Donald Taylor has raised the issue of learning myths on his blog and it has prompted some interesting comments. Although I’ve already commented on Donald’s post, I thought that it was worth exploring in a little more details since it links closely to my post about the need to bring a broader spectrum of people into the learning and development profession.
Donald highlighted three learning myths in particular:
And there’s many more that could be added to those three.
Why are such myths so widespread? What makes them attractive?
One of the main reasons is that not enough people are given the necessary training in critical thinking skills to analyse these claims with a sceptical eye. This isn’t unique to learning and development; as a society we’re too quick to take the word of journalists or people presented as ‘experts’ who are nothing of the sort .
Another reason for the popularity of these learning myths is that they are ‘sticky’ ideas – they contain elements that are inherently attractive to us.
Firstly, they have the surprise factor; all these learning myths have something that would surprise someone the very first time they heard them.
Secondly, they sound like there’s some kind of scientific basis for them; indeed, many of those who pass on these ideas will say things like “research has shown …” or “scientists have found …”
Finally, they are easy to remember and understand; there’s no complexity in these ideas, no shades of grey or exceptions to be found. They can be gobbled up and regurgitated without much effort or thought.
The ‘stickiness’ of certain ideas is a lesson that marketeers have learned and refined over decades, but it seems to me that they’re being used in the wrong way here. It’s fine to skimp on the detail when it’s obvious that something is being sold; people know to ask for more detail in these situations. However, passing on myths in the context of learning reduces our understanding over time and embeds exactly the wrong sort of thinking in the L&D profession.
However, there are opportunities here for L&D as well. These myths abound because of a skills gap. They cost us money because every decision made on the basis of faulty information will more likely than not cause problems down the line – just look at what happened to the banks.
So, how do we equip staff with the necessary higher order skills needed to lead and manage in the complex modern economy? How do we ensure that decisions made in our organisations are based on sound information and not hocus pocus? These are questions and challenges for learning professionals and I’ve no doubt that as a profession we’re up to the task. We just need to get up to speed a bit more quickly than we’re doing at the moment.
Posted by Owen for Peter
 Take the claim in today’s newspapers that one espresso can put your heart at risk. This story seems to come from a reputable source and there’s information about milligrams of caffeine and percentage reduction in blood flow. But how many people realise that a small study of 20 people in laboratory conditions isn’t that valid? Or ponder how interesting it is that the research was conducted in Italy, famous for its coffee culture, where the incidence of heart problems is amongst the lowest in the world?
Put this beside all the things about coffee that ‘research has shown’ and you get a picture where coffee cuts the risk of a range of cancers, diabetes and Alzheimer’s while putting strain on your heart, increasing your stress response and causing fatigue. All of it based on small cohort studies and not backed up with any really good epidemiological evidence.
UPDATE: A great analysis of the espresso story can be found on the NHS Choices site (worth a visit whenever you see a dodgy health story).