Neuromyths in education

Welcome to my first blog post!

Published recently (15 October 2014) was an article in Nature Reviews Neuroscience “Neuroscience and education: myths and messages” which seems to be a development/elaboration of this article published in 2012.  In the article is this fascinating (& scary) table:

Screen Shot 2014-10-18 at 5.35.50 pm

Why fascinating & scary? It encapsulates in one table a lot of what is wrong in education, and I’ll explain why in relation to the second category regarding learning styles. For a number of years any teacher with a passing interest would have been able to discover that learning styles is a discredited theory, with no basis in fact. For me it was Daniel Willingham’s book that first opened my eyes to something that had just felt wrong, but luckily I had been able to ignore in my everyday teaching. But many teachers do still subscribe to the tenets of learning styles theory – and embrace their ignorance uncritically.

To me the idea that any serious mathematics, say, could be taught kinaesthetically was just so obviously ridiculous that it didn’t even need a second thought. But lets say you did give it a second thought? Would you not have had just a tiniest little tickle in your mind that the idea might be wrong? And with that tickle embark on the tiniest little bit of googling to find out more? Clearly not, as the table above shows. And that is something I believe to be very wrong in education – not that ridiculous ideas get proposed, but that ridiculous ideas get embraced uncritically, and the teaching profession as a whole is pretty witless in dealing with pseudoscientific ideas.

Where I work a number of times this year learning styles theory has been proposed by people with some level of responsibility as a serious idea to be considered when teaching. One time was by a highly paid (I assume!) presenter who had the entire teaching staff for a whole day, and once by a teacher proposing  the return of a different presenter who “was great last year in the session on learning styles. Really helped the kids” (to appreciative nods and oohing and aahing around the table).

The fact that learning styles won’t die (Tom Bennett puts it way more eloquently than me) is symptomatic of the teaching profession’s search for quick and easy answers, the golden technique/skill/program/trick that will lead to increased student learning. But there is no trick – there is just no substitute for hard work. This is a theme I will return to in subsequents posts.

References:

Nature article: Nature Reviews Neuroscience | AOP, published online 15 October 2014; doi:10.1038/nrn3817

Frontiers article: Front. Psychol., 18 October 2012 | doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2012.00429

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3 comments

  1. This seems rather strident! Theories are theories, not facts. And of course you can teach mathematics kinaesthetically. Have children move to represent angles, work dynamically on an IWB, understand space and shape through practical activities.
    Just because one commentator discredits another commentators theory does not mean it is wrong.
    But it is lovely that you have such confidence that you believe yourself to have a vastly superior understanding than 90% plus of all other teachers on the planet

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    1. Why have children move when they can draw an angle with a pencil, and have a greater understanding of what the angle represents than trying to invent some kinaesthetic activity that purports to show the same thing?

      Of course very young students can group counters etc, and there are myriad puzzle type activities, but these are not the sort of things learning style advocates propose. And as soon as you get above the basics of number and shape – then what? Simultaneous equations? Factorising equations?

      To understand mathematics requires mental effort, and there is absolutely no around it.

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