Common Educational Fallacies

Chapter 38 - Educational Concepts and Models for the Field of Instrumentation - Advice for Teachers

PDF Version

When I began teaching full-time in 1998, most of what I thought I understood about good teaching was actually wrong. Some of this was due to ignorance and inexperience on my part, but a lot of what I thought was good teaching was nothing more than convention. I reflected on my experiences as a student and believed that was a sufficient model to follow as a teacher.

The following subsections are all titled with fallacies I have held and/or witnessed in others. Within each subsection I describe the fallacy and then explain why it is fallacious.

Fallacy: the sufficiency of presentation

A common fallacy in education is that clear presentation is sufficient for learning. While it is important to present information very clearly and accessibly, this surprisingly is not as important as one might think. It becomes even less important as the student grows in their ability to seek and absorb information on their own.

In fact, it is actually possible for presentations to be too clear for their own good. A presentation of information that makes complete and perfect sense at the first encounter may lull the receiver into believing the topic is simpler than it is. A presentation that does not inspire follow-up questions has failed to achieve its ultimate goal, which is to foster the critical thinking necessary to become an autonomous learner.

Fallacy: you need a well-equipped lab

Whenever an educational institution offers tours of a new program, the first stop on the tour is always the laboratory where students apply their learning. This is especially true for technical programs such as Instrumentation. A school will brag about how much money they spent to equip the facility, how modern the components and tools are, and how similar the lab environment is to the intended work environment. Surprisingly, almost none of these things matter.

I learned this important lesson by teaching at a college starved of resources. I simply could not afford to purchase modern lab equipment, and so I was forced to make do with equipment we built ourselves. What I discovered in this process is that a site-built system offers more learning than one that is pre-packaged and typically costs an order of magnitude more. This is especially true if students get involved in the design and construction of the lab system(s), because they see the entire development process rather than just the finished product.

This is not to say that all lab facilities may be built on a shoestring budget. For some topics of study there simply is no choice but to invest in the right (expensive) equipment. However, what matters most is how you use that equipment. The best-equipped lab is nearly useless without the right assignments and exercises to challenge students on its use; with the right curriculum in place, however, even a meager lab will yield phenomenal learning.

I especially urge caution to technical educators considering the purchase of pre-built “trainer” units, which are offered by a number of manufacturers (e.g. Festo, Lab-Volt, Hampden Engineering, etc.) at exorbitant prices. In almost every case it is possible to build your own equivalents to these trainer units at a mere fraction of the cost, and with greater gains in learning.

Fallacy: teach what they’ll most often do

This fallacy is frequently seen in skill standards generated by industry and educational organizations: job tasked are ranked by frequency (i.e. how often an employee will have to perform that task) with the implication that the curriculum should mirror that frequency. This is just nonsense, and for the simplest of reasons: if a task is frequently performed on the job, then the new employee will readily learn that task by working that job. In other words, the repetitive nature of the task naturally translates into on-the-job training (OJT) and renders any time spent on those tasks in formal education rather questionable.

It should be rather obvious that the purpose of formal education for the workplace is to teach students how to do things that are not easily learned on the job. Otherwise, why not just hire in as an apprentice and learn your trade entirely by working it?

What skill standard surveys and other rankings of job tasks ought to do is sort these job functions both by importance and by how difficult they are to learn. When building a formal curriculum, you should first identify which of the tasks rank high in important, then skip (or only touch on) the easy stuff and focus aggressively on those important tasks that are difficult to master.

Fallacy: successful completion equals learning

Students are masters at figuring out how to maximize the grade-to-effort ratio. This is one problem they know full well how to solve. In recognizing this fact, we as educators must ensure the tasks we give them to complete cannot be completed unless and until the desired learning occurs.

