Howard-Jones (2014). Neuroscience and education: myths and messages.

Howard-Jones, P. A. (2014). Neuroscience and education: myths and messages. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 15(12), 817–824. https://doi.org/10.1038/nrn3817

“Understanding the cultural distance to be travelled between neuroscience and education — and the biases that distort communications along the way — may support a dispassionate assessment of the progress in developing a bridge across these diverse disciplines and of what is needed to complete it.” (p 817)

[Neuromyths in education” (p 817) …]

“… neuromyth as a ‘misconception generated by a misunderstanding, a misreading or a misquoting of facts scientifically established (by brain research) to make a case for use of brain research in education and other contexts’ (REF. 13).” (p 817)

[“Seeds of confusion — how myths begin.” (p 817) … ]

“It is more likely that such interventions originate from uninformed interpretations of genuine scientific facts and are promoted by victims of their own wishful thinking who hold a ‘sincere but deluded fixation on some eccentric theory that the holder is absolutely sure will revolutionize science and society’ (REF. 16).” (p 817)

“Perhaps the most popular and influential myth is that a student learns most effectively when they are taught in their preferred learning style. … The implicit assumption seems to be that, because different regions of the cortex have crucial roles in visual, auditory and sensory processing, learners should receive [page break] information in visual, auditory or kinaesthetic forms according to which part of their brain works better20. The brain’s interconnectivity makes such an assumption unsound, and reviews of educational literature and controlled laboratory studies fail to support this approach to teaching21–23. However, it is true that there may be preferences and, perhaps more importantly, that presenting information in multiple sensory modes can support learning24.” (p 817-818)

[“Cultural conditions — a space for myths to thrive.” (p 818) …]

“One condition that is likely to favour the propagation of a myth is when counterevidence — as well as the neuroscientific findings on which the myth was (wrongly) based — is difficult to access, which effectively protects the myth from scrutiny.” (p 818)

“To non-specialists, apparently well-defined and static islands on one side of a brain are more suggestive of a new phrenology than of a statistical map indicating where activity has exceeded an arbitrary threshold.” (p 818)

“Multiple Intelligences theory has proved popular with teachers as a welcome argument against intelligence quotient (IQ)-based education. It encourages them to characterize learners in terms of a small number of relatively independent ‘intelligences’ — for example, linguistic, musical and interpersonal31. Multiple Intelligences theory claims to be drawn from a range of disciplines, including neuroscience, which — it has been claimed — is ‘amazingly supportive of the general thrust of Multiple Intelligences theory’ (REF. 32). However, the general processing complexity of the brain makes it unlikely that anything resembling Multiple Intelligences theory can ever be used to describe it, and it seems neither accurate nor useful to reduce the vast range of complex individual differences at neural and cognitive levels to any limited number of capabilities33.” (p 818)

[“Biases — how myths are shaped.” (p 819) …]

“Although at infancy we tend not to regard mind and brain as being distinctly different34, developmental research suggests that children acquire a bias towards ideas about mind and brain35. Our beliefs about the mind-brain relationship may shape our notions of free will and, in turn, influence decisions regarding issues of personal well-being and whether to help others36,37. … those who favoured a stronger genetic influence on educational outcome also held stronger ideas of biologically defined limits on what their pupils could achieve, which suggests that the teachers felt less able to help them3,7. … In the UK, where half of the population report no affiliation with any religion38, only 15% of trainee teachers believed that the mind results from the spirit or the soul acting on the brain. By contrast, in Greece — which stands out among European states in terms of how religious its people are39 — 72% of trainee teachers believed in this idea2.” (p 819)

“Low-cost and easily implemented classroom approaches can certainly cultivate wishfulness amongst educators, especially if they are fun and therefore likely to be well received by students.” (p 819)

“To summarize, the neuromyths that have flourished in areas of public and educational understanding of the brain are comfortably protected from the evidence and concepts that are required to efface them. This protection is provided by the scientific concepts being fundamentally complex, by the fact that evidence is hidden in technical journals that have their own technical language and/or by the fact that there cannot be any direct evidence (for example, because the myth is untestable). Protected from scrutiny, a range of emotional, developmental and cultural biases have influenced the types of unscientific ideas that have emerged.” (p 819)

[“Communication begins: out with the old?” (p 819) …]

[“Early development and the enduring ‘myth of three’.” (p 819) …]

“Neurodevelopmental studies have so far provided little support for the idea that only early childhood can be considered as a special time for learning58, and neither research in neuroscience59 nor in education60 provide simple messages about the ages at which investment in education gives maximum return.” (p 820)

“Human development and learning arise from a range of interrelated neural circuits subserving a range of cognitive and other skills, which develop at different rates until early adulthood, sometimes in a discontinuous manner.” (p 820)

