Do “NeuroMyths” Hamper Children’s Education?

Online-Diploma-MythsTrue or false? Fact or “neuromyth”? Individuals learn better when they receive information in their preferred learning style (for example, visual, auditory or kinesthetic).

This axiom has long been accepted as a “truism” in education. It’s even been fervently promoted by certain self-proclaimed ADHD experts.  But is it true?  The evidence says no.

In fact, many other long-accepted “truisms” in education are being called up short by neuoscientific inquiry. At least one group of researchers is lamenting

  • educators’ paltry training in neuroscience
  • a tendency toward simple explanations, and
  • even a bias toward wishful thinking.

These factors and more contribute to educators continuing to base their teaching philosophies on incorrect assumptions—”neuromyths,” the researchers call them. One surprise in the research: Participants who showed greater general knowledge of the brain also were more likely to believe in the neuromyths. (The exception: participants who read popular-science magazines.)

NeuroMyths Sold Commercially: e.g. Brain Gym

An added risk comes when these neuromyths come in commercialized products marketed to educators, such as Brain Gym. An excerpt from the researchers’ paper in Frontiers in Psychology:

Some of these misunderstandings have served as a basis for popular educational programs, like Brain Gym or the VAK approach (classifying students according to a VAK learning style). These programs claim to be “brain-based” but lack scientific validation (Krätzig and Arbuthnott, 2006; Waterhouse, 2006; Stephenson, 2009; Lindell and Kidd, 2011). A fast commercialization has led to a spread of these programs into classrooms around the world.

Paul Howard-Jones, an associate professor of neuroscience and education at Bristol University in the United Kingdom, and other researchers in five countries queried teachers participants via an online survey containing 32 statements about the brain and its influence on learning; 15 of the statements were neuromyths.

Seven NeuroMyths

Here are seven of the neuromyths (the full list is presented below) that the researchers contend “have persisted in schools and colleges [and are often] used to justify ineffective approaches to teaching”:

  1. We mostly only use 10 percent of our brain.
  2. Individuals learn better when they receive information in their preferred learning style (for example, visual, auditory or kinesthetic).
  3. Short bouts of coordination exercises can improve integration of left and right hemispheric brain function.
  4. Differences in hemispheric dominance (left brain or right brain) can help to explain individual differences among learners.
  5. Children are less attentive after sugary drinks and snacks.
  6. Drinking less than six to eight glasses of water a day can cause the brain to shrink.
  7. Learning problems associated with developmental differences in brain function cannot be remediated by education.

Study Details

According to the researchers’ paper in Frontiers in Psychology: “This study examined general knowledge about the brain and prevalence of neuromyths among teachers in specific regions of the UK and the NL. It additionally investigated a range of candidate factors that might be associated with these outcomes”

The results indicated that, overall, teachers believed half of the presented myths. Moreover:

  • Seven of the 15 myths were believed by more than half of the teachers. The most prevalent myths related to Brain Gym (Brain Gym International, 2011), learning styles, and left brain/right brain learners. The prevalence of the different myths varied between countries.
  • A higher incidence of myths (higher percentage of questions answered incorrectly) was predicted by higher general knowledge of the brain. The average score on general knowledge of the brain was around 70%.
  • A higher number of correct answers on general statements was predicted by reading popular science magazines.
  • Furthermore, general knowledge about the brain was higher among Dutch teachers. Teacher characteristics (age, sex, primary/secondary school teacher) did not predict literacy or belief in neuromyths.The researchers conclude their report this way: “This demonstrates the need for enhanced interdisciplinary communication to reduce such misunderstandings in the future and establish a successful collaboration between neuroscience and education.”

The Full List of Items in the Survey

Here is the list of items presented to study participants. A “C” or “I” after the statement indicates whether it is Correct or Incorrect.

1. We use our brains 24 h a day (C).

2. Children must acquire their native language before a second language is learned. If they do not do so neither language will be fully acquired (I).

3. Boys have bigger brains than girls (C).

4. If pupils do not drink sufficient amounts of water (=6–8 glasses a day) their brains shrink (I).

5. It has been scientifically proven that fatty acid supplements (omega-3 and omega-6) have a positive effect on academic achievement (I).

