Learning things that Don't Stay True

In a presentation on deschooling at the HSC conference in Sacramento in 2012, part of my notes read:

What do you **KNOW** ?
How much of what you have "known" in your life dissolved later?

Time (trees/landmarks/geography/buildings/roads)
      which way to brush teeth
      which part of a hamburger is good for you, and which is AWFUL
             (ditto, pizza)
      Tanganyika and Zanzibar
             Tanganyika was a sovereign state in East Africa from 1961 to 1964.
Grammar changes, because English is alive and flourishing
      Japanese are bad, suicidal killers
      Germans are horrible people
             Amsterdam, tourguide at Westerkerk

When I got home, I thought there might be other examples I could collect, so I asked on the Always Learning discussion list and gathered these:

Alysia wrote this in another topic, but I'm glad, because I was hoping to get help making a list of things learned in school that are not true now. Either things changed, or science moved on, or something.

Even someone who is an expert in her field most likely doesn't know everything about that field. Schools can't provide information on everything a child could learn and know. And, a lot of times, what is taught in schools turns out to be wrong or outdated or biased or purposely containing gaps.
Bias and purposeful gaps are understandable.

From my own schooling, there are two examples I've used sometimes when I give presentations:

Tanganyika--I learned about this African nation in 8th grade geography, and how to spell it, and its neighbor Zanzibar, too, and drew maps, and passed a test. By the time I was grown, it wasn't a country anymore. It's likely that there were people who learned about it even after it was gone, because our state would use textbooks for five or six years, and by the time a textbook came along, it had been in preparation and production for a year or two (or more). Tanganyika was only a country for a few years. Oh. 1961 to 1964, says Wikipedia. Well hell. I learned about it in the 1966/67 school year. It wasn't my geography teacher's job to dispute the textbook, though. That would've been current events, and not his field.

Platypus—not a mammal. A class unto itself, literally. But at some point after I wasn't in school, they were reclassified as mammals. I learned that at the Indianapolis zoo one day after I already had three children and was at my first interstate unschooling gathering. So what I learned was alter changed. A mammal CAN lay an egg. That was news. Live birth was one of the characteristics of mammals I learned in school, and that a platypus had no relatives among other animals; certainly wasn't related to *me.*

And another couple of things changed:

Pluto is a planet, and it was discovered by a guy from New Mexico. Well... he was in Arizona when he discovered it, but he had been living in New Mexico for a while, and taught at our state university for a long time; so mostly true. But now Pluto isn't a planet. Poor Professor Tombaugh.

Hallowe'en: I was taught to spell Hallowe'en with that apostrophe in there, but quite soon after it was "never mind." It stands for a "v" (for those who want to know what apostrophes stand for), so even at that point, it was a fragment of the longer all hallow's eve(ning) so why have one apostrophe if there were more letters out than in?

We were told that humans have no instincts whatsoever, but only know what they learn from books.

By the time I was in college, I didn't believe it anymore, but a friend of mine who was born in 1964 said he was told that, in high school AND college.

What kinds of fallacies did some of you write down on tests papers to get an A?


Mairi.sasaki wrote:

One from my time (I'm 37 and went to grade school in the '80s) is brontosaurus.

It was fairly recently that I was surprised to find out there is no such thing as a brontosaurus. Now it is apatosaurus and brachiasaurus (2 dinos that look like my old brontosaurus, but have some distint features from one another, like the length of their front legs). I can admit too that it stung a bit, to find out that what I had dutifully learned in school, and continued to believe in, was wrong.

Tam / wifejuliefish:

The big one that stands out for me is "Cows have four stomachs". We were taught that in A level Biology, in which I got an A, in order to go to university and be a vet. Where I promptly learnt that it's not true :) They have one stomach area, with four compartments, one of which is the true stomach. There's a good summary here: http://wiki.answers.com/Q/How_many_stomachs_do_cattle_have


Schuyler Waynforth:

I have my father-in-law's old children's encyclopedia set from the 1940's. Enid Blyton was one of the editors. They are filled with facts that aren't built on particularly stable ground. They are also fabulously colonial. I love them. I love the way they underscore how imperfect and changing our knowledge and experience is. I like that there are folks out there challenging brontosaurus. I'm not so keen on unstable governments as often that's accompanied by war and the occasional genocide. I am sure that there are facts in those books that have held the test of 70 years, but there are more that are not. The sun sets regularly on the British Empire these days. I suppose the downside is that teachers pass on knowledge as truth disregarding the bias of the publishing company or the government in charge of setting the curriculum or the limited understanding that may exist about the subject.



