Saturday 27 October 2012

Neuromyths: ‘A little learning is a dangerous thing’

A little learning is a dangerous thing;
Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring.
(Alexander Pope,
An Essay on Criticism)

When I was in my teens (which in my case lasted until I was at least 30), my father, an otherwise kind and gentle man, used to say to me on occasion, shaking his head in disbelief: “Kevin, you might be clever in some things … but you’re bloody thick in others”. (I think it was his use of the word ‘might’ that really got to me; expressing a degree of doubt.) On mature reflection, I suspect that he was often, if not always, right.
Of course, anyone who has spent any time on university committees will know that the most eminent folk, who are certainly ‘clever in some things’, can be remarkably stupid in others. The almost childlike behaviour of some academics is quite extraordinary. So it should come as no surprise that some otherwise smart and accomplished professionals, such as teachers, are capable of espousing the most curious beliefs. But I get ahead of myself …
Over the past twenty or so years, we have seen extraordinary developments in brain imaging technology such that we now have a much clearer and deeper understanding of how the brain works. At the same time, and notwithstanding this amazing progress, we still have much to learn. Perhaps even more importantly, we still have much to learn about how to put this new knowledge about the brain into practical everyday use. This has not stopped, however, a tidal wave of psychologists, educationists and others from wildly speculating about new ‘brain-based learning’. (I leave it to the reader to come up with examples of non-brain-based learning; elbow learning perhaps …?) Seemingly everywhere one looks, there is news of yet another brain-based teaching method. (Sometimes old wine is simply rebottled with a brain-based label.) My Macquarie colleagues Anne Castles and Genevieve McArthur have recently written an excellent opinion piece on this topic (http://tinyurl.com/9eqrnoa), featuring the recently much vaunted Arrowsmith Program, as a prime example.
Alongside this craze for all things brain-based, or ‘neuro’, a smaller movement has arisen, of desperate evidence-based psychologists and educators, seeking to temper enthusiasm with reality and to dispel some of the nonsense spouted by the ‘brainiacs’, also known as ‘neuromyths’. (A less polite term that you might also encounter online is ‘neurobollocks’.) Like zombies, however, neuromyths are extremely hardy and merely providing contrary empirical evidence is rarely sufficient to kill them off. They might pause, briefly, but then they keep on coming. And they breed …
The extent of this problem is revealed in a recent article by Dekker, Lee, Howard-Jones and Jolles, published in Frontiers in Psychology (http://tinyurl.com/8wsjczw) which reports the results of a survey of 242 teachers conducted in the UK and the Netherlands. Over 90% expressed interest in ‘scientific knowledge about the brain’ and 90% were of the view that such knowledge would positively inform their teaching practice. The teachers responded to an online survey that mixed a selection of neuromyths with true statements about the brain. In addition to the collection of background information (about age, sex, level of education etc), they were also asked about their degree of interest in scientific knowledge about the brain and its influence on their teaching, any ‘brain-based’ methods they had encountered in their school, and whether they read popular science magazines or journals, among other questions.
Over 50% of the teachers indicated that they believed in seven of the 15 neuromyths included in the questionnaire. Over 80% expressed belief in the following: “Individuals learn better when they receive information in their preferred learning style (e.g., auditory, visual, kinesthetic)”; “Differences in hemispheric dominance (left brain, right brain) can help explain individual differences amongst learners”; and “Short bouts of co-ordination exercises can improve integration of left and right hemispheric brain function”. Over 80% of the British teachers had encountered Brain Gym (specifically) and learning styles (generally) (98%) in their schools.
So far, so bad; but it gets worse, much worse. When the researchers examined the results in more detail, they found that teachers who actually knew more about the brain tended to believe in more neuromyths. Yes, that’s right; the more they knew about the brain, the more neurobollocks they believed! As the authors put it:
“These findings suggest that teachers who are enthusiastic about the possible application of neuroscience findings in the classroom find it difficult to distinguish pseudoscience from scientific facts. Possessing greater general knowledge about the brain does not appear to protect teachers from believing in neuromyths.”
A little learning is, indeed, a dangerous thing, as Pope asserts. Later on, in the same work, he also cautions: ‘Fools rush in where angels fear to tread’. Quite.
Footnote: My thanks to Max Coltheart for the most apposite quotation from Pope.


  1. Intriguing and disconcerting findings, although I think the second counterintuitive result might owe more to the nature of the survey than to the possibility that the more teachers read the less they knew.

    1. Participants in the original Herculano-Houzel (2002) survey were asked their opinion in relation to 95 assertions about the brain. The correctness of the assertions was determined using a criterion of 70% agreement on each amongst members of the Society of Neuroscience. Howard-Jones et al (2009) assessed teachers' agreement with 16 assertions adapted from Herculano-Houzel. Dekker et al used 32 assertions - 15 'educational neuromyths' as defined by the OECD and 17 general assertions about the brain. Participants were asked about the correctness of the assertions.

    The subtly different survey questions could elicit different responses from the same participant to the same assertion. People are usually pretty confident about their own opinions, less certain about whether factual assertions are correct, and even the neuroscientists disagreed about the evidence. In short, the actual question asked in the survey could make a difference to responses.

    2. Another factor is the wording of the assertions. Most condense a complex concept into a short sentence. Biology rarely falls neatly into conceptual boxes so there's considerable scope for ambiguity. Herculano-Houzel addressed this by running the assertions past neuroscientists and finding the level of agreement. It's unclear how Dekker et al established the correctness of their assertions.

    An example of ambiguity occurs in assertion 3 "boys have bigger brains than girls". Male and female brain sizes fall into overlapping distributions, so although boys tend to have bigger brains than girls, within any given boy-girl pair, bets are off as to who would have the bigger brain. (Incidentally, this website http://www.education.com/reference/article/Ref_Boys_Girls/
    appears to show a complete disjunct between boys' and girls' brain sizes, despite the original paper showing a considerable overlap when all data points are presented as a scatterplot. The trajectory diagram on the website shows mean values only.) The correctness of the assertion depends on interpretation.

    Then there are the neuromyths. Just one example of potential ambiguity, in assertion 15 "individuals learn better when they receive information in their preferred learning style (e.g. auditory, visual, kinaesthetic)". Dekker et al repeatedly equate 'learning style' with the VAK model and claim that "research has shown that children do not process information more effectively when they are educated according to their preferred learning style (Coffield et al., 2004)" even though Coffield et al considered post-16 learning only, reviewed a dozen different learning style models, and found that several met some of their validity and reliability criteria - Allinson and Hayes' Cognitive Style Index met all of them.

    A teacher whose sum total of knowledge about learning styles models consists of a belief that the VAK model is wrong might have no problem responding in the way that Dekker et al consider correct. On the other hand, a teacher who has read the Coffield report, used other learning style models, and takes assertion 15 at face value (that sensory modality preferences are only one example of a learning style model) might interpret the assertion differently.

    My guess is that better-informed teachers are likely to be aware of the ambiguities implicit in some of the assertions and are more reluctant to agree with an ambiguous statement, in much the same way as bright children are often suspicious of simple questions, assuming there must be a 'catch'.

    This is a fascinating field of research, but there's a big risk, if research findings are over-simplified, of replacing one set of neuromyths with another.

  2. I have now had a chance to take the test myself - see http://tinyurl.com/d2hr8bv
    You are quite right that a few of the items are ambiguous - at least that's what I tell myself to preserve my self esteem! I don't think that this affects the overall pattern of results however.

    As for learning styles, may I refer you to the following and its associated references:


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