“Beliefs” About How Students Learn can Only Get You So Far

What are your beliefs about student learning? How do students best learn? If you’re like me you’ve been asked at the start of a PD session or a faculty meeting to discuss your deeply-held beliefs about some aspect of student learning in a Think-Pair-Share or a gallery walk. Or maybe you were interviewed for a teaching position and asked to expound upon them.

Beliefs are fine when it comes to religion or values. Beliefs fall short when it comes to facts about, say, gravity. Whatever you believe about gravity – such as the elementary student who believes that when you drop an apple and a bowling ball at the same height then the bowling ball will land first – is useless, or even detrimental to progress. It is better to learn facts whenever you’re talking about situations comparable to gravity, because one’s beliefs can feel intuitive, but also be wrong. Take the example of learning styles. You may feel deep down in your bones that a student is a visual learner, just like you, but the evidence that such a categorization exists or can best be addressed with instruction tailored for visual learners has long been debunked (i.e. Kirschner, 2017; Willingham & Dobolyi, 2015). Believing in something before evidence comes to light is one thing; Believing in something after mountains of evidence has proven something unlikely to be true is malpractice.

Beliefs about how students learn can also be well-intentioned, but result in further disadvantaging the very students you were meant to help. Take what we have learned from the whole language vs. phonics wars of years past; By forgoing “boring” phonics instruction in elementary schools in order to “nurture” a love of reading through discovery, we found that students weren’t learning to read and therefore would unlikely end up as life-long readers. Reading is a great example of how talking incessantly about our beliefs together around the round table is often a waste of time because the science is quite clear on what constitutes effective reading instruction (National Reading Panel, 2000). I fear that talking about our beliefs in cases comparable to reading instruction only leads to the vindication of myths (Macdonald et al., 2017) that end up doing a disservice to kids; “We may all think differently from each other about x, but since we are all entitled to our opinions, I am just as right as anyone else.”

Instead of hashing out our beliefs about learning – which often can be answered by findings from scientific research – it seems more productive to spend our time defining our goals. Unlike individual beliefs about how students learn, it is entirely up to us to determine the goal of education. There are many to choose from, such as:

The ultimate goal of school is…

  • For students to have a pleasant and memorable childhood
  • For students to get a good job when they’re done
  • For students to be prepared for (and get into a good) university
  • For students to be socialized into our country’s way of doing things
  • For students to grow into good, well-rounded people
  • To raise a generation that can prevent the impending climate crisis
  • To erase inequality in this world

As you can see, educational goals can be so radically different from each other that adopting and pursuing any one of them can radically change the nature of a school. If a teacher’s ultimate goal is the first goal in this list, “For students to have a pleasant and memorable childhood”, he will probably find it unethical to force kids to do anything they do not want to do, such as taking achievement tests or doing boring things. It is probably important to him that the school generously carves out free, unstructured play in the timetable in lieu of structured phonics lessons, or perhaps he rejects the idea of adults determining a timetable altogether. If he accidentally winds up at a school that emphasizes academic progress in reading and math, he will likely butt heads with administrators and colleagues, and certain parents may fight for their children to not be in his class. Whenever there is a mismatch between the goals of the organization and the goals of the individual, this sort of tension will occur, especially if the goals were never made explicit. Are all international schools clear about their goals when recruiting teachers and admitting families? I don’t think so.

So, to put it bluntly, I don’t really want to listen anymore to what Greg The Biology Teacher believes about how students learn. To illuminate how the mind works, how humans sense information in one’s environment, process it in consciousness, encode it into long-term memory and retrieve it and manipulate it in working memory… we can go to science for that. What I do care about is what your goals are. And in this world of international education, where every school can set its own goals, handpick its own faculty, and construct its own ethos, I say schools should go ahead and PICK ONE. They can start with lists like the incomplete one I included above. Once the school has clearly defined and articulated its educational goal, the school can, with steadfast resolve and laser-focus, start making moves towards achieving the promise of that goal. And job-seeking teachers and prospective parents can choose whether or not to apply there.

– Zach Groshell @mrzachg


Kirschner, P. A. (2017). Stop propagating the learning styles myth. Computers and Education, 106, 166–171. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.compedu.2016.12.006

Macdonald, K., Germine, L., Anderson, A., Christodoulou, J., & McGrath, L. M. (2017). Dispelling the myth: Training in education or neuroscience decreases but does not eliminate beliefs in neuromyths. Frontiers in Psychology, 8(AUG), 1–16. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2017.01314

National Reading Panel. (2000). Teaching children to read: An evidence-based assessment of the scientific research literature on reading and its implications for reading instruction. NIH Publication No. 00-4769. https://doi.org/10.1002/ppul.1950070418

Willingham, D. T., Hughes, E. M., & Dobolyi, D. G. (2015). The Scientific Status of Learning Styles Theories. Teaching of Psychology, 42(3), 266–271. https://doi.org/10.1177/0098628315589505