The Science of Learning

Neuromyths and Education

Over the years, neuroscience has made spectacular leaps forward in finding out how the brain functions and effects behavior. With a Ph.D. in cognitive neuroscience, I have been a first-hand witness to this remarkable growth and age of discovery. After a number of years in educational administration, I went back to scholarship, but this time I focused on The Science of Learning. This has been a fascinating journey as I have found just how little science has influenced teaching and education and how dogmatic teachers in higher education are when confronted with what science says about their teaching practices. However, teachers from the earliest childhood education through to university professors have embraced neuroscience as a way to inform their teaching.

Unfortunately, as with most of education, teachers have heard snippets or read a popular article about some finding, and without any kind of scrutiny, have rushed to interpret what they have heard and apply it to teaching, sparking a wild rush for everyone to adopt the latest findings into his or her teaching practice. They don’t ask for expert opinion because… well, just because. They simply adapt what they have heard and turn it into the latest brilliant idea to be adopted in the classroom.

This hasn’t been helped by some outright fraudulent activity that takes place in the private sector. There is always money to be made promising people a quick fix for difficult areas in their lives. As I wrote in an earlier article, learning is hard. However, with all of the advances in technology and engineering – not to mention the spectacular discoveries in neuroscience – we somehow feel that, along with labor-saving devices, there should be learning shortcut processes or devices that have been developed. This just isn’t the case. Learning is just as difficult now as it was a thousand years ago. There are no shortcuts. However, this has not stopped canny businessmen from taking a snippet of science and, from that, developing an elaborate system of learning that will change you as an individual and save our society.

Although the neuromyths that have plagued education for a number of years are patently false, they often have a sliver of truth from which the myth has arisen. In 2002, the Brain and Learning project defined a neuromyth as a “misconception generated by a misunderstanding, a misreading or a misquoting of facts scientifically established (by brain research) to make a case for use of brain research in education and other contexts”.

As an example cited by Howard-Jones, we know from real scientific research that dehydration leads to a decrease in cognitive performance. There is a myth, established by a shoddy study done in the 1940s, which says that we should drink at least two liters of water a day (about 60 ozs) in order to function properly. The reality is that your body has this incredible feedback mechanism called thirst that tells you when you need to drink. However, if you are in education, since you know that dehydration leads to reduced cognitive function, and we must drink at least two liters of water a day, that means that if you don’t drink at least two liters of water a day your brain will shrink. You may find this humorous, however, between 20 and 25% of your colleagues believe this to be true.

The most popular and pervasive myth is that your brain is wired to learn in a particular way – a learning style. Learning styles tell us that individuals learn better when they receive information in their preferred learning style (for example, visual, auditory or kinesthetic). This myth is believed by approximately 95% of teachers today. The idea is based on the fact that there are different brain regions that process information from different modalities. From that, it is easy to imagine how someone decided that, due to individual differences, the different brain areas would vary in size from person to person. Naturally, if you have a larger auditory area of the brain devoted to processing auditory information you will be able to learn better when information is presented through sound. Completely mythical, but believed by almost every practicing teacher. Many education departments require their education students to make lesson plans that will cater to the different learning styles of children. Is it any wonder that teachers believe learning styles to be true. Phrenology at its best.

In another myth, Edward Thorndike did some experimentation on chickens at the beginning of the last century. He wanted to work on children, but was denied the opportunity – probably a good idea considering what he did in his experiments. As a result, he opted for chickens. Columbia University refused to give him lab space for the experiments he did on his chickens, so (much to the displeasure of his landlady) he carried out his experiments in his attic apartment. What he found is that you can scoop out up to 90% of a chickens brain, and they will still act like a chicken. Quite naturally, educators have taken this finding and run with it. About 50% of teachers today believe that we only use 10% of our brains. The eureka moment will be when someone figures out how we can tap into the other 90% that lies dormant. Obviously, the geniuses of the world figure out how to use more (maybe two or three percent – which would increase their processing power by 20 to 30% over the rest of us). Half of the teachers out there, including those just down the corridor from you, believe this to be true!

We all know from neuroscience that the brain is divided into two hemispheres connected by a bundle of nerves called the corpus callosum, in the posterior part of the brain it is called the splenium and in the anterior part of the brain it is called the genu (I included that tidbit in hopes that a brilliant teacher can take the two parts of the corpus callosum and make up some wonderful new learning fad).

Naturally, with two sides of the brain, educators have decided that there is a lot that they can do with this one. Students come to you with either one side of the brain or the other dominant, and so they arrive with widely different abilities. Everyone knows that there are right brained people (intuitive learners) and left brained people (sequential learners) and that different instruction will benefit those with different hemispheric dominance. At least 85% of “the everyone” knows this and tailor their teaching to take advantage of this myth. In fact, some educational texts instruct teachers to test children to find out which hemisphere dominates so they can know who will benefit from different kinds of instruction.

In addition, since learning would benefit from the two sides working together in tandem, if we exercise both sides of our bodies in a coordinated effort, the connections between the hemispheres will be strengthened and our ability to learn will be increased. Well, at least 80% of us know this and the other 20% should get on board because we all want to take advantage of both sides of the brain for learning in the hopes of, somehow, tapping into the dormant 90% that we don’t use at all.

A couple of other myths to throw in just for fun is the “fact” that sugary drinks and snacks cause children (and, presumably adults) to be less attentive to learning (a mere 50% believe this one), and developmental differences that lead to learning deficits cannot be remediated by education (thankfully, only about 20% believe in this).

Neuromyths are even better is they are not testable by neuroscience. Multiple intelligence theory is one of these. A good theory must be both measurable and testable. Building a good educational theory about multiple intelligences, which is neither measurable or testable, means that teachers can (and do) run with this one as far as they can. It just might be true. But then again, as I wrote last week, we must be able to categorize people (especially learners) or… or… or something really terrible will happen.

I know that neuromyths are only one aspect of The Science of Learning, but it is a difficult one to deal with. As I have talked about these myths with teachers, I often get eye rolling and the, “why should I believe you, I know what I know” look. Sometimes it goes further than a look and I am dismissed in disgust. After all, they are a teacher as well, and their opinion is just as valid as mine. That would be like me saying that the carbon molecules on a benzene ring have an awareness that allows them to get into the right place at the right time and when I am corrected by a chemist, I respond with “you have your opinion, and I have mine, and mine is just as valid as yours”. I put gas in my vehicle, and so I know about benzene rings too.

I was talking to one of the lead people in a teaching center at a local university, and he asked me to inform him about some of the principles of The Science of Learning. When I finished, he responded with exactly the well-worn phrase, with one addition, “you have your opinion and I have mine, and we have to respect everyone’s opinion about teaching.” He then went on to add that he had been looking for teaching support materials to support some of the professors at the university who wanted to know more about teaching styles.

I feel like I am fighting an uphill battle, but will try to keep going.

One thought on “Neuromyths and Education

  1. Pingback: “I’m Left-Brained and My Learning Style is Visual!” *Cringe* – Evidence Based Learning

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