Brain baloney has no place in the classroom
If you want to make a neuroscientist’s head explode, all you need to do is confidently and triumphantly tell them that humans only use 10% of their brains. Or that right-brained people are more creative than left-brained people. Or that jiggling your head around gets more blood to the brain so you can think more efficiently. These are myths about the brain that have now been around for so long, it’s a wonder they haven’t had a congratulatory message from the Queen.
Unfortunately, because they’ve been around for so long, neuromyths have taken hold in a broad range of aspects of everyday life. Nowhere is this more problematic than in the education system. A new article in Nature Reviews Neuroscience this week has cast a critical eye on the issue, and reveals some worrying statistics about the extent to which brain baloney have infiltrated the beliefs of teachers around the world.
The survey, conducted by Paul Howard-Jones at the University of Bristol, asked 938 teachers from five different countries whether they agreed or not with a number of statements relating to popular myths about the brain. The results paint a picture of a global epidemic of neurononsense. In the UK, 91% of teachers surveyed believed that differences in hemispheric dominance could account for differences in preferred learning methods for students – in other words, ‘left-brained’ students think in a different way to ‘right-brained’ students. Among Chinese teachers, 59% agreed that we only use 10% of our brains. Across all five countries – the UK, the Netherlands, Turkey, Greece and China – on average, a whopping 96% of surveyed teachers agreed that students learn most effectively when taught in their preferred learning style (visual, auditory or kinaesthetic).
But why is this the case? Howard-Jones argues that there’s a number of reasons why neuromyths persist, but they essentially all boil down to inadequate communication between neuroscientists, educators and policymakers.
In particular, an ongoing issue is that neuroscientific counter-evidence to dodgy brain claims are difficult to access for non-specialists. Often, crucial information appears in quite a complex form in specialist neuroscientific journals, and often behind an exorbitant paywall – for example, the Journal of Neuroscience charges $30 for one day of access to a single article. And yes, ironically it’s worth noting that the neuromyths paper is, frustratingly, also behind a paywall.
Another problem is misinterpretation – particularly when it comes to neuroimaging studies. Without a proper grounding in how to interpret scans of the brain, images showing different areas ‘lighting up’ perpetuates a misconception that these areas are active but isolated from each other, with the rest of the brain inactive at that point in time. “To non specialists”, Howard-Jones argues in the paper, “apparently well-defined and static islands on one side of a brain are more suggested of a new phrenology than of a statistical map indicating where activity has exceeded an arbitrary threshold.”
And so we’re left with a situation in which neuromyths have largely been left unchallenged in the education system. But, at least there’s a spark of hope that this is changing. Both teachers and neuroscientists alike are starting to see an increased need for better communication. A new field of ‘educational neuroscience’ is starting to develop, in part bolstered by a 2011 report from the Royal Society looking at some of the implications of neuroscience within a teaching and learning setting. And teaching unions are eager to look at the possibilities for using neuroscience – they just need to be careful that they do so in an objective, evidence-based way.
Two things spring to mind that can be done immediately. Wouldn’t it be great if Nature Reviews Neuroscience dropped the paywall for this article, and sent it to as many teachers and schools as possible? Alternatively, let’s give teachers a core textbook of their own: Christian Jarrett’s excellent book Great Myths of the Brain, which came out this week. Required reading before thinking about neuroscience-based education policies. And yes, it will be on the exam at the end of the year.
By the way, if you want to make a psychologist’s head explode, all you need to do is ask them if they can tell what you’re thinking. Or ask them whether it’s a proper science. Just don’t mention anything about p values or replication.