Teaching Myths and Possibilities

The emergency services rely on a variety of disciplines, including education. Unfortunately, many concepts related to training have been adopted without examining the underlying research. This has resulted in the adoption of many principles that have little or no support and that may be ineffective. This article discusses some of these principles and presents current research that supports the instructional methods or describes the weaknesses in other methods and techniques.

Ultimately, the goal of training is to have participants recall specific knowledge, skills, and attitudes with accuracy and to apply them correctly across a variety of situations. Mastery and application, not only repetition and demonstration, are the hallmarks of effective, high-order learning. Learning new knowledge, skills, and attitudes and being able to recall them for application alters the brain. “Most of what we remember is concrete and linked to the situation. That is why it is so difficult to apply insights that you learned in one situation in a different situation,” according to DeBruyckere, Kirschner, and Hulshof. In short, learning is not the same as mastery and application. Because the brain is malleable, effective learning necessitates a learning mindset, grit, self-discipline, and persistence to code and store new information, retrieve it, and apply it effectively. This view is shared by some researchers who do not consider the mastering of the lecture or text the same as mastering the ideas behind them.

Stages of Learning

Learning occurs in three steps. First, the new material is encoded into a form that can be stored and referenced. Learning builds on previous knowledge, and coding allows the new knowledge to be linked and stored in the short term. Second, the new encoded knowledge is consolidated in the brain, stabilizing the memory. This includes building and relating the new knowledge and skill with what is already known to provide context and meaning. Third, the new knowledge needs to be accurately and effectively retrieved and applied.

Source: Sung, E. and Mayer, R.E, “When graphics improve liking but not learning from online lessons.” Computers in Human Behavior; 2012, 28(5), 1618-1625.

Source: Sung, E. and Mayer, R.E, “When graphics improve liking but not learning from online lessons.” Computers in Human Behavior; 2012, 28(5), 1618-1625.


70 percent of learning is informal.

The remainder of this statement is, “20 percent of our learning is from others, and 10 percent comes from formal instruction.” This belief/statement dates back at least to the Greek mathematician Archimedes (c. 287-c. 212 B.C.). Since then, there has been only a single study that sought to determine its accuracy. That study revealed that 16 percent of learning is informal, 44 percent is acquired through others/peers, and 30 percent comes through formal training. The additional 10 percent of learning derived from methods were not studied.

93 percent of communication is nonverbal.

This Mehrabian Rule is suspect because of misinterpretation. Dr. Mehrabian’s findings stated that seven percent of communication is verbal, 38 percent is through intonation, and 55 percent is through body language; however, his research was focused only on communicating feelings and attitudes. In fact, he cautions against the misapplication of the rule: “Please note that this and other equations regarding relative importance of verbal and nonverbal messages were derived from experiments dealing with communications of feelings and attitudes. Unless a communicator is talking about feelings or attitudes, these equations are not applicable.”

We learn 10 percent of what we read, 20 percent of what we hear, 30 percent of what we see, 50 percent of what we see and hear, 70 percent of what we say and write, and 90 percent of what we do.

Edgar Dale’s “Cone of Experience” was developed as a “visual device which summarizes his classification system for different types of mediated learning experiences.” When Dale conceived of the “cone of learning,” he was classifying learning media from concrete, located at the base of the cone, to abstract, at the top of the cone. The original theory ranked or evaluated the items. The National Training Laboratories assigned percentages to the various media in the 1960s. Unfortunately, there has been no research to support the claim associated with how much we retain based on the media used.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs accurately describes motivation.

Abraham Maslow is a true pioneer in the study of human behavior. In 1943, he introduced a model for examining human motivation. Most of us have been taught that there are five levels, ranging from safety through self-actualization. Maslow stated that they were not conceived of in a pyramid, with each successive layer higher than the one before it. In addition, he conceived of two other layers, knowing and understanding and aesthetics. Unfortunately, the concept was quickly adopted with little further research, although follow-on research years later called the hierarchy into question. Even Maslow was surprised that his theory was so quickly accepted: “My motivation theory was published twenty years ago; and in all that time, nobody repeated it or tested it, or really analyzed or criticized it. They just used it, swallowed it whole, with only the most minor modification.”

We should teach based on the learner’s preferred learning style.

The concept of learning styles is considered as a touchstone for trainers. And, though individuals may gravitate toward particular styles, they are quite capable of learning in any style. In fact, DeBruyckere, Kirschner, and Hulshof point out: “Learning styles are not fixed, usually not even measurable, and consequently have no added value in the classroom.” Instructors should not rely on learning styles and instructional theories not supported by adequate research to guide them in the training environment. Rather, they should balance various styles to engage the learner across strong and weak areas.

The Internet is revolutionizing training.

