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Neuromyths and why they persist in the classroom

“Teachers are like neurosurgeons, sculpting the brains of our children.” Newsletter from a primary school in Essex

Teaching methods that are claimed to be based on how the brain works are being extensively used in schools, but most of them are based on a misunderstanding or misrepresentation of neuroscience. They’re based on neuromyths, promoting “alarming amounts of misinformation.”

Since debunking the pseudo-science behind Brain Gym in 2008, we have come across many other neuromyth-based teaching methods – as set out below, many have been shown to have little or no supporting evidence.

A literature review by the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) (PDF) looked at 18 teaching techniques that have a more plausible basis in neuroscience, assessing the strength of supporting evidence and how they might impact on pupil performance. The majority of these techniques – including ‘brain training’ software and personalised learning – have little reliable evidence to support their use in education.

Results from a recent Wellcome Trust survey reveal how teachers apply these supposedly brain-based techniques in the classroom, shedding light on why non evidence-based methods persist. We also asked Ofsted about their role in seeking evidence behind teaching methods. The EEF found that some interventions such as tailoring the school day to suit the teenage brain are more promising, and warrant further research. The persistence of neuromyths undermines the use of genuine brain research in the classroom, so everyone that wants to apply lessons from neuroscience in education should ask for reliable evidence.

Brain Gym

Brain Gym is a programme of physical exercises that are claimed to boost learning abilities, accompanied by pseudo-scientific explanations. Schools make a range of claims about how Brain Gym helps their students learn – claims such as this, from a junior school in Yorkshire:We are finding some intresting (sic) results in the short time that we have used the exercises… These movements can have a profound effect, developing the brain's neural pathways through movement, just as nature intended.” An Ofsted inspection report of one nursery says that children do Brain Gym exercises because they “make their brains work better.”

Sense About Science debunked the pseudo-science behind Brain Gym, and the government reported in 2009 that “Brain Gym had been 'criticised as being unscientific in a wide-ranging and authoritative review of research into neuroscience and education.'” The EEF’s literature review shows that physical exercise breaks may improve learning, although they focussed on longer (30-minute) physical education lessons and not the short in-lesson breaks promoted by Brain Gym – and there’s no evidence whatsoever for the pseudo-science that Brain Gym promotes. And yet Brain Gym persists: a Google search suggests that at least 180 UK schools continue to mention it on their website.

Visual, Auditory and Kinaesthetic Learning Styles

Some teachers give their students surveys to determine their preferred learning style – Visual, Auditory or Kinaesthetic (V, A or K) – and label each student accordingly, tailoring their lessons for each style of learning. We have noted many different claims about VAK learning styles: an Ofsted report remarked that one school used the VAK method to “engage pupils in the lesson, modelling the skills required to support pupils’ independent work.” One infants school website says “we fully understand that young children in particular learn by processing information through their senses – visual, auditory and kinaesthetic.  Each child has a unique learning style…”

Professor of education John Geake reviewed the evidence behind a number of neuromyths in 2008, and said that while different parts of the brain interpret different types of sensory information, teachers should not categorise children according to which one of either visual, auditory and kinaesthetic styles they prefer. In his review of the evidence he argued that people learn using different pathways in different ways at different times – “focusing on one [learning style] flies in the face of the brain’s natural interconnectivity. VAK might, if it has any effect at all, be actually harming the academic prospects of children.” And yet this is a very persistent myth: education researchers in Amsterdam and Bristol found that 93% of UK teachers in their sample thought that “Individuals learn better when they receive information in their preferred learning style (e.g., auditory, visual, kinesthetic),” which as neuroscientist Daniel Willingham sets out, this is known to be a misconception.

It is difficult to know when teachers use a mixture of visual, auditory and kinaesthetic methods to teach all children in a class (i.e. a lesson with a variety of approaches, taught to the whole class), and when they tailor teaching methods to individual pupils – the ‘full VAK method.’ Not only is there no evidence to support this, it is plausible that it could hinder the progress of children labelled and taught as one of V, A or K when they may learn specific skills through other means. It may help to teach a whole class using a variety of learning methods – but as with Brain Gym ‘working’ through simple exercise breaks, VAK Learning Styles may ‘work’ if teachers ignore how it was intended to be used. As the Wellcome Trust concludes from its survey of teachers who want to use neuroscience in the classroom, “there were examples of teachers using certain approaches (e.g. Brain Gym® and Learning Styles) for different purposes or in ways for which they were not originally developed or conceived.”

Multiple Intelligences

Perhaps the most persistent neuromyth is that of Multiple Intelligences – that people have separate and specific intelligences such as musical, visual-spatial, logical-mathematical and naturalistic intelligence. Teaching materials and school websites continue to promote this theory first proposed in a 1983 book by Howard Gardner – even though neuroscientists and education experts have thoroughly discredited it as a model of how we learn. Here is Professor John Geake on Multiple Intelligences: “Neuroimaging studies do not support multiple intelligences; in fact, the opposite is true.” He describes how intelligence is a general property that stems from a part of the brain called the frontal cortices, and that we apply this intelligence to different tasks such as music, language and logic – our brain does not have specific multiple intelligences.

Howard Gardner’s Multiple Intelligence theory, 1983

Kinaesthetic (body smart)

Logical (number smart)

Linguistic (word smart)

Interpersonal (people smart)

Intrapersonal (myself smart)

Auditory (music smart)

Visual/spatial (picture smart)

Naturalistic (nature smart)

As with the learning styles theory, teachers attempt to cater for these ‘multiple intelligences’ in their lessons. Over 600 UK school websites advertise their use of Gardner’s discredited theory.

Left/right brain theory

The left brain/right brain theory claims that particular types of brain activity – logical, artistic, linguistic and so on – are found in either the left or right hemisphere of the brain, and that people can be thought of as predominantly left- or right-brained thinkers. Neuroscience shows that most tasks involve both sides of the brain working together, with no single area dominating – and yet 18% of teachers responding to the Wellcome Trust’s survey on neuromyths say they currently use this theory in their teaching.

So why do discredited neuromyths persist in the classroom?

Why, when neuroscience has shown that there’s little or no evidence behind the majority of teaching methods that claim to be based on neuroscience, do so many teachers use them? The Wellcome Trust found that teachers use neuromyth-based methods even though they’re not sure how effective they are – around half of the teachers responding felt that Learning Styles, Brain Gym and the left/right brain theory had “some impact” on academic performance, but that it was “difficult to measure.”

It could be because of how teachers access information about classroom methods: according to the Wellcome Trust survey, teachers interested in using neuroscience in the classroom most commonly come across neuromyth-based methods by word-of-mouth – from their institutions (53%), individual colleagues (41%), and from training providers (30%), who are often linked to those promoting neuromyths. If more teachers who are interested in how the brain works asked for evidence behind teaching methods – or better yet, took part in trials – it would be easier to identify neuromyths. The far lower percentage of teachers finding out about supposedly brain-based methods directly from conferences (9%), academic journals (5%) and even educational media (17%) indicates that teachers need to be equipped to ask for reliable evidence on using brain-based teaching methods in the classroom.

The persistence of neuromyths risks obscuring the potential that genuine neuroscience has to improve teaching – the EEF and Wellcome Trust plan to fund research