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Masters in Educational Practice: Child and adolescent development 0-19

9

Neuromyths and education

9.1

Background

What is a neuromyth? Typically, a neuromyth is an unsubstantiated belief that is passed from person to person and repeated until it becomes thought of as a ‘fact’, without anyone ever questioning its true validity. Mythology is engrained within our everyday language and this topic will explore the validity of some of the most common myths surrounding neuroscience and consider the impact of these within education.

Activity

Consider whether the following everyday myth is ‘true’ or ‘false’?

‘Our fingers become wrinkly in the bath because they absorb water’.

The statement above is ‘false’. What the evidence suggests is that wrinkly fingers and toes are an evolutionary mechanism to improve traction and grip in wet conditions. Although there is scientific evidence supporting the validity of this statement, myths nevertheless persist over time. The oversimplification or inappropriate interpretation of complex neuroscience research is widespread within the school curriculum, for example, claims that brain-based approaches are effective for improved learning and retention. These types of neuromyths will be discussed further in the following sections.

Neuromyths have a long history. William James in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries often stated that the average person rarely achieves but a small portion of his or her potential. It is however, thought that the term ‘neuromyth’ originated from the neurosurgeon Alan Crockard; he used the term in his writings to refer to a misleading type of ‘received wisdom’. In 2002, the Brain and Learning project of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) highlighted misconceptions around the brain and the mind arising outside of the medical and scientific communities. As a result the OECD redefined the term ‘neuromyth’.

Re-definition of the term ‘neuromyth’

. . . a misconception generated by a misunderstanding, a misreading or a misquoting of facts scientifically established by brain research to make a case for the use of brain research, in education and other contexts.
OECD, 2002, p111

This redefinition suggests that often, the birth of a neuromyth stems from valid scientific research. However, the construal of valid research often goes well beyond accurate interpretation of the data. For example, there is extensive evidence to suggest that cognitive function benefits from cardiovascular fitness; the valid interpretation of this evidence is that general exercise is good for the brain in general (Blakemore & Frith, 2005). An invalid interpretation might be for example, suggestions that neuroscience is able to demonstrate that brain-based initiatives like will enhance the activation of a particular region in the brain. If for no other reason, neuroscience is an experimental laboratory-based exploration of brain structure and function, hence even with the best of intentions, attempting to directly relate neuro-scientific evidence from the laboratory to the classroom in this way would need to be done with caution (Howard-Jones, 2009).

Despite this apparent disconnect between education and neuroscience, it is hard to dispute that the brain is critical to education. There is an increasing appetite between educators and neuroscientists to work collaboratively (see ‘Topic 7 – Neuroscience and education working together’), which is unsurprising given the potential that educational-neuroscience could have on learning. This enthusiasm was captured by Pickering and Howard-Jones (Pickering & Howard-Jones, 2007), who asked around 200 teachers questions relating to the importance of an interdisciplinary approach between education and neuroscience. All of their respondents were excited about the idea of neuroscience informing teaching practice, particularly relating to the method and practice of teaching, although less so for curriculum design. In addition, there was general agreement that the role of neuroscientists was to be professionally informative rather than prescriptive. This eagerness makes it even more critical for educators to discriminate between what is considered ‘fact’ and what is actually supported by a substantial evidence base. It also highlights the importance of a comprehensible and common educational-neuroscience language to enable neuroscientists and educators to engage in genuine interdisciplinary dialogue. For decades there has been a lack of transparent interdisciplinary communication and this has resulted in many unscientific ‘brain-based’ ideas becoming established in the classroom. When in fact, there are no individual regions within the brain that correspond directly to the school curriculum (Geake, 2005).

Activity

Every second that our brains are alive, parallel and highly interconnected functional processing is occurring. These interconnected neural networks related to brain functions (and implicated brain areas) include:

  • working memory (lateral frontal cortex)
  • long-term memory (hippocampus and other cortical areas)
  • decision-making (orbitofrontal cortex)
  • emotional mediation (limbic subcortex and associated frontal areas)
  • sequencing of symbolic representation (fusiform gyrus and temporal lobes)
  • conceptual interrelationships (parietal lobe)
  • conceptual and motor rehearsal (cerebellum).

What this list demonstrates is that broadly distributed neural networks contribute to learning and are applicable to all school subjects, as well as all other aspects of cognition. For example, creative thinking would not be possible without this extensive neural interconnectivity (Geake & Dobson, 2005).

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