The Internet is the next step in a long line of training tools that date back to storytelling and cave paintings. And, it may be less effective. Information is readily available; but for learning to be effective, learners must engage in a journey of self-discovery. Unfortunately, many learners do not have the requisite learning foundation to appropriately apply the new information, making the use of electronic media as a primary means of training less effective, especially for the acquisition of new knowledge. Richard Clark has written: “It’s pedagogy and not the medium that makes the difference in learning” and “Good instruction should package essential instructional methods based on available resources and the cost-effectiveness qualities of media attributes for specific learning goals.”

In short, the use of the Internet and technology-based learning must build on the learner’s previous knowledge and abilities; it is not a quick, effective, and inexpensive replacement for other forms of training. It is likely that the use of technology in the classroom has reached the peak of inflated expectations, as described by Sung and Mayer, and is beginning its slide to the trough of disillusionment. This pattern is consistently repeated when new technology is introduced. Eventually, there will be a plateau, leading to the appropriate use of technology in the learning environment.

Learning should be quick and easy.

It seems counterintuitive, but research has shown that for learning and application to be most effective, the information must be retrieved and applied over time. In addition, learning below the mastery level, interspersed with other knowledge or skills, improves learning retention, recall, and application.

For example, although it is common during initial training to teach all the skills associated with hose as a block of instruction, teaching hose operations in pieces, mixed between other skills that are also taught in pieces, improves the learning process. This forces the recall and processing of the new skill over time, allowing the strengthening of the neural pathways that store, retrieve, and apply the information. Making retrieval harder during the learning process makes storage and retrieval easier during the mastery stage of learning.

It is important to learn something right the first time.

It seems that learners should be taught the correct way of doing things from the beginning to improve retention, recall, and application. However, research has shown that errors coupled with corrective feedback early in the learning process do not contribute to encoding false information and strengthen the learning process. Giving corrective feedback is critical to the learning and encoding process, but it can be delayed slightly, allowing the learners to self-evaluate and identify their errors. This process also shifts the looking at error recognition as lessons and turning points in the learning process as part of the mastery process rather than points of failure. By allowing learners to pick out the underlying principles or rules from the experience, the learning process becomes more valuable and allows for the transfer of the concepts to other applications. In addition, learners who make correctable errors during the learning process will exhibit a willingness to tackle tough challenges in the future.

Emergency responders receive more training than employees in most occupations. The investment of time and resources requires that training and education be effective and that the resources allocated be used efficiently. Consequently, it is imperative for training officers and instructors to maintain currency in the state of training and educational research and to apply valid instructional concepts in the training environment to be effective in transferring knowledge, skills, and attitudes and to ensure the efficient use of resources. Following are principles of good instruction and learning that can enhance the effectiveness of instructor and student.

Principles of Good Instruction

Following are some practices advocated by Barak Rosenshine that can enhance the teaching and learning experience:


• Review some previous learning every day.

• Present new material in small steps.

• Ask questions.

• Provide models and worked examples.

• Guide student practice.

• Check for understanding.

• Obtain a high success rate.

• Provide scaffolds for difficult tasks.

• Require and monitor individual practice.

• Engage students in weekly and monthly reviews.


• Use retrieval practice (self-quizzes and flash cards, for example).

• Space retrieval practice out over time.

• Include topics on diverse types of problems.

• Elaborate on what you have been taught to find additional meaning.

• Generate problems or solutions based on the new material you’ve learned.

• Reflect on new information.

• Align new material with what you have previously learned.

• Consider mnemonic and mnemonic-like devices.


DeBruyckere, P., Kirschner, P., Hulshof, C. (2015) Urban Myths About Learning and Education. Academic Press. London.

Brown, P., Roediger, III, H. McDaniel, M. (2014). Making it Stick. The Science of Successful Learning. Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. Cambridge, Mass.

Clark, R. “Reconsidering research on learning from media,” Review of Educational Research; 1983, 53, 445-449.

Clark, R and Mayer R. (2011). E-learning and the science of instruction. Proven guidelines for consumers and designers of multimedia learning. Pfieffer. San Francisco CA.

Boser, U. (2017). Learn Better. Mastering the Skills for Success in Life, Business, and School, or How to Become an Expert in Just About Anything. Rodale. New York, N.Y.

Rosenshine, B. “Principles of instruction: Research-based strategies all teacher should know.” American Educator; 2012, 36:1, 12-19.

DavID Donohue has more than 37 years of emergency services experience and has been a fire, EMS, and emergency management instructor for 30 years, having served in Florida; West Virginia; Washington, DC; and Maryland. He is the owner of Mid-Atlantic Emergency and Safety Consultants; a member of Community Volunteer Fire Company of District 12 in Fairplay, Maryland; and an instructor for the Maryland Fire and Rescue Institute.

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