But I Don’t Believe That! Teaching What They Don’t Want to Hear

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But I Don’t Believe That! Teaching What They Don’t Want to Hear

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Author :
Anne Baker
But I Don’t Believe That! Teaching What They Don’t Want to Hear

AB Contact profile image
Author :
Anne Baker

But I Don’t Believe That! Teaching What They Don’t Want to Hear

Sometimes we need to teach content that people don’t want to hear. Why do people dig their heels in so deep when you tell them something that is research-based, supported by evidence, and completely and totally in conflict with someone’s beliefs? Facts and research often don't have a chance against beliefs.

To ponder why it is so tough to teach something that goes against beliefs, check out this entertaining comic by The Oatmeal.

Prior experiences can get in the way of learning when they don’t align with what you are teaching. So can strong personal beliefs.

Experience isn't always helpful.

Think of a child who has been told all their life the sun revolves around the earth. They note the sun rising and setting as if it is moving. Our use of language ("the sun sets and rises") reinforces their misconception that the sun is moving around the earth as well. Without intervention, they are going to be pretty convinced that the sun DOES revolve around the earth.

Image of our solar system

Adults have misconceptions, too! They have a lot of life experiences and have been exposed to a lot of information. If their ideas and experiences don't align with what science tells us about something, it can be an issue.

Debunk with Caution

Annette Kujawski Taylor of the University of San Diego's psychology department studies these issues. She is working with colleagues on what she calls the Fact/Myth/Fallacy format. Below is a summary of what she recommends when dealing with students whose misconceptions are impeding their learning, per personal communication with her:

  • FACT: Start by giving out the true facts. Do NOT start with the myth, as those who strongly believe the myth will have it "activated" in their brain and then just filter out everything else you say. 
  • MYTH: Then present a MINIMAL statement of the myth, being clear with a preface that it is not true. NEVER over-emphasize the misconception, as her research has demonstrated true backfire effects when this is done. 
  • FALLACY: Train learners in various types of fallacies, and to connect any preconceptions about the topic to the type of fallacy that spawned it.  Hopefully, this type of analysis will prevent them from slipping back to their own way of thinking. 

Backfire Effects

It's possible that, in our efforts to dispel a myth, we actually strengthen it. This is referred to as a backfire effect. The Skeptical Science's Debunking Handbook reviews in detail the research and details of this phenomenon, which is briefly summarized below. 

  • The Familiarity Backfire Effect. The more familiar a myth is to someone, the more likely they are to accept it as true!
  • The Overkill Backfire Effect. Information that is easier to understand is more likely to be believed to be true. This means listing every possible argument that refutes a misconception is actually counter-productive. Stick to a few simple ones. 
  • The Worldview Backfire Effect. People who are very fixed in their ideas and associate the misconception with their world-view may just have their misconception strengthened by counter-arguments. 


Posted by:
Anne Marie Baker #iteachmsu
#myths #facts #andragogy #adult learning #beliefs