Using psychology and neuroscience findings to help improve education is a laudable idea. Unfortunately, this aspiration has fallen into the hands of commercial outfits like Brain Gym
, who it is alleged use the mystique of the brain to sell teaching programmes with no scientific grounding. Today, neuromyths abound and well-intentioned teachers risk doing more harm than good.
That’s the worrying picture painted by Sanne Dekker and colleagues, based on their new survey of hundreds of teachers in the UK and the Netherlands. These teachers were chosen for the survey specifically because they reported an interest in neuroscience and in using neuroscience to improve teaching.
The teachers categorised 32 statements about the brain as true or false. Embedded among these items were 15 neuromyths related to education. Overall, the teachers endorsed half of the myths (or put differently, seven of the 15 myths were endorsed by over half the teachers).
Most strongly believed were: the idea that pupils learn better when they receive information via their preferred learning style (e.g. visual vs. auditory); the idea that there are left-brain and right-brain learners; and that co-ordination exercises improve the integration of function between the hemispheres. While proving gullible to neuromyths, the teachers fared relatively well in terms of their general knowledge about brain facts, answering 70 percent correctly.
Worryingly, myths related to quack brain-based teaching programmes were especially likely to be endorsed by the teachers. Perhaps most worrying of all – greater general knowledge about the brain was associated with a greater belief in educational neuromyths. It's as if a little brain knowledge can be a dangerous thing. Dekker and her colleagues said that the teachers’ level of knowledge clearly wasn’t expert enough for them to recognise the difference between brain facts and brain myths. Consistent with this, teachers with more general brain knowledge tended to report reading more popular science magazines. It seems they are acquiring true facts about the brain, but at the same time can’t tell when they’re being sold neuro-nonsense. “This is troublesome,” the researchers said, “as these teachers in particular may implement wrong brain-based ideas in educational practice.”
What to do? Dekker and her colleagues recommend incorporating neuroscience courses into initial teacher training programmes; including basic training in scientific evaluation; and a greater dialogue between scientists and teachers. They also urged neuroscientists to check the way their research is portrayed in the media, and they highlighted the need for research into educational interventions for combating neuromyths. On that last point, I've written on this blog before about the need to challenge neuromyths head-on.
As Dekker and her team point out, it's encouraging that these teachers are so interested in neuroscience. Let's not let the quacks hijack the teachers' enthusiasm. Let's get myth busting.
Dekker, S. et al (2012). Neuromyths in education: Prevalence and predictors of misconceptions among teachers. Frontiers in Psychology.[This paper is open access].
Jarrett, C.B. (2012). Why it's important to tackle brain myths head-on. Brain Myths blog, Psychology Today.
Jarrett, C.B. (2012). Why the right-brain left-brain myth will probably never die. Brain Myths blog, Psychology Today.