6. When a brain region is damaged other parts of the brain can take up its function (C).

7. We only use 10% of our brain (I).

8. The left and right hemisphere of the brain always work together (C).

9. Differences in hemispheric dominance (left brain, right brain) can help explain individual differences amongst learners (I).

10. The brains of boys and girls develop at the same rate (I).

11. Brain development has finished by the time children reach secondary school (I).

12. There are critical periods in childhood after which certain things can no longer be learned (I).

13. Information is stored in the brain in a network of cells distributed throughout the brain.

14. Learning is not due to the addition of new cells to the brain (C).

15. Individuals learn better when they receive information in their preferred learning style (e.g., auditory, visual, kinesthetic) (I).

16. Learning occurs through modification of the brains’ neural connections (C).

17. Academic achievement can be affected by skipping breakfast (C).

18. Normal development of the human brain involves the birth and death of brain cells (C).

19. Mental capacity is hereditary and cannot be changed by the environment or experience (I).

20. Vigorous exercise can improve mental function (C).

21. Environments that are rich in stimulus improve the brains of pre-school children (I).

22. Children are less attentive after consuming sugary drinks and/or snacks (I).

23. Circadian rhythms (“body-clock”) shift during adolescence, causing pupils to be tired during the first lessons of the school day (C).

24. Regular drinking of caffeinated drinks reduces alertness (C).

25. Exercises that rehearse co-ordination of motor-perception skills can improve literacy skills (I).

26. Extended rehearsal of some mental processes can change the shape and structure of some parts of the brain (C).

27. Individual learners show preferences for the mode in which they receive information (e.g., visual, auditory, kinesthetic) (C).

28. Learning problems associated with developmental differences in brain function cannot be remediated by education (I).

29. Production of new connections in the brain can continue into old age (C).

30. Short bouts of co-ordination exercises can improve integration of left and right hemispheric brain function (I).

31. There are sensitive periods in childhood when it’s easier to learn things (C).

32. When we sleep, the brain shuts down (I).

Neuromyth assertions are presented in italic; C = correct; I = incorrect.

You can read summaries of the researched posted at The New York Times and Minnpost.com. The full article in Nature can be accessed via subscription or single-purchase here.

4 thoughts on “Do “NeuroMyths” Hamper Children’s Education?”

  1. Hi Danielle,

    Ooops, they forgot to add the I or C at the end. But all the incorrect statements are in italics.

    I sympathize with struggles to be concise. Originally, my book was about 600 pages. I had to whittle, whittle, whittle to get it under 400. 🙂

    best,
    g

  2. I don’t see a C or I after #13. I’m guessing it’s correct based on other statements, like 6, 8, 12, 14, 16, 18, 19, 28 and 29 in particular. Any thoughts?

    Regarding learning style, it seems like the concept of “learn better” is somewhat tricky. Maybe easier to teach so the information is retained long enough to do well on tests is true. If you first rule out SPD or treat it (for me, right now, there appears to be no chance whatsoever of teaching me things that require me to differentiate certain letters of the alphabet from each other when spoken by a computerized voice in random order, but I have learned that if I don’t know the letter, it’s not the first letter I was asked to simply pick out of the list, I’ve learned the patterns used in the software and can guess correctly a fair amount of the time when I recognize those patterns, I can deduce what some letters are from others when asked to identify sequences based on a common pattern of going the wrong way and then reversing and there almost never being more than 3 in a row, for example, if I have enough time between letters but if I don’t have enough time to either deduce the letter or decide I don’t know what it is, I’m going to do badly in places without those letters where I’d normally do well when a letter in the set I can’t differentiate using hearing alone comes up because I haven’t learned to simply ignore it, which would still negatively affect my score, just not as much…. But I suspect if I was given a task where only my problem letters were in the list, such as the simple one, listening for a specific letter and identifying when that letter is “spoken,” I’d score 100% omissions and no commissions if I continued the pattern I chose myself for a less invalid data set: if I don’t know what it is, the answer is no. I’ve learned that I need to be tested for SPD – these letters fit a pattern of words I’ve had difficulty understanding my whole life with no hearing loss to explain it, that I can identify one letter that almost fits the pattern when I can tell what it is and if I don’t know, I do know one thing it’s not, that repeatedly telling someone with a fancy degree and what looks like some self esteem or flexibility issues that I decided to answer no every time I can’t tell to reduce variability and I happened to get a good score and learned from that it’s not the specific target, so I will continue doing this but I could have just as easily decided to answer the other way and got all those wrong is enough to make the words “possible SPD” come up the first time and not enough to make him understand that his data set is invalid if he doesn’t avoid these letters and it will show up in my scores sooner or later, that telling this person I’m not comfortable using data that can be drastically changed by flipping a coin being used to track my progress at the very beginning of a session where my score was affected by this issue on an exercise I couldn’t know he had planned for that day will make him agitated and then become more steadfast in his stance that I’m wrong… I actually learned a lot more than that too by having context, lip reading, inflection and my other normal coping skills for this issue taken away, didn’t I? It just wasn’t what was trying to be tight and this is working through a disability where I can’t tell what I’m hearing, not a preference!)…

