers agreed with the claim that individuals learn better when they receive information in their preferred learning style. Yet the evidence is clear: there are no benefits from this approach. Vary the way you present information, and encourage learners to understand their strengths and capabilities, but do not limit learners by targeting what you think is their ‘style’.

  1. Ensure learners are active not passive

Beware ‘learning pyramids’. They detail precise percentages of material that will be retained when different activities are employed, or formulae showing how much people remember of what they hear, read and see. These percentages are pure fiction. If you want students to remember something you have to get them to think about it. This can be achieved by being physically ‘active’ or ‘passive’.

  1. Digital technology increases boys’ motivation

Yes, but it also improves girls motivation and engagement too. There is very little difference between the sexes in terms of the impact of digital technologies on motivation. The key question is does it increase pupils motivation to learn? Or is playing with technology just more fun than normal lessons? Technology can be used in a range of ways to support learning, but a more ‘engaged’ class may not actually be learning any faster or more efficiently.

  1. Teaching assistants don’t help pupils progress

It’s true that poorly managed and prepared teaching assistants have little impact on learning. But that’s the whole point: they need to be managed by teachers, and be prepared and trained. TAs can be invaluable secondary educators.

  1. Reducing class sizes improves learning

Reducing class sizes has surprisingly limited impact on pupils. Smaller classes work when teachers change the way they teach, catering to individual needs of pupils and receiving more feedback from children. It’s not reducing class size that matters, but how you adapt teaching style with fewer pupils. That’s why little impact is observed until class size is reduced to under 20 or even below 15 pupils per teacher.

  1. It’s always good to praise pupils

Praising pupils can feel like the right thing to do – affirming the work of learners. But studies suggest the wrong kinds of praise can do more harm than good. Praise meant to be encouraging and protective of low-attaining students conveys a message of low expectations. Criticism of poor performance can indicate a teacher’s high expectations. Praise is valued more when it is meaningful and less frequent.

  1. Allow learners to discover things for themselves

There is no evidence that discovery learning works better than other approaches. The theory is that pupils will remember something if they discover it for themselves. How easy is it to ‘discover’ French vocabulary and grammar? It may be possible, but it wouldn’t be a good use of pupils’ time.

Studies suggest teachers should actively teach new ideas, knowledge or methods – so called ‘direct instruction’. Of course, for younger children developing familiarity with materials and their properties is an important part of learning, but this does not mean that they can’t also benefit from directed and guided interaction.


‘What Works? Research and evidence for successful teaching’ by Lee Elliot Major and Steve Higgins is available from Bloomsbury Education.

W: https://www.bloomsbury.com/uk/what-works-9781472965639/