But…We Do Learn from People We Don’t Like

The following post first featured on the American Psychological Association’s Psych Learning Curve on August 28, 2017:


In a quite popular Ted Talk, Every Kid Needs A Champion, Dr. Rita Pierson says many great things about relationships and education.  I have no doubt she was an incredible educator and mentor to students and teachers.  You can see it and feel it in the way she delivers her talk; she’s got it.  I believe this quote best summarizes her talk:

“Every child deserves a champion, an adult who will never give up on them, who understands the power of connection, and insists that they become the best that they can possibly be.”

With few caveats, I agree with this statement and the overall sentiment of the Ted Talk.


Unfortunately and increasingly, the quote I see and hear pulled from Dr. Pierson’s speech for use by well-meaning school districts and edutwitter is false:

“You know, kids don’t learn from people they don’t like.”

A little context — Dr. Pierson is talking with a teacher who states she isn’t paid to like the kids, but paid to teach a lesson and the students should learn.  This prompts Dr. Pierson to responds with the above statement and add that it will be a “long and arduous” year for this teacher.  

I agree with Dr. Pierson.  The teacher probably had a rough year if he/she did not try to cultivate some sort of positive relationship with their students.  I cannot imagine, as an educator, completely neglecting the personal aspect of the classroom.  What a struggle it would be to show up everyday inspired to do your job.  While my curriculum and study skills I present to my students are certainly my focus, the relationships and environment of the class also play a role in the success of all involved.


Students can and do learn from people they don’t like.  Our brain doesn’t shut down due to our appraisal of where information originates in the environment.  I didn’t care for a few coaches and teachers in my schooling, but I still remember the different structures of a plant cell and how to defeat the offsides trap.  Also, I can imagine situations where we may actually learn more from people we don’t like.  The child abused by a parent/relative may learn how they don’t want to behave when they become a parent.  There are many situations where we may observe behaviors exhibited by people we don’t respect or like and we learn how we either don’t want to be treated or treat others.  

Can you imagine if it were actually true students didn’t learn from teachers they don’t like?  The amount of schedule changes would be outlandish.  Students upset with their grade or not in the class with all of their friends would have the perfect exit strategy.  I can just hear it now, “I can’t learn from Mr. Smith because I don’t like him.  My brain just won’t allow it.”  Also, teachers could be blamed for low test scores because their students just don’t like them enough.  The teaching profession would become a popularity contest.  

Some may say I’m splitting hairs and Dr. Pierson’s statement shouldn’t be taken so seriously.  I don’t see it that way.  How do you believe the myth of learning styles continues to grow even though all evidence points to its falsehood?  There’s also this myth that exists even though I’ve yet to see any proof of its validity:

Screen Shot 2017-08-13 at 1.10.47 PM

*If anyone can point me to research advocating for the statistics on this pyramid, please do.  

The spread of learning myths is rampant in our schools and on social media.  Universities still advertise coursework on learning styles, and other myths (right vs. left brained, brain gyms, the learning pyramid above) are still taught in professional development sessions across the world.  These myths are not harmless.  They shape the training of our teaching methods incorrectly and can create aversive conditions for our students.  Teachers need to know of their falsehoods to avoid proliferation; and because of that, Dr. Pierson’s false statement should not be ignored.  

So, students do learn from people they don’t like and it’s important all involved in education know.  Every truth deserves a champion, an advocate who will never give up on it, who understands the power of its application, and insists that they become as known as possible.  

How will you combat learning myths?  How will you advocate for the truths of education?

17 thoughts on “But…We Do Learn from People We Don’t Like

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  1. Thanks for the thought provoking post! We should definitely think critically about the “big generalizations” we hear about teaching and learning. The statement you examine, “students don’t learn from people they don’t like” definitely deserves scrutiny, and you do an excellent job, I think. Teaching and learning are too complex for simple generalizations!

    I wonder if a follow up blog post might be useful about the ways in which positive student teacher relationships ARE useful/advantageous for teaching/learning? This APA post might be useful-
    http://www.apa.org/education/K12/relationships.aspx . Even though the over-statement “students don’t learn from people they don’t like” is too broad a generalization, student-teacher relationships might be an important variable to talk about in teaching/learning, right?

    1. Thank you for the comment. I agree with you. While students do learn from people they don’t like, I do believe they are likely to learn more from a positive environment; including a positive relationship with their teachers.

      A follow up blog might be necessary. I’ve got a few other articles to finish up first, but I’ll revisit soon.

  2. I agree with you for the most part, but I also encourage you to look into trauma-informed educational practices. While it’s true that kids can learn from people they don’t like, some kids can’t learn when they don’t feel safe, and their brains are in survival mode. The book The Boy Who Was Raised as a Dog is an essential read on how trauma affects the brain. Check it out!

  3. Your essay lacks any valid support for your thesis.

    A short list of the fallacies therein include: bait-and-switch; begging the question; relying on personal anecdotal evidence and not one shred of research; and relying on a priori speculative thought experiments. There was also an irresponsible line about child abuse that inverted the common understanding without addressing any research in this complex area.

    The non-sequitur paragraph imagining chaotic schedule changes was particularly creative, but not logical in the least. The humorous tone made me wonder whether the entire piece was a joke meant to expose readers who have low critical-thinking skills, no training in rhetoric, no empathy for students, or whatever it takes to buy this hokum.

    There is much lip service paid these days to teaching critical thinking, but it seems that few teachers are trained in it themselves. The best thing we can do for our students might be to brush up our own thinking skills.

    To the author: please feel free to email me.

  4. Thank-you for your insight. I agree that “some” children learn from any teacher. But, there are some who when a teacher does not make any effort for success ( the latest my son told me is that she is sitting and eating Marshmallows and play games on her computer most of class) including teaching. My son doesn’t learn from a teacher who he doesn’t like and she doesn’t seem interested in teaching.

  5. I do agree that students can learn from teachers they don’t like; however, the is quite a distinction between one’s ability to learn versus one’s will to learn. Not having a positive relationship with students may decrease a student’s will to learn. In addition I think it is important to recognize that the learning effect size on a student would probably be significantly higher if the student likes the teacher.

  6. Not to mention that if a person has a burning desire to learn something, they may seek out anyone who can help them, personal compatibility be damned. This whole issue is most problematic in a compulsory system founded on pretending kids don’t have an intrinsic drive to learn and crushing that drive as soon as possible.

  7. Myths are like people. When they have an advocate, there is always going to be some truth to them. This is context. It is when it is taken out of context that the problems begin and when they are published on to social media….. need I say more….

  8. Some of the most rewarding letters from former students have told me “I didn’t like you as a teacher, I didn’t understand why you were pushing me / wouldn’t let things go but now I get it and I want to say thank you “. Sometimes (not always) great student/teacher relationships come at the expense of a lack of challenge and teachers who remain ambitious for students are unreasonably maligned.

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