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MSPnet Blog: “Neuromyths and research for teachers and learners”

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posted October 24, 2017 – by Brian Drayton

I recently returned to a blog that I have not visited for some months, Daniel Willingham’s Science and education blog.  Willingham is a cognitive scientist whose views on learning and teaching are always worth hearing, because he generally draws from (and links to) recent research related to his topic.  (His “Ask the cognitive scientist” column for American Educator reminds me of the refreshing, and sometimes revelatory pieces Gerry Bracey used to write, from his viewpoint as a statistician and researcher– e.g, the “Bracey Reports.“)

Willingham has recently written about “fidget spinners” and math practice, about the validity of the “21st Century skills” buzzword (though generally skeptical, here he provides research to support the value of one such skill), about Nazis in Charlottesville, and about learning styles, a topic which he has addressed searchingly over the course of many years.  (His website even has a “Learning styles FAQ” entry all to itself, which I recommend).

Willingham’s most recent post on this topic is entitled “How many people believe learning styles theories are right, and why?”  He reports on a recent study by Macdonald et al. which examines the % of the general population, and of educators, who accept as true various “neuromyths.”   Such misconceptions include ‘”Individuals learn better when they receive information in their preferred learning style,” “Differences in hemispheric dominance (left brain, right brain) can help explain individual differences amongst learners,” and that old stand-by, “We only use 10% of our brain.”

The authors found that

The general public endorsed the greatest number of neuromyths (M = 68%), with significantly fewer endorsed by educators (M = 56%), and still fewer endorsed by the high neuroscience exposure group (M = 46%).

They also found that “More accurate performance on neuromyths was predicted by age (being younger), education (having a graduate degree), exposure to neuroscience courses, and exposure to peer-reviewed science. These findings suggest that training in education and neuroscience can help reduce but does not eliminate belief in neuromyths.”

This is in interesting contrast to the findings of Dekkar et al., in a study of neuromyths among teachers in the UK and Netherlands, summarized in their abstract thus:

Results showed that on average, teachers believed 49% of the neuromyths, particularly myths related to commercialized educational programs. Around 70% of the general knowledge statements were answered correctly. Teachers who read popular science magazines achieved higher scores on general knowledge questions. More general knowledge also predicted an increased belief in neuromyths. These findings suggest that teachers who are enthusiastic about the possible application of neuroscience findings in the classroom find it difficult to distinguish pseudoscience from scientific facts. Possessing greater general knowledge about the brain does not appear to protect teachers from believing in neuromyths.

They also point out, as does Willingham in his writings on the subject, that many of the neuromyths are often based on good scientific findings, but that they are over-generalized and applied directly to practice in ways that the original research does not at all warrant. As part of the “rush to implement” phenomenon (which is rife at almost every level in education), the authors note that advertizing and the commercial ed market often propagates (and, I would add profits from) these misapplications of research:  “In particular, myths related to commercial brain-based educational programs were commonly accepted.”

As I have probably noted before, teachers’ “theories of mind” became a matter of interest to me during a research project that Joni Falk and I conducted in the late 1990s, on teachers’ understanding and impementation of “inquiry” in the science classroom.  I was struck by statements like this from an eighth grade teacher (who seemed to me, despite his long service to be a bit over his head):

I don’t mind teaching to a group of concrete learners, and I don’t mind teaching to a group of kids that are making the transition from concrete to abstract, and I don’t mind teaching to abstract learners; but I don’t like to have a roomful of kids that I have all three. And I know that I’m going to lose somebody, or lose a group… And it bothers the hell out of me.

He used this concrete-abstract distinction as a core organizing principle in his thinking, and could easily characterize each child in his classrooms along this continuum.  His theory of the student had direct influence on his pedagogical choices — for example, in the design of student tasks, in his opinions about ability grouping (and his tendency to do such grouping in his heterogeneous classes), and his judgments about when it was appropriate to “do inquiry,” and when not.

I had no doubts at all about how much this teacher cared about his students’ success, and his desire to do right by them.  I started asking all our collaborating teachers if they could talk about the kinds of learners they saw in their classrooms, and though the theories varied (at the time, my impression was that some form of  “learning styles” and “multiple intelligences” theory were the most popular).  Teachers encounter, and must respond to, tremendous intellectual diversity in their students, and it can help a thoughtful practitioner deal with the extreme complexity of their work by getting a “good theory to work by,” with regard to what one might call syndromes — heuristic patterns that can make their pedagogical challenges manageable.

And with some skill and flexibility, such organizing rules-of-thumb or folk theories can serve a sensitive and observant teacher, even if their theory is an echo of the actual science.      A classroom observer from our “inquiry” study wrote:

A boy is helping a girl to write her entry. She says, “ I am really bad in science” Another girl replies “No, you’re not” The first says, “Yes I am, I get bad grades.” The boy says ‘different people have different strengths, like I can never do what you do in art.” I am touched by this interaction and relate it to [the teacher] after class. She reports to me that she spends quite a bit of time discussing multiple intelligences with the kids. I am aware that what makes this classroom successful is not the fact that the students are in groups, but rather that these groups have a culture of how to work together.

This teacher was one of  many whose work I have felt privileged to observe, who are present in the moment for their students, and bring to bear whatever they know and can do, to support and encourage the young person in front of them.  People make mistakes, or don’t quite execute as they’d hope, but that’s the nature of honest craft of all kinds.  Teaching is one of those enterprises in which one is constantly required to summon and “reconstruct” one’s  knowledge and experience, in unexpected situations, and it’s why teahcers need to be given time for reflection and inquiry about their practice (see here an essay I wrote on another incident in which a great teacher improvises).   Like science, teaching is an enterprise in which (to borrow Bridgeman’s famous phrase about scientific “method”) you are  “doing your damnedest with your mind, no holds barred.”

In that light, then, it is important to note many things about educational neuromyths:  [1] they are everywhere and inevitable, reflecting as they do some aspects of reality; [2] they are often exploited by commerical, political, and other non-educational enterprises, which reinforce and ratify mistaken applications; [3] more knowledge cannot extirpate these myths, but can mitigate; [4] a key role of scholarship at every level (from the teacher to the ed school to the university researcher) is to continually be aware of, and engage, widespread assumptions (hypotheses) about learning and teaching, examine them critically, and remember that in education especially, “theory” and “practice” form a dynamic, and organic, unity, and the moral stakes are high, because we are all jointly responsible for the students whom we serve and learn from.


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Willingham on personalized learning

posted by: Brian Drayton on 11/20/2017 5:49 am

Daniel Willingham's most recent post is
"Three versions of personalized learning, three challenges."
Good read. n-blog/three-versions-of-personalized-learning-three-challenges