Lost in translation – shattering neuromyths
‘Imagine having a brain that is only 10 per cent active, that shrinks when you drink less than six to eight glasses of water a day and that increases its inter-hemispheric connectivity when you rub two invisible buttons on your chest. For neuroscientists, such a brain is difficult – if not impossible – to contemplate, but such notions are commonly held by teachers across the world’ (Howard-Jones, 2014).
Neuromyths – the misconceptions that arise from misunderstandings or misinterpretations of scientific brain research – have the potential to affect the learning outcomes of students.
Research by Professor Paul Howard-Jones has sought to shatter common misunderstandings about the brain that are held in classrooms throughout the world. Results from a survey conducted with more than 900 teachers from the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Turkey, Greece and China found that common neuromyths were believed to be true by a substantial number of teachers across the five countries. In some cases, neuromyth statements were believed to be true by more than 95 per cent of the teachers surveyed.
The survey included the following false statements (neuromyths):
- We mostly only use 10 per cent of our brain – approximately 49 per cent of all teachers surveyed believed this neuromyth to be true.
- Students learn better when information is presented in their preferred learning style (i.e. visual, auditory or kinaesthetic) – approximately 95 per cent of all teachers surveyed believed this neuromyth to be true.
- Short bursts of exercise can improve the integration of left and right hemispheric brain function – approximately 77 per cent of all teachers surveyed believed this neuromyth to be true.
- Individual differences amongst learners can be explained by differences in hemispheric dominance (i.e. left brain dominate or right brain dominate students) – approximately 80 per cent of all teachers surveyed believed this neuromyth to be true.
- Children pay less attention in the classroom after having consumed sugary drinks and sugary snacks – approximately 52 per cent of all teachers surveyed believed this neuromyth to be true.
- Drinking less than six to eight glasses of water a day can make the brain shrink – approximately 17 per cent of all teachers surveyed believed this neuromyth to be true.
- Learning problems associated with developmental differences in brain function cannot be remediated by education – approximately 28 per cent of all teachers surveyed believed this neuromyth to be true.
The research demonstrates that messages from neuroscientific brain research are being lost in translation and misunderstood by educators. Howard-Jones, Professor of Neuroscience and Education at the University of Bristol’s Graduate School of Education in the UK, says differences in language and terminology used by neuroscientists and educators has led to the perpetuation of common neuromyths.
So, what’s the truth? Returning to the statements in his survey:
- We use more than 10 per cent of our brain, our brains are constantly active.
- Students – while possibly having a preference for visual, auditory or kinaesthetic learning – are capable of learning information presented in multiple sensory forms. This is because our brains function in a highly interconnected manner.
- While certain tasks may be more left or right brain 'based', students use both sides of their brain. Teachers cannot determine if a student is 'left brain or right brain dominate' because the human brain is highly interconnected, with information flowing from left hemisphere to right hemisphere and back again within a matter of seconds thanks to the corpus callosum, the neural 'bridge' between the left and right hemispheres of the brain.
- Exercise is not effective – nor even necessary – for improving the integration of left and right brain hemispheric function. The brain naturally communicates between the two hemispheres on its own.
- Drinking less than six to eight glasses of water a day will not cause the brain to shrink. While dehydration can influence cognitive function, there is no evidence to suggest that children who fail to drink a minimum of six glasses of water per day will underperform in the classroom.
- Children do not pay less attention in the classroom after having consumed sugary drinks or snacks.
- And, finally, learning problems can be remediated by education.
Via the Science of Learning Research Centre (SLRC), future research at the Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER) seeks to bridge the gap between neuroscience, cognitive psychology and education. The overarching aim is to ensure that brain research can inform future pedagogical approaches in the classroom and hence, improving learning outcomes for students. For further information, visit the SLRC website.
Howard-Jones, P. A. (2014). Neuroscience and education: myths and messages. Nature Reviews. Neuroscience, 15 (12), 817-824.
Reflecting on your own practice
Try doing your own survey in the staffroom using the false statements from Howard-Jones' research.
Are your beliefs, and those of your colleagues, about learning and scientific brain research impacting on your own classroom practice?