[“Difference and biological determinism.” (p 820) …]

“Neurobiological findings should and do feature in expert discussions about learning disorders, including their definition, causes and treatment. In less scientific debates on these subjects, a dualistic non-plastic mind-brain model — in which the brain cannot be influenced by the mind — has fuelled arguments both in support of and against the existence of particular learning disorders. … Recent studies provide evidence against ideas of biologically determined and fixed qualitative differences between individuals with and without diagnosis of a developmental disorder (FIG. 1).” (p 821)

[“Engagement and dopamine mythology.” (p 821) …]

[“Figure 1 | Imaging studies of interventions are of particular interest to education.” (p 821)]

“Studies such as this, which focus both on problematic learner differences and their remediation, are helpful and relevant to education. Firstly, they provide insight into the biology of individual differences which, when integrated with educational expertise, may form the basis of more effective approaches to teach children with learning disorders in the future. More immediately and more generally, they show the plasticity of the brain and indicate that brain function can be improved by a student practising well-designed tasks.” (p 821)

[“Adolescence and brake failure.” (p 822) …]

[“Conclusions and the future” (p 822) …]

“We see new neuromyths on the horizon and old neuromyths arising in new forms, we see ‘boiled-down’ messages from neuroscience revealing themselves as inadequate, and we see confusions about the mind-brain relationship and neural plasticity in discussions about educational investment and learning disorders.” (p 822)

Selected References

2. Deligiannidi, K. & Howard-Jones, P. in International Conference on New Horizons in Education. 44 (Procedia Social and Behavioral Sciences, 2014).

3. Howard-Jones, P. A., Franey, L., Mashmoushi, R. & Liao, Y.‑C. The Neuroscience Literacy of Trainee Teachers. British Educational Research Association Annual Conference [online], http://www.leeds.ac.uk/educol/documents/185140.pdf (Univ. of Manchester, 2009).

7. Pei, X., Zhang, S., Liu, X., Jin, Y. & Howard-Jones, P. in International Conference on New Horizons in Education. 64 (Procedia Social and Behavioral Sciences, 2014).

13. Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. Understanding the Brain: Towards a New Learning Science. (OECD Publications, 2002).

16. Beyerstein, B. in Mind Myths (ed. Della Salla, S.) 59-82 (John Wiley and Sons, 1999).

20. Politano, C. & Paquin, J. Brain-based learning with class. (Portage & Main, 2000).

21. Coffield, F., Moseley, D., Hall, E. & Ecclestone, K. Report No. 041543. Learning styles and pedagogy in post-16 learning: a systematic and critical review. (Learning and Skills Research Centre, 2004).

22. Geake, J. G. Neuromythologies in education. Educ. Res. 50, 123–133 (2008).

23. Kratzig, G. P. & Arbuthnott, K. D. Perceptual learning style and learning proficiency: a test of the hypothesis. J. Educat. Psychol. 98, 238–246 (2006).

24. Najjar, L. J. Principles of educational multimedia user interface design. Hum. Factors 40, 311–323 (1998).

31. Gardner, H. Frames of the mind: the theory of multiple intelligences. (Basic Books, 1983).

32. Gardner, H. Multiple intelligences: new horizons. (Basic Books, 2006).

33. Waterhouse, L. Multiple intelligences, the Mozart effect, and emotional intelligence: a critical review. Educat. Psychol. 41, 207–225 (2006).

34. Johnson, C. N. & Wellman, H. M. Children’s developing conceptions of the mind and brain. Child Dev. 53, 222–234 (1982).

35. Bering, J. M. & Bjorklund, D. F. The natural emergence of reasoning about the afterlife as a developmental regularity. Dev. Psychol. 40, 217–233 (2004).

36. Baumeister, R. F., Masicampo, E. J. & DeWall, C. N. Prosocial benefits of feeling free: disbelief in free will increases aggression and reduces helpfulness. Pers. Soc. Psychol. Bull. 35, 260–268 (2009).

37. Forstmann, M. Burgmer, P. & Mussweiler, T. “The mind is willing, but the flesh is weak”: the effects of mind–body dualism on health behavior. Psychol. Sci. 23, 1239–1245 (2012).

38. Park, A., Clery, E., Curtice, J., Phillips, M. & Utting, D. (eds) British Social Attitudes 28 2011–2012 edition (NatCen Social Research, 2011).

59. Wachs, T. D., Georgieff, M., Cusick, S. & McEwen, B. S. Every child’s potential: integrating nutrition and early childhood development interventions Ann. NY Acad. Sci. 1308, 89–106 (2014).

60. Mervis, J. Giving children a head start is possible — but it’s not easy. Science 333, 956–957 (2011).

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