Separating neuromyths from science in education
Are you a creative, right-brain type? Do you learn best visually? These are all neuromyths that badly need debunking, says a UK teacher and writer
WHEN it comes to making the classroom more “scientific”, there is good, solid research into the best ways of helping children with dyslexia or autism, or encouraging kids to become bilingual. And then there’s the other stuff.
Having recently completed his book Teacher Proof, which looks at whether research translates into the classroom, Tom Bennett now has so-called educational neuroscience right at the top of his hit list. It makes the attractive claim that understanding the brain will do everything from boosting grades and curing ADHD to raising IQ and reversing ageing. Advocates are not hard to find among both educationists and people who publish teaching materials.
But this can blind us to the fact that, historically, claims linked to neuroscience have often turned out to be backed by scant evidence. Take the left brain/right brain idea. When the late Robert Sperry was a neuroscientist at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, he experimented on patients with epilepsy, and noticed that breaking the link between brain hemispheres affected the ability to perform certain tasks. This led to speculation that processing of language or learning is handled by a specific hemisphere.
A lot of subsequent research appeared to confirm this, notably the work of Gereon Fink, then at the University of Düsseldorf in Germany, and John Marshall from the Radcliffe Infirmary in Oxford, who used brain scans to support the idea of hemispheric dominance. But then people began to speculate that the creative abilities were based in the right hemisphere, and logical faculties in the left. This idea pervaded Western education for years, with students taking left/right brain questionnaires so that their learning could be tailored.
A year after their initial study appeared, however, Fink and Marshall repeated their work and got opposite results. Today, we know that the hemispheres work together in collaborative, complex ways, and that polarising personality types based on crude generalisations is wrong.
But the message still isn’t getting through.In 2011, the No Right Brain Left Behind campaign launched as an advocacy movement, backed by New Age guru Deepak Chopra and British education adviser Ken Robinson. Daniel Pink’s 2005 book, A Whole New Mind: Why right brainers will rule the future, topped the New York Times bestseller charts, and was translated into over 20 languages. And left/right brain resources are still readily available online.
Also on his hit list is an arguably even more pervasive theory, that of “learning styles”. The most popular version was VARK (visual, auditory, read-write, kinaesthetic), put forward by Neil Fleming, a teacher in New Zealand. This argued that every child has an individual learning style, and that they learn, receive, process and retain information best when it is delivered in a mode suited to their style. “V” children should be taught using pictures, film and signs; “R” children using traditional written materials, and so on.
This idea was once endorsed by the UK’s Department for Education, and by its inspection watchdog, Ofsted. But recent research has questioned the whole notion. For example, a review by researchers at Newcastle University in the UK found up to 71 learning styles had been described, mostly not backed by credible evidence.
Another theory still enjoying some credibility is that of “emotional intelligence”. This has its origins in the US developmental psychologist Howard Gardner’s “multiple intelligence” theory, and was popularised by Daniel Goleman in his 1996 book, Emotional Intelligence.
If emotional intelligence exists, so the thinking goes, then students who receive training to boost it will behave themselves, learn more effectively and mature more quickly. In 2005, the UK’s Social and Emotional Aspects of Learning (SEAL) project made it a statutory requirement that all state schools attend to pupils’ emotional intelligence as well as their academic performance.
Early neurological evidence had suggested emotional intelligence and general intelligence were linked, and could be tutored appropriately. But closer investigations showed that what we know about the brain doesn’t stack up.
Many criticisms of emotional intelligence centred on the problems of defining something so nebulous. And in 2005, US psychologist Frank J. Landy pointed out that there is no correlation between nurturing emotional intelligence and high academic test scores. Most worryingly, there is no evidence that the brain works in the way suggested by multiple intelligence theory. Gardner himself says in his book that “there is little evidence to support multiple intelligence theory”.
Neuroscience is still going full steam ahead, boosted by a $100-million commitment from the US government earlier this year, and by the European Union’s €150 million for brain research. It looks likely there will be new claims to monitor.
Take the current hot topic of nootropics – so-called “smart drugs”. At present the only drugs licensed for use to improve academic performance are stimulants such as atomoxetine, for ADHD. Many unlicensed products are available, too, and one survey quoted in Nature claimed that on some campuses, up to 25 per cent of students had taken, or were taking, drugs alleged to enhance mental performance. “Alleged” is key here, since there is very little evidence about either the efficacy or long-term safety of such drugs.
None of the above is to deny the power of neuroscience to revolutionise how we teach by better understanding the brain and the way we learn. But it’s surely time we inoculated ourselves against snake oil.