A little learning is a dangerous thing;
Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring.
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.