A good example of this is any mathematical problem given to students to solve. Suppose the correct answer consists of a number or a formula. If a student completes the activity by presenting the correct formula, does it mean they actually understand the intended principles of this problem? It is surprisingly difficult to design valid learning activities and assessments due to the difficulty of discerning another person’s understanding. Perhaps the student is able to arrive at the same correct answer through incorrect reasoning. Perhaps they copied the result from a classmate. Perhaps they just made a guess, which is likely when the answer consists of selecting between a few choices.

Fallacy: teamwork

The ability to function well on a work team is obviously important, and should be nurtured along with other interpersonal skills and habits in any educational program aiming to place graduates into the workforce. However, teamwork is far from ideal as a method of instruction. The reason for this is quite simple: students tend to help one another in ways that do not lead to genuine learning, even when their intent is pure. What you will almost always find in team environments is that the goal of the team is to complete the task, not to ensure education of its members. This is really the “Successful completion equals learning” fallacy in a different form. For those of you who have taught before with students working in teams, how often do you see a team collectively decide to sacrifice their group progress for the sake of ensuring a weaker teammate learns an important concept? I’ll wager this is a rare event in any teacher’s experience.

Moreover, teamwork masks individual student weaknesses from the instructor’s sight. If a student is weak in one or more areas of their understanding, this deficit stands in hard relief when the student must individually demonstrate their understanding, but is all but hidden when all you see is the product of the group.

From my own practice as an instructor, I have found that when students are forced by circumstance to complete a task normally reserved for a team, the learning is vastly greater. No longer can a student rely on the strengths of their peers, and because of this the student must address their own weaknesses directly.

Fallacy: tutoring as a panacea

When a student’s grades fall below normal, a common instinct among educators is to provide some form of tutoring to that student. Tutoring sessions often consist of one-on-one meetings with a qualified person to review whatever subject(s) are posing the problem. The problem with this seemingly rational response is that tutoring usually resembles the worst form of instruction: enhancing the presentation of information without enhancing the degree or type(s) of challenge.

Tutoring can be useful, but only when properly executed and assigned to the correct students. There are many ways in which students may be ill-suited to benefit from tutoring. One example I have witnessed too many times is when a student struggles with coursework for non-cognitive reasons such as outside stress, lack of motivation, or poor judgment and/or personal habits. The key to successful tutoring is to first diagnose the true nature of the impediment hampering a student’s progress, and then connecting the student to the right tutor only if that is what will actually help them.

Fallacy: learning styles

Much could be said on this currently popular topic. It seems one cannot read any modern literature on student learning without encountering something about learning styles: the notion that each person absorbs information best in unique ways, and therefore optimum instruction tailors its presentation on a style-by-style basis1128. I will not attempt to deconstruct the various theories of learning styles, for I am not qualified to do so. What I will do, though, is highlight the fallacy of learning styles as they are commonly practiced.

When a student explains to me as their instructor that they have a specific learning style, it is always in the context of a larger discussion about why they are struggling to learn something. In other words, their learning style is not being accommodated, and that’s why they are experiencing trouble in school. A few errors usually surface at this point:

  1. The first error is confusion of what learning styles are even supposed to be. The most common scenario I encounter as an instructor is that the student claims it’s difficult for them to learn new information by reading,because they are a visual learner and must see a concept being demonstrated in order to grasp it. This has always struck me as odd, since reading is an intrinsically visual activity (unless one reads in Braille). The real problem is that the student is not adept at extracting ideas from text, and this is a reading deficit. What they are essentially claiming is that they cannot learn anything new without some other person showing it to them. This has nothing to do with vision, but has everything to do with interpreting language: an entirely different problem.
  2. The second error is in equating ease of learning with efficacy of learning. Just because something is made easy for you does not mean (in any way) that accomplishment holds greater benefit for you later. In fact, one might argue than an educational experience tailored around one’s strengths will only set up students for later failure when they enter less accommodating environments. One can easily imagine an educational environment in which nothing is presented to you that doesn’t cater to your strengths, and then the utter shock experienced when you step into your new role as a technical employee only to discover you must continue to learn without this assistance.
  3. The third error is that the student’s learning style is simply assumed to be fixed for life. I have never read nor heard anyone suggest alter someone’s learning style. How do we know this to be true?