    It seems harder to learn using a non-preferred modality and I’m guessing we my develop these preferences because it takes less effort to do well initially. In my experience, I tend to ACTUALLY LEARN when it takes work. An example that I think most people would relate to is that I am likely to ask the same question again when simply given an answer only and no explanation of a concept I don’t understand. I’m less likely to ask the same question several times when given the answer and explanation, and I’m most likely to learn and retain that information when I’m given the tools and proper amount of guidance to understand the underlying concept and figure out the answer based on that.

    The example shows the more work I did to learn something, the better I learned it. Here, we only seem to measure one part of this in our schools, generally speaking – the ability to repeat the information or procedure on a test. Sure, if I asked the same question enough times, I’d remember eventually. I suffered a bad head injury a year ago and since then, I’m better able to learn skills that are acquired through practice, or, in other words, repetition. When homework was optional in school, I’d only do the first two or so “problems with different numbers.” I’d learn the underlying concept. When it counted toward my grade, I’d get really irritated at having to do the same thing 20 or 30 times for each concept, do it again for a closely related concept, and then onto the next subject to do the same thing. When rote memorization is the only tool I’m given, I retain the information exactly as long as I need it. It gives good test scores but is this really learning? Sometimes things just need to be memorized. Like i before e except after c, unless the word is just plain weird… But that’s something I will use often throughout my life and a building block of sorts.

    If you are trying to learn something using a non-preferred modality, you are working harder and using more of your brain. It takes longer. I was always a visual learner. I now know it wasn’t two specific words in one situation I had problems hearing and understanding. It’s a lot, anything that fits a specific pattern, but I developed methods of compensating for it that were usually effective. Now I know why I dislike the phone and that at least now, divided attention is my biggest problem area when it comes to attention. No wonder I could either take notes or understand what was being taught but not both, I couldn’t see the teacher’s lips looking at my notebook. I started reading ahead in the textbook and stopped taking notes in class unless it wasn’t in the book. Good test scores are probably faster and easier for a teacher to achieve using the preferred modality. But looking at the bigger picture…

    Something simple and straightforward in isolation is likely best learned using the preferred modality. But using a different modality could help with bigger picture learning. My example of working harder given tools and guidance to learn something doesn’t exactly translate, but it sort of does. You are using different parts of your brain trying to learn something using a more difficult modality. You are putting more effort into learning what’s being taught. The benefit I think this provides is not going to be immediately visible or measurable, but in the big picture, it exists and will show up later on. You’ve learned some other things along the way. Unlike an underlying concept instead of just an answer, these things aren’t so obvious. When you need to use a skill learned in one area in a completely different context, like apply some theory with no real world application you learned in math a few years ago to some real world scenario in physics, I’d guess this is where you will benefit from those extra things you don’t even know you learned… And that’s hard to measure, especially for someone who teaches one subject in one grade. Hey don’t employers like transferable skills?

