Educational neuromyths include the idea that we learn more effectively when taught via our preferred “learning style”, such as auditory or visual or kinesthetic (hear more about this in our recent podcast); the claim that we use only 10 per cent of our brains; and the idea we can be categorised into left-brain and right-brain learners. Belief in such myths is rife among teachers around the world, according to several surveys published over the last ten years. But does this matter? Are the myths actually harmful to teaching? The researchers who conducted the surveys believe so. For instance, reporting their survey results in 2012, Sanne Dekker and her colleagues concluded that “This [belief in neuromyths] is troublesome, as these teachers in particular may implement wrong brain-based ideas in educational practice”. (Full disclosure: I’ve made similar arguments myself.)
But now this view has been challenged by a team at the University of Melbourne, led by Jared Horvath, who have pointed out that this is merely an assumption: “Put simply,” they write in their new paper in Frontiers in Psychology, “there is no evidence to suggest neuromyths have any impact whatsoever on teacher efficacy or practice”.
Horvath’s team tested the assumption that belief in neuromyths harms teaching by comparing belief in the neuromyths among 50 award-winning teachers from the UK, USA and Australia with the belief in these same myths shown by hundreds of trainee and non-award-winning teachers (as recorded in the earlier surveys) – the logic being that if belief in neuromyths has an adverse effect on teaching then presumably the award-winning teachers will show significantly lower rates of endorsement of the myths than their less celebrated counterparts.
The University of Melbourne researchers used the same neuromyths questionnaire as used in the earlier surveys, which comprises 32 statements about the brain, 15 of which are myths. Participants must indicate whether each one is correct, incorrect, or say if they don’t know.
For 13 of the 15 neuromyths, including learning styles, the 10 per cent myth and left-brain/right-brain learners, belief was just as high among the award-winning teachers as among the trainees and non-award-winning teachers. “This suggests there is not a clear or obvious relationship between neuromyth acceptance rates and teacher effectiveness,” the researchers said.
The two exceptions were the idea that “there are critical periods in childhood after which certain things can no longer be learned” and that “children must acquire their native language before a second language is learned”, which the award-winning teachers showed less endorsement of compared with the other teachers. The researchers said they were apprehensive to read too much into this.
Horvath’s team also found the neuromyth questionnaire itself to be wanting because it lacked any internal reliability (answers to the different items appeared entirely unrelated suggesting the questionnaire does not tap one or more coherent factors).
Overall, they interpreted their findings as suggesting that the idea that neuromyths harm teaching may itself be a neuromyth. “As has been frequently noted, there is a real risk of neuroscience being misapplied in educational contexts,” the researchers said. “However, in combating this occurrence, it is imperative researchers do not simply create a different mythology equally devoid of evidence.”
These new findings appear to argue against the idea that belief in neuromyths is harmful to teaching, but it’s important to recognise – and Horvath and his colleagues admit this – that the new survey does not represent a direct test of this question, and there could be many explanations for the results. For instance, and as the researchers speculate, it’s quite possible that the judges allocating teaching awards themselves believe in neuromyths, such as learning styles, and perhaps they even deliberately rewarded teachers who had incorporated such myths into their teaching.
If further research supports the idea that neuromyths have a negligible effect on teaching, this would not be the first time that concerns about misunderstanding neuroscience have turned out to be somewhat overhyped. For instance, for several years it was widely believed that images of the brain have a seductive allure, but it later turned out that this effect was difficult to replicate.