ATD Blog

How to Challenge Learning Myths

Wednesday, May 2, 2018

By now, you’ve likely heard that there are myths that continue to plague our industry, ranging across topics such as learning styles, Millennials, attention spans, and many more. They’re wrong, but rampant. What are we to do?

First, we have to recognize that these myths are harmful. If we invest time and money designing training activities that accommodate these beliefs, we’re wasting those resources. Worse, we could actually be undermining the effectiveness of our solutions.

However, changing people’s minds is not simply a matter of presenting the facts. People can be surprisingly resistant to abandoning their beliefs. In fact, if the beliefs are tied to their values, presenting contrary information can strengthen their attachment. And, if they’ve expended resources, such as having been trained or certified, or spent effort to accommodate these beliefs, they may also have a vested interest in not accepting the alternative view. Those who have a position of power—clients who are gatekeeping revenue or bosses who can arbitrarily dictate—may be unwilling to consider the situation.

This presents a dilemma. How do you convince others?

Yet persist we must. Not only for the reasons above, but also because the status of our field is at stake. When we follow misinformed science, we undermine our credibility. People typically don’t make strategic decisions on astrological forecasts, nor build businesses on alchemical aspirations. Similarly, we need a sound scientific basis for our decisions on creating learning.

Before engaging, first we must know the science, or be forearmed with documentation. We must be prepared to present the data that debunks the myths. That’s not enough, however; we must also strategize how to present it.

Research suggests several pointers. For one, we should reflect back the original viewpoint. What’s the core of this myth that makes this plausible, and how do we acknowledge it? For example, if we’re older, we see differences in young people. They do differ. We can start from there before we go on to talk about stereotyping and variation.


It also helps if folks come to the new view themselves. Can you lead them to their own understanding? If we talk about brain training, can we point out that in physical exercise, the muscles we work on develop, but the ones we don’t work on don’t spontaneously develop as well. From there, we could lead people to see that the same is true of the brain, and there’s no “transfer” of growth to areas that have not been worked on. Thus, practice on certain types of activities doesn’t improve other parts of cognitive functioning; train what you need!

Being specific with examples can be helpful too. Can you use a concrete example to make it tangible and real? Even a thought experiment that puts it into play can be useful. So, for brain hemispheres, you might talk about people who are both artistic and logical, and others who seem to be neither. Or, when people bring up the idea that learners have the attention span of a goldfish, ask them about playing computer games or watching movies for hours at a time.

Qualifying what you’re saying makes sense as well. What are the limits? “Men and women do differ, on average, in brain characteristics, but the variance is more than the difference.” Or “Current theory has evolution, even working in short bursts instead of the continuous model, still taking much longer than the changes they’re proposing for the effects of digital technology on our cognitive architecture.”

Putting this together, here’s an approach for learning styles. First, we can agree that learners differ, and work from there. Something like:


Anyone who has taught knows that learners clearly are different. What has not yet been done is to identify the differences systematically. The problem is that learners change by context, topic, mood, and so on. What’s more, trying to adapt to learners isn’t the most effective approach. Science shows that the best investment is to design for the learning outcome you need, not the learner.

Here you’ve acknowledged the core of their belief, indicated where they’re off track, and pointed them in a useful direction. There are no guarantees, sadly, but you’ve respected and assisted them.

You have to understand that you won’t always succeed, particularly against a financially vested interest; but with practice and effort, you stand a chance. Help them see what’s attractive and where it diverges and give them a useful alternative approach. Good learning design, after all, is what ultimately will achieve our ends.

Want to learn more? Join me May 24th for my webcast to discuss my new book Millennials, Goldfish & Other Misconceptions. We’ll skewer a few of the more popular myths, and give you a basis to proceed that’s based upon research, not hype.

About the Author

Clark Quinn, Ph.D. is the Executive Director of Quinnovation, Co-Director of the Learning Development Accelerator, Chief Learning Strategist for Upside Learning, and a co-author of the Serious eLearning Manifesto. With more than four decades of experience at the cutting edge of learning, Dr. Quinn is an internationally-recognized speaker, consultant, and author of seven books. He combines a deep knowledge of cognitive science and broad experience with technology into strategic design solutions that achieve innovative yet practical outcomes for corporations, higher-education, not-for-profit, and government organizations.

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Well said, Clark. I will now be better equipped to "persuade" my industry colleagues who are financially invested in some of these myths. I'll let you know how it goes!
Please do. Thanks!
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This is wonderful Clark. I stand with you in the need to crush the myths and get the truth out there in very comprehensible ways. I was so determined to do this, that I quit my job at a director level and studied Neuroscience for nearly 3years straight. Now armed with the credentials and a world of new knowledge on how to better approach not only the myths, but my designs, coaching and facilitation methods, I am determined to spread the good word!
Good for you, Lauren. Congrats, and best of luck!
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