One day neuroscience might revolutionise education, but for now the scientific findings most relevant to teaching and learning come from psychology. In fact, many popular claims about the brain and learning are neuromyths – unsubstantiated or plain wrong ideas, such as that we only use ten per cent of our brains, that some of us are left-brained, others right-brained, or that we learn best when taught via our preferred “learning style”.
Unfortunately and often with the best of intentions, surveys have shown that a lot of teachers believe these myths (for instance, one survey published in 2012 found that British and Dutch teachers believed around half of the 15 neuromyths they were tested on). Now a study in Frontiers in Psychology has focused on German music teachers and students to see how vulnerable they are to brain myths pertaining specifically to music. Although the participants showed some ability to distinguish between true facts and myths, they still endorsed around 40 per cent of the myths, especially those that contained neuroscientific jargon.
Nina Düvel and her colleagues at the Hanover Music Lab asked four experts in the fields of the neuroscience of music or the neuroscience of music education to agree on seven music-related brain facts, and seven music-related brain myths. Among the facts: the idea that music education can benefit language skills and that the anatomy of the brain can change in response to musical training. Among the myths: that right handers process music in the right hemisphere and that musical education boosts children’s intelligence. See box below for the full list.
The researchers challenged 91 music teachers from a random selection of state schools in Germany and 125 students studying to be music teachers at German universities to read through a list of the 14 myths and facts presented in random order and identify which were scientifically substantiated and which unsubstantiated. To avoid raising undue suspicion, there was no mention of “neuromyths” in the survey.
Although statistically speaking the participants were able to distinguish facts from myths better than if they’d simply been guessing, it remained the case that the teachers and students endorsed, on average, around 40 per cent of the myths, mistakenly believing them to be scientifically supported facts. The myths that contained neuroscientific jargon (referencing “brain hemispheres” and “cognitive abilities”) were the most widely believed. On the plus side, the more books, magazines and websites that participants said they had read in relation to psychology and neuroscience, the less vulnerable they were to the myths (this is in contrast to the 2012 survey of school teachers where greater general knowledge about the brain correlated with more belief in neuromyths).
Düvel and her team said “the present study shows that there is a gap between the state of research in neuroscience related to music education and the knowledge of current and future music teachers about these findings and neuromyths”. This is worrying, they added, in the sense that time could be wasted on harmful, ineffective practices. The researchers concluded that perhaps “a lack of communication between scientists and music educators is to blame.”