A few weeks ago I was speaking in Nashville at the Corporate Learning and Analytics conference. Part of my presentation focused on some of the myths we hold on to in Learning and Development (L&D). It’s something I’ve talked about before and have even written a post about it. Something struck me though, and keeps coming back to: an interesting question was asked by a conference attendee and presenter from IBM: “why do you think people hold on to these myths?”

I opened the question to the floor and there were a lot of great answers. To answer the question a story popped into my mind. I’d first heard about it while listening to the Planet Money podcast Is a Stradivarius Just a Violin? In that podcast they talk about a study done by some economists to see if violin professionals — professional musicians — can tell the difference between an actual Stradivarius violin or just a typical high-end more contemporary violin. These are people that have been playing the violin since they were very young and have logged thousands of hours of practice and performance. The Stradivarius (which, I guess, is referred to as a “Strad” by musicians) can often sell for multiple millions of US dollars. A high-end contemporary violin, on the other hand, runs in the thousands of dollars. From the beginning, the study participants, all professional violinists, were convinced that it was a waste of time — that they would of course be able to distinguish the Strad from all other violins.

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So the economists took a handful of professional violinists and had them play both a Strad and a regular violin and asked them to identify which was the Strad. They blindfolded the players and masked the smell of the violins (apparently violins have different smells). In every case the the violinist mistakenly chose the normal violin over the Strad. Every time. The results were so surprising that many of the participants still deny the conclusions.

Myths in L&D are the same way. Even though they’ve been proven wrong over and over, people adamantly believe them. There are more myths than just the Learning Styles myth I’ve already written about that we hold on to in L&D. I’ve listed just a few below:

  • Brain training: there’s really no research yet, besides that which has been financed by companies that profit from brain training products, that back up the idea that brain training really works.
  • Learning attention is linked to IQ. That has been proven false over and over, and yet lingers.
  • IQ is the primary determinant of a person’s success. Malcolm Gladwell has a terrific series of podcasts that debunk this myth and also discusses it in his book Outliers.
  • People remember 10% of what they read, 20% of what they hear … and 90% of what they teach others. Obviously, if you’ve prepared to teach something, and teach it more than once, you’re going to remember it more than if you just read it in a book or listen to someone talk about it in a lecture.turtle
  • Left and Right brained people. All of the modern research indicates that people, regardless of their intelligence or way of viewing the world, use both hemispheres of the brain equally.

In every one of the cases listed above, someone is set to profit from people believing the myth. But like the my of learning styles, these only serve as roadblocks to learning and performance.

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