Are educational neuromyths actually harmful? Award-winning teachers believe in nearly as many of them as trainees

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The researchers said the idea that neuromyths harm teaching may itself be a neuromyth

By Christian Jarrett

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.

On the Irrelevance of Neuromyths to Teacher Effectiveness: Comparing Neuro-Literacy Levels Amongst Award-Winning and Non-award Winning Teachers

Christian Jarrett (@Psych_Writer) is Editor of BPS Research Digest and author of Great Myths of The Brain

9 thoughts on “Are educational neuromyths actually harmful? Award-winning teachers believe in nearly as many of them as trainees”

  1. I find the area of preferred learning style interesting. This is based partly on my own experience: I have now and have always had a preference for visual learning and I believe that I learn more effectively this way. Now in my 40s I have been told I have a previously unidentified mild hearing impairment, likely to have been there since birth. Is this coincidence? Does this make my preferred learning style more or less valid?

    What about specific learning difficulties, like dyslexia – if dyslexia as a concept is valid, does this not imply that some people do learn more effectively using particular styles over others?

    One last thing. Widely used neuropsychological tests such as the Wechsler Memory Scale apparently measure things like visual memory and auditory memory and commonly identify meaningful differences between the two. Interpretative reports following testing frequently recommend learning strategies based on identified strengths and weaknesses. These tests are considered to have excellent reliability and validity. Is this not evidence in favour of preferred learning styles or am I missing something?

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    1. I think there might be some confusion about what *learning* really is when learning styles are discussed. My preferred definition of learning is “an external interaction process between the learner and his or her social, cultural or material environment, and an internal psychological process of acquisition and elaboration” (Illeris, 2003, p. 298). Therefore, getting the information (visually, via audio, etc.) really is just the first step, interaction. Wechsler scale (originating during the era of behaviorism) tests memory, which is the second step in learning process, acquisition. Elaboration is where learning really happens when new information is connected to existing knowledge, allowing us to engage in meaning-making process that transforms our thinking. I train teachers and blog about learning process at https://notesfromnina.com/
      🙂
      Nina

      Illeris, K. (2003). Toward a contemporary and comprehensive theory of learning. International Journal of Lifelong Education, 22(4), 396-406. doi:10.1080/0260137032000094814

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      1. That’s interesting. I wonder what definitions are being used. So going by your definition we might suggest some people have a preferred style/relative strength in the way in which they interact with the environment and acquire information. This would still be something, no?

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  2. The study is fundamentally flawed as it assumes that the teaching awards and the advanced degrees in education distinguish a group of more effective educators. The awards listed in the study and advanced degrees in education have no correlation to effectiveness as an educator, but rather to acceptance of the shared assumptions of professional educators, including the neuromyths that are supposed to be the subject of the study. A better designed study would find a way to separate out educators who do not accept these neuromyths and then determine if this out-group are more effective as educators.

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  3. I get the idea, from this reading, that there is one true gospel in when it comes to learning styles, and is it not curious that it happens to be the old language/math centric approach with the child chained to the desk listening to a chalk-talk. Education researchers have said for decades that students have different preferred learning patterns, yet the one size fits all education industry continues to force fit all students into the liberal-arts mode, which is the modern equivalent of the classical mode. Look closely at the reason behind this and you will see it has as much to do with class distinctions, snob appeal, and this innate desire, by some, to move away from some forms of work or end goals which are deemed less sophisticated. Its the old story of my child is better than yours because they have gone to the elite school and studied the high brow subjects.
    The educational industrial complex is made up of people who have this single minded desire to maintain a hierarchy of educational norms and then to separate students into winners and losers, making sure everyone knows their idea or their students are in the winning program.
    Over the past 30 years the public has been sold on an idea that their child will be go to college and that only through a college degree will they find salvation and a high paying & rewarding career. As part of this education gospel, our schools have dismantled technical programs, as they cost more per pupil to operate, and they do not fit into this concept of academic snobbery. Many students who are visual/kinesthetic learners thrive in technical programs as they are able to develop their minds in a manner which matches their hard wiring. Just because they do not test well in the standard areas deemed to be absolutely crucial, by the high priests of the language/math education church, the students are deemed to be failures. In fact most/all programs which make use of “hands-on” learning are actually using their techniques to trick the non standard student into learning the standard core concepts. It becomes the cheese which we put Rover’s pill into to get him to take his medicine. Their end goal is still to have language & math concepts to be fully understood and in a conventional way.
    Our schools do a disservice in not providing a learning environment which prepares their students for a successful future, and that success should not be seen as the same for each person.
    For many decades comprehensive schools provided career, vocational, and technical programs. This is where the students put into action the theory they were learning in the “core” subjects. with the demise of these programs the “hands on” learner has no successful interface with knowledge.
    Stop forcing your cats to be vegan.

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