I had an awesome geology professor at University, who told us to sell our books back as soon as we could at the end of the semester, because by the time we had time in our lives to look back at the book again, half of everything in it was wrong. He then held up his college textbook, and read out of it for the rest of the hour, making us all laugh at all the things he'd learned that were now understood to be wrong, like that the planet's crust was like an apple's skin, and that magnetism was constant.

His final statement was "remember these things I'll teach you for today, but remember mostly to question, because as much of what I'm teaching you will be proven wrong as what I was taught was wrong. Just... stay light on your brain."


I've been trying to think of something I learnt in school that turned out to be wrong, but coming up with nothing. Then I remembered my high school biology teacher telling us about goldfish swimming from one end of the tank to another, and their memory being so short that when they turned around, they didn't recognise their tank.

In retrospect, since my dad bred fish and we raised a lot of goldfish over the years, I should have known this didn't make sense. But still, the idea persisted. Until a recent episode of Mythbusters, where they tested and busted it.

Not really wrong, but I remember reading about atoms in my first high school science textbook, and feeling totally ripped off that no one had mentioned until then that everything in the whole world was composed of atoms!


Sandra/me again:

We were taught the one right, healthy safe way to brush our teeth, in health class, when I was nine. And then they changed it every three years. Variably hard bristles or soft bristles, and variably straight up and down, or down on top teeth, up on bottom, or circular motions to get under gums, or don't disturb gums, and later "floss the heck out of everything."

I think what that means is that no one way solves all dental problems, but they keep changing the recommendations, "they" being (in this telling) the American Dental Association and providers of pamphlets and instructional materials for schools and clinics and dentists' offices.

It might not matter, but we "had to" learn these things and be tested on the right answers, in school. Later, the teaching and testing was in dentists' offices.

I grew up with "four food groups" charts, and was required to learn and recite, and draw, and cut-and-paste into four groups.

When my kids were young, it was "the food pyramid" with lots of grain, bread, pasta.

I honestly don't know what the official "This Is CRUCIAL" model is that kids are taught in school, but I bet there is one. Probably circular, or star shaped or something that's neither a four-square box or a triangle. :-)

And in my lifetime, every part of a hamburger and every part of pizza has been considered good, or terrible; will-kill-you or the best part of it. Even the grease has been reviled and then redeemed.


I think it's a food plate/circle divided into wedges now but I don't know what's on it.

My neighbor was showing me the list of approved foods that she was allowed to send to school with her 4 year old child for lunch and snacks. I think it might be state government requirements because she said the school is waiting to see if a bill will pass to negate it. It was a pretty short list and did not include any kind of "treat". My neighbor said she wishes she could send something her child will actually eat because the vegetables will just be thrown out and her child will go hungry. That's certainly not conducive to learning.


A school that I worked at three years ago--a small private school--had a policy on what kinds of foods kids could and couldn't bring in their lunches. It was a no soda, no candy, no "junk food" kind of a thing. I was an after-school counselor at the time, and I wanted to offer baking once a week, but they didn't want me to do too much with white flour.

It wasn't what the kids were taught, per se, but definitely part of the "implied curriculum." I remember an 8th grader whose older brother had developed his own all-natural energy drink pointed out to me one day that even though the school wanted to say it was "healthy," it was really only one idea of healthy that they counted.


Here in the UK there is a huge emphasis on "5 a day" as in everyone should eat five portions of fruit or vegetables each day. It is pushed heavily in schools/children's centres etc and to other groups perceived to need that knowledge (I have been asked to help get the message across to a group of women who don't speak English, for example).

It's apparently based on World Health Organisation advice, though their original advice recommends nine portions per day. I believe the government advice in Australia is nine. Here that was thought to be off-puttingly high. Five was deemed achievable. In Japan it's 17.

At the same time different "truths" are being doled out in different places.

Interesting article here

Is five a day enough?
While we Brits struggle to meet our fruit and vegetable quota, in Japan they aim for an astonishing 17 portions daily. But who is right? And what counts anyway? Luke Waterson reports...

[Then there was a bunch of back-and-forth about "The Gentle Tasaday" in the Phillipines and how much hoax was hoax.]

Robyn Coburn wrote:

Something I recently learned is wrong, but is still taught all over the place is that idea about the taste buds in different areas on the tongue being for different tastes. Unfortunately the map of the tongue is still being promulgated out on the internet, as well as in old text books.


Logic and unschooling


Courage —becoming courageous