    Before my head injury, people told me I wasn’t born with it and can’t learn rhythm. Then I asked the right person who listened when I said I must have some ability – I do fine in that rock baby game where the cues are visual instead of auditory. Actually I was wrong about that; I was getting both but MY cues were visual. I was inspired by the story he told me about his utter failure the first time he tried using a metronome. He thought it was broken even. This man is a professional drummer. He gave me the tools. Sound and whatever I can find that works for me visually at the same time. There are tons of apps for that! And practice. Start with one note. We banged on a table to a song with a prominent beat. I was doing it! With him to show me, I could find the beat. Do it enough and your eyes and ears will make the connection, he said. I got to the point where I could play simple things not just to a click or beep, but to something I made on the computer with a simple drum track I could easily hear, but some simple instrumental parts too, heavy on the rhythm, to help me learn to get myself back on track if I missed something – with a metronome, I wouldn’t know where to pick up. I could do it well enough to know I was hitting it using an instrument I only know a few chords on with my eyes closed. I was going at my pace and learning them one at a time until I could go between any I knew without looking pretty consistently before adding another. I got it first on that. It’s harder with the instrument I was taught as a kid with no metronome and can play fairly complex songs on with no rhythm. But I can do simple stuff on that now too and use repetition to make those connections. I CAN learn rhythm. I just have trouble hearing it. I can’t clap my hands to most songs because I can’t pick out the beat. But make it simple after the repetition I did with both senses and I can do it. I have to keep practicing or I lose a lot of what I gained. I was just getting it when the head injury screwed up my vision. That was a major setback. But now I’m in treatment and I can practice a little. I lost the ability to think quickly, when I’m trying especially. Seems I’m faster when I’m trying not to think about something. Part of his advice was don’t think about it. Guess what types of things I’m gravitating toward now: ones where I need repetition to learn a skill I can build on. The time I spend practicing allows the theory part to get processed.

    So my eyes and ears can teach each other, at least what I’m capable of taking in. Alternate red and green to a colorblind person and she isn’t going to learn rhythm from that plus a sound… I CAN hear rhythm. At least now I can; maybe I learned it from seeing and hearing it together. I’m just not that good at it yet. I can do it if it’s simple and obvious but can’t find it in most songs yet. But I’ll get there. A new friend gave me the tools and helped me believe in myself by telling me of his own shortcomings and while I was thinking write he overcame this and then some, I can too, he showed me that I can do it.

    The brain is interesting. It does some unexpected things. Break it a little and weird things happen like all my life I couldn’t skateboard opposite my usual stance. Now suddenly I find an exercise someone gave me and I made harder before trying was easy and I can do it just fine on a smooth surface. Plus, I’m better at stopping with the wrong foot in front. I couldn’t do it at all before…

    My communication skills weren’t great before, especially being concise. And expressing myself clearly is something I’m working on relearning. I thought I couldn’t be concise before. Hah my stuff from before looks like tweets now! I’m working on that too. I’m not sure whether what I’m trying to say came out. Certainly not clearly and definitely not concisely. For that I apologize. I’m working on it, finally with help and if the help doesn’t help I’ll get other help… Thanks for bearing with me. I did a decent job with the part about #13 I think though. Simple subject. See? Simple works. And I think combining modalities would be MY preferred learning style.

  3. Wow! I see that a lot of those are truly myths. I’m finding it really hard to believe that learning isn’t enhanced when a child’s learning style is implemented though, especially for kids with ADHD. It sure seems like their classroom success is improved if nothing else. I find differentiated instruction crucial for kids with ADHD.

    Penny Williams
    Author of “Boy Without Instructions: Surviving the Learning Curve of Parenting a Child with ADHD” and “What to Expect When You’re Not Expecting ADHD”

    1. Hi Penny,

      Keep in mind, this was a survey of educators in general, not of special ed.
      Maybe some of the neuromyths are actually true for some children with ADHD.

      Then again, some of the late-diagnosis adults I meet say they’d always been considered “kinesthetic” learners when really their unaddressed ADHD symptoms created problems in listening and retaining. So, who knows. Perhaps it’s a case by case issue.

      best,
      Gina

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