It’s time to replace neuromyths with neurofacts

Teachers need vetted information on how learners’ brains work and how to best support learning
GDJ, Pixabay.com, CC0 1.0
GDJ, Pixabay.com, CC0 1.0

Educators have not benefited from advances in neuroscience. Despite substantial gains in our understanding of brain development, the neural basis of learning, and how neuropsychiatric disorders can disrupt normal cognition – little of this information has changed the practice of teaching in a meaningful way. In fact, very little of this information has even made its way to teachers.

Unfortunately, disagreements about how neuroscience can contribute to educational practices, with warnings of caution beginning with John T. Bruer’s claim that the chasm between neuroscience and education is too large to bridge, has limited meaningful interactions between the two fields. Less reputable sources have happily built a shoddy bridge, resulting in numerous educational “neuromyths” that have been exceedingly difficult to erase despite multiple researchers pointing out that they are indeed myths.

Many “neuromyths” and fads have exploded in the field of education including both for profit programs and information that is generally circulated through blogs and teachers passing on ideas. One of the most pervasive of these myths, with strong face validity, is that teaching to students’ learning styles (e.g., visual, auditory, and kinesthetic) will improve their academic achievement.

“Less reputable sources have happily built a shoddy bridge, resulting in numerous educational neuromyths that have been exceedingly difficult to erase.”

Brain gym is an example of a program used in schools that is based on neuromyths regarding left/right and top/bottom differences in the brain. It has students engage in specific movements that are intended to integrate or repattern the brain and improve functioning across areas including memory, academics, and organizational skills. These are not evidence-based and have not improved outcomes for students – indeed, they may even hamper them and eat up the limited resources of time and money in school districts. Put frankly, neuroscience as applied in the classroom owes more to Pinterest than PubMed.

To change this situation, teachers need vetted information on neuroscience as it relates to the classroom including how it can provide evidence for some practices they already use, new information they can apply, and the limits of attempting to translate neuroscience into classrooms. Training in neuroscience needs to be offered to both teachers in training and those already in service.

At the University of Calgary, we brought together our faculties of education (Werklund School of Education) and medicine (Cumming School of Medicine) to create an Educational Neuroscience Certificate. This innovative program is helping educators develop their understanding of neuroscience, its application in the classroom, and how to critically evaluate initiatives to avoid fads and neuromyths.

“Educators need to be invited to collaborate in developing studies that answer applied questions rather than simply receiving information from neuroscientists.”

This new relationship between education and neuroscience need not be a one-way street either. Educators have much to offer to help generate novel research questions, partner to test novel interventions, and to help guide and shape the implementation of discoveries in the real world. They need to be invited to collaborate in developing studies that answer applied questions rather than simply receiving information from neuroscientists. As Walter Payton famously said, “we are stronger together than we are alone.”

Co-author of this blog post: Frank P. MacMaster
 
 
References

Bruer, J. T. (1997). Education and the brain: A bridge too far. Educational Researcher, 26(8), 4-16. doi: 10.3102/0013189X026008004
 
 
The Flux Congress acts as a forum for developmental cognitive neuroscientists to share their findings, expand their knowledge base, and be informed of translational approaches. This conference, taking place in New York August 30th – September 1st, 2019, is designed for scientists who use neuroimaging techniques to understand age related changes in brain function and structure.

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