Are you spreading these 4 false myths?

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If you google, “Harvard Graduates Explain Seasons,” you’ll find a fascinating video clip. Shot as part of the educational documentary, “A Private Universe,” Harvard Graduates were asked to explain the change of seasons–something we expect every ninth grader to understand. Over and over, the fresh Ivy League alumni got it wrong, repeatedly falling back on intuitive misconceptions such as: the earth is further from the sun in winter, and thus, colder. The clip lasts less than two minutes. I highly recommend you check it out.
Why? Not to make fun of Harvard Graduates (though that’s always fun too), but to seriously explore the question: How can people who have received the very best education–and obviously excelled–fail to understand the cause for the seasons, despite the fact that it is a fundamental concept taught in every standard science curriculum?

Let’s be clear. These are some of the best, brightest and most highly educated people in the world. Their consistent failure to correctly explain one of the most basic scientific concepts is a serious question for educators. Especially when you consider that this type of phenomena has been observed again and again in follow up studies.

Seasons are caused by the earth’s distance from the sun; motors and engines use up energy; a heavier ball falls faster than a lighter one: all examples of folk science–myths about how things work–and all completely false. Despite our best intentions, and regardless of our education, people unwittingly cling to these (and more) widely shared misconceptions.

In his book, “The Unschooled Mind,” Howard Gardner shares an overwhelming body of educational research illustrating:

“ . . . even students who have been well trained and who exhibit all the over signs of success—faithful attendance at good schools, high grades and high test scores, accolades from their teachers—typically do not display an adequate understanding of the materials and concepts with which they have been working.”

He points to a surprising collection of research from institutions such as M.I.T. and Johns Hopkins documenting that, “students who receive honor grades in college-level physics courses are frequently unable to solve basic problems and questions encountered in a form slightly different from that on which they have been formally instructed and tested.”

For example, in one study, the task was to identify the forces acting on a coin that has been tossed straight up into the air and has reached the midway point in its ascent. A full 70% of college students trained in mechanics gave the same intuitive response as untrained students: that there are two forces acting on the coin, “the original upward force of the hand” and gravity. That is wrong. Once the coin leaves the hand, only gravity is acting upon the coin. You, dear reader, can be forgiven if you didn’t get this. But an honor student in college-level physics?

So what’s going on here? How are these myths created, and what can we do to overcome them? Educational researchers are finding that we can begin by recognizing the power of prior knowledge.

Old habits die hard. Beliefs are like ruts: the longer we have them the deeper they get. The deeper they get, the harder it is to climb out of them, think differently, and create new tracks (new ways of thinking) in our brains.

Many assume learning is like filling an empty vessel. Often however, the real issue isn’t what we lack, but what myths we’ve already learned. Each of us comes to new learning with a range of prior knowledge, skills and beliefs that significantly influence how we filter, organize and interpret new information. This, in turn, affects our ability to acquire new knowledge.

Often, learning something new requires that we forget (or at least ignore) what we already know. Like the monkey caught in the trap, we often need to first open our fists and let go of what we “know” before we can enjoy the freedom and power that comes from new learning.

Founder of, Chris Wondra is just another Wisconsin public school teacher. Find We Teach We Learn on Facebook and Twitter for daily tips on getting the most out of your brain. Email Chris at: .

Image Credit: Creative Commons License joiseyshowaa


  1. “Often however, the real issue isn’t what we lack, but what myths we’ve already learned.”

    yes! this is so true for all of us…

    Very interesting as always Chris…clear reasons that we need the very best educators teaching our children not only facts, but critical thinking – something that is becoming more and more rare…

    • Thanks Heidi!

      There is so much to discover in teaching and learning! Such a fascinating and rewarding field and profession. Discovering blocks to learning is like Sherlock Holmes solving a mystery sometimes. Or a doctor diagnosing an illness based on visible and invisible symptoms.

      Thanks for the comment and the support Heidi!


  2. When it comes to what we believe to be facts, education is very close minded. Like others before us who have braved the road of rejection to prove the current facts wrong, our society inhibits opened minded thinking and questioning given certain topics. If society is accepting of what is and not what could be, then information is just regurgitated and accepted as fact.

  3. Thank you for the incites and thoughts. After reading about the coin question and responses I was shocked. Am almost positive that my sixth grade class if asked that question they would have almost all gotten it correct! The article reminded me that I need to heighten my sense of awareness to prevent these common misconceptions early in children. I always get upset when I hear adults teaching what plants need to survive water, sun & soil. What about carbon!!!!!!