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How are neuromyths perpetuated?

Paul Howard-Jones explains that often a neuromyth contains a kernel of truth, which may have been either misinterpreted or become distorted over time.
[Mari Palmer] Okay, so we were told to teach with fact learning styles, and it was all the rage. And even though we know it’s discredited now, it’s sometimes tricky to let it go when it’s ingrained in you. And we were wondering if you have any advice about how to move on. [Paul Howard-Jones] I think it is difficult in some of these situations, particularly if staff have been using something for a long period of time. I think the important thing is to point to the research and say look, we know that if this is having an effect it’s gonna be a very small effect.
And actually the science tends to suggest that really there are other ways in which you should be investing effort in the class. This is not going to give a good return on your effort. I think one of the problems is that with all of these myths as well, there’s usually some little seed of scientific fact that they begin with before they become all distorted and ridiculous. And, of course, it is true that using different modalities, visual, auditory, kinesthetic, can be useful for all the class in different situations. And it’s also true that we do have learning preferences. So if you give out a self report survey people will indicate how they prefer to receive information.
The problem is there’s no value in teaching to those learning styles. So the educational evidence, the psychological evidence, and the neuroscience all point to the ineffectiveness of this particular approach. So I think that’s the thing to do is to keep going to the evidence really. [Eleanor Belfield] And that can be very difficult I think for teachers who are really interested in this, and go out and try to access some of this research. And then try to glean from it some insights to apply in their classroom is what you’re saying. Some of these research studies are not based in the context of the classroom. And so having these dialogues for the classroom teachers is really valuable.
[Paul Howard-Jones] Yeah, and I think the language is also, as I said the language is different as well. So we use different terms or rather the same words tend to mean different things. If you ask a neuroscientist about learning, they’ll be thinking about neurons and cells, whereas a teacher is much more interested in what’s happening socially. So that is why it’s taken so long, I think, for the science of learning to start entering educational thinking. We’ve known a lot about this stuff for some time, but we’re only just beginning to find ways of communicating it, and making it meaningful in a classroom context.

Throughout the course we’ve invited teachers to share their experiences of using research in the classroom. Mari is the headteacher at a national research primary school. Eleanor is the director of science at an academy trust in the north of England. In this video, they discuss with Paul what makes neuromyths attractive.

Often a neuromyth contains a kernel of truth, which may have been either misinterpreted or become distorted over time (Howard-Jones, 2014). For example, another very common neuromyth is that drinking less than 6 to 8 glasses of water a day can cause the brain to shrink. Whilst there is no evidence of under-performance amongst school children who fail to drink this amount of water, and 6 to 8 glasses is a contentious recommendation in itself, there are studies which have shown that dehydration can affect cognitive function.

Another reason myths can become prevalent is the lack of accessible evidence to contradict them. Most research is in journals which we have no access to, so myths have been able to continue unchecked.


What perpetuates neuromyths?
“I remember carrying out ‘brain gym’, thinking that it was a way of gaining the attention of my class. It was something that a SENCO (Special Educational Needs Coordinator) had suggested I do and I didn’t think to question it.”
At some point in your life you will most likely have fallen for a neuromyth and perhaps have let it inform the way you teach. Being more aware of how neuromyths are perpetuated will help you be more critical (and ask more questions) when new ideas are presented.
In the comments below share one example of a neuromyth that has informed what happens in your classroom. How did it come about? Why were you persuaded?
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