How teachers’ myths about the brain are hampering teaching

October 17, 2014

Photographs of the left and right midsagittal sections of Einstein’s brain (credit: the National Museum of Health and Medicine)

Teachers in the UK, Holland, Turkey, Greece and China were presented with seven “neuromyths” and asked whether they believe them to be true.

A quarter or more of teachers in the UK and Turkey believe a student’s brain would shrink if they drank less than six to eight glasses of water a day, while around half or more of those surveyed believe a student’s brain is only 10 per cent active and that children are less attentive after sugary drinks and snacks.

Over 70 per cent of teachers in all countries wrongly believe a student is either left-brained or right-brained, peaking at 91 per cent in the UK.

And almost all teachers (over 90 per cent in each country) feel that teaching to a student’s preferred learning style — auditory, kinaesthetic or visual — is helpful, despite no convincing evidence to support this approach.

The new research from the University of Bristol, published in Nature Reviews Neuroscience, calls for better communication between neuroscientists and educators.

“These ideas are often sold to teachers as based on neuroscience, but modern neuroscience cannot be used support them,” said Paul Howard-Jones, author of the article, from Bristol University’s Graduate School of Education. “These ideas have no educational value and are often associated with poor practice in the classroom.”

The report blames wishfulness, anxiety, and a bias towards simple explanations as typical factors that distort neuroscientific fact into neuromyth.

“Sometimes, transmitting ‘boiled-down’ messages about the brain to educators can just lead to misunderstanding, and confusions about concepts such as brain plasticity are common in discussions about education policy.”

The report highlights several areas where new findings from neuroscience are becoming misinterpreted by education, including brain-related ideas regarding early educational investment, brain plasticity, adolescent brain development, and learning disorders such as dyslexia and ADHD.

Hopes that education will draw genuine benefit from neuroscience may rest on a new but rapidly growing field of “neuroeducational” research that combines both fields, he said.

Abstract of Neuroscience and education: myths and messages

For several decades, myths about the brain — neuromyths — have persisted in schools and colleges, often being used to justify ineffective approaches to teaching. Many of these myths are biased distortions of scientific fact. Cultural conditions, such as differences in terminology and language, have contributed to a ‘gap’ between neuroscience and education that has shielded these distortions from scrutiny. In recent years, scientific communications across this gap have increased, although the messages are often distorted by the same conditions and biases as those responsible for neuromyths. In the future, the establishment of a new field of inquiry that is dedicated to bridging neuroscience and education may help to inform and to improve these communications.