It is an incontrovertible fact that the field of Instrumentation requires continuous learning and skill improvement. This is true for any field subject to the evolution of technology and of applications. It is also an incontrovertible fact that life does not adjust itself to suit our proclivities, and as such it would be unreasonable to expect to have one’s learning style accommodated throughout a career.

Suppose learning styles are both real and immutable: a person who is simply unable to learn in multiple ways is therefore unsuitable for this career and should not even bother pursuing it. Suppose learning styles are real but malleable: this would mean the educational program has an obligation to challenge the student’s learning styles in order to make them a more versatile learner. Suppose learning styles aren’t real, but are merely preferences: in this case our best option is to ignore them entirely lest we cripple our students’ futures by accommodating something that isn’t real.

I have yet to meet a student who was willing to give up their career in Instrumentation because they were convinced their learning style made reading (or any other learning activity) impossible. I have also never met a student would failed to accomplish what their learning style ostensibly prohibited. At the risk of sounding cynical, I am convinced learning styles are far too often used as excuses for avoiding challenges.

Fallacy: reductionistic course design

This fallacy finds itself embedded into the very structure of modern American higher education, and may be defined in the context of this discussion as the belief that understanding the constituent parts necessarily results in understanding the whole. Programs of study are most often made up of a series of discrete courses, each one encapsulating a particular topic, and often taught by different instructors with widely varying standards of achievement. This design is not born out of a concern for maximizing learning, but rather is the result of optimizing school enrollment. Simply put, it is far easier to manage enrollment at a college where students are free to choose from a smorgasbord of courses and instructors are regarded as fungible assets for the delivery of these courses, than it is to manage enrollment with monolithic programs of study.

Some areas of study are amenable to teaching in reductionist fashion. Certain mathematical topics (e.g. trigonometry) as well as certain discrete skills (e.g. sensor calibration) lend themselves well to dedicated courses. Other areas, however, do not. When the knowledge or skill in question spans a wide range of applications and involves changes of habit, one course in that subject is rarely sufficient.

A good example of this is safety. You can hardly find a workplace program that doesn’t include a safety course, but yet this is a terrible way to teach safety. While it’s possible to convey certain safety procedures and knowledge in a single course, many safety applications require extensive knowledge in other areas (e.g. electricity, chemistry) and so must be addressed at multiple points in a program of study. Moreover, safety is first and foremost a matter of attitude and habit, and as such requires persistent emphasis over long periods of time to fully cultivate.

Another good example of this is troubleshooting. Like safety, the ability to diagnose faults in complex systems requires specific knowledge of those systems and therefore troubleshooting must be taught at multiple points throughout any complex program of study. Also like safety, troubleshooting necessitates the cultivation of certain mental habits and attention to detail that requires persistent effort over long periods of time.

In short, topics such as safety and troubleshooting are simply too complex and too important to relegate to single courses.

Another problem is abstraction: cognitive research reveals how difficult it is for students to absorb a concept and then apply that one concept to a multitude of different applications. One of the dangers of reductionism is that concepts may be taught in complete isolation from their practical contexts, which the hope that students will “make the leap” from general principle to application, but this is a tall order. It is far more effective in my experience to embed important concepts into multiple lessons across the program in order to reinforce those concepts and help students learn to see how that abstract concept gets applied.

Another problem with reductionist program design is the difficulty of maintaining consistently high standards across the entirety of a program. This problem is especially pronounced when temporary faculty are employed to teach these courses. If students know what some faculty teaching a subject are easier than other faculty teaching that same subject, you create pathways of least resistance where the students who most need challenging instruction in order to develop as thinkers don’t get it.