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Educators’ misguided belief in ‘neuromyths’ hinders children’s learning, expert says

Does it matter that a large proportion of people are so misinformed about the brain? Of course, especially when it relates to educating young people.

Previous studies conducted by Paul Howard-Jones and his colleagues in five different countries identified at least seven neuromyths that “have persisted in schools and colleges [and are often] used to justify ineffective approaches to teaching.”
REUTERS/Sergio Perez

I’ve noted here before how certain pop-psychology assertions about the brain stubbornly persist, despite being thoroughly debunked by scientists. A 2013 survey found, for example, that 65 percent of Americans still believe in the 80-year-old bogus notion (reinforced this year, unfortunately, by the sci-fi thriller “Lucy”) that humans use only 10 percent of their brain’s capacity.

Other widely popular brain-related myths include the idea that we tend to be either more analytical or more creative depending on which side of our brain we use the most and that we learn best when we receive information in our “preferred” learning style, whether it be visual, auditory or kinesthetic.

Does it matter that a large proportion of people are so misinformed about the brain?

Yes, says Paul Howard-Jones, an associate professor of neuroscience and education at Bristol University in the United Kingdom. For, as he points out in an article published last week in Nature Reviews Neuroscience, large percentages of educators around the world commonly believe in one or more discredited “neuromyth.” And that factor often hinders their ability to be effective teachers. 

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Howard-Jones’ article is one that all teachers should assign themselves to read.

Leading neuromyths

Previous studies conducted by Howard-Jones and his colleagues in five different countries (the U.K., the Netherlands, Turkey, Greece and China) identified at least seven neuromyths that “have persisted in schools and colleges [and are often] used to justify ineffective approaches to teaching.” Here they are:

  • We mostly only use 10 percent of our brain.
  • Individuals learn better when they receive information in their preferred learning style (for example, visual, auditory or kinesthetic).
  • Short bouts of coordination exercises can improve integration of left and right hemispheric brain function.
  • Differences in hemispheric dominance (left brain or right brain) can help to explain individual differences among learners.
  • Children are less attentive after sugary drinks and snacks.
  • Drinking less than six to eight glasses of water a day can cause the brain to shrink.
  • Learning problems associated with developmental differences in brain function cannot be remediated by education.

Although the United States wasn’t included in the studies referenced in Howard-Jones’ paper, there’s plenty of evidence that many U.S. educators ascribe to these and other neuromyths. 

Howard-Jones cites, for example, a 2011 survey of preschool teachers in Southwestern states that found a majority of them believed children with dyslexia had a problem with visual perception rather than with phonological processing and, therefore, could be helped with vision therapy and tinted lenses — an approach that was thoroughly debunked 20 years ago.

Other misunderstandings about the brain have led some people, including teachers, to question if dyslexia and other learning disorders even exist.

“For people who believe that all ‘proper’ disorders are biologically determined and immutable, the finding that symptoms of children diagnosed with a disorder can be reduced through teaching means that these children never had a ‘real’ disorder to begin with,” writes Howard-Jones.

“This has implications for the children they teach, not least because the achievement of students diagnosed with a learning disorder partly depends on their teachers’ implicit attitude to the disorder,” he adds.

Wishful thinking

Howard-Jones says poor training in neuroscience, a bias toward simple explanations, and wishful thinking help explain why educators remain misguided about what neuroscience does — and doesn’t — say about how children (and adults) learn.

“Neuroscience is rarely included in the training of teachers, who are therefore ill-prepared to be critical of ideas and educational programs that claim a neuroscientific basis,” he writes.

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Some of these mistaken beliefs may be understandable. “There is often some remaining trace of scientific origins in even the most bizarre of neuromyths — a seed from which the myth sprung forth and which may still be contributing to its potency,” Howard-Jones points out.

Being seriously dehydrated can affect thinking, for example. But it’s a big leap from that fact to the idea that children must drink six to eight glasses of water daily to keep their brain from shrinking (as up to 29 percent of the teachers in the studies cited by Howard-Jones believe).

Hampering teaching

Sending children repeatedly to the drinking fountain may not have significant consequences in the classroom, but other actions resulting from neuromyths do. The idea, for example, that each child absorbs new information through his or her own “preferred” learning style can actually impede learning, says Howard-Jones.

“The problem is that there’s no evidence to suggest there’s any benefit in teaching them in that way,” he told the New York Times, “and in fact psychological research has shown even that some students appear to benefit more from receiving information in the style that they do not have preference for.”

The same is true of the strongly held belief among teachers (and others) that the trajectory of a child’s ability to learn becomes mostly fixed by the age of 3.

“The myth has helped to promote the genuine importance of preschool experiences as fundamental for later learning,” Howard-Jones writes, “but it is an oversimplification that has also led to misunderstandings. These include a sense that adults are in a race against time to provide stimulation to their infants before their synapses are lost. This anxiety has been exploited by a host of manufacturers offering toys to stimulate the brain.

“Neurodevelopmental studies have so far provided little support for the idea that only early childhood can be considered as a special time for learning,” he adds, “and neither research in neuroscience nor in education provide simple messages about the ages at which investment in education gives maximum return.”

Unfortunately, however, such oversimplifications have led some teachers  — as well as politicians and policymakers — to narrow their expectations for certain children.

Needed: collaboration

Howard-Jones calls for more collaboration between neuroscientists and educators to “help identify and address misunderstandings as they arise” and to “develop concepts and messages that are both scientifically valid and educationally informative.

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“In the future, such collaboration will be greatly needed if we wish education to be enriched rather than misled by neuroscience,” he adds.

You can download and read Howard-Jones’ article from the Nature Review Neuroscience, although you will have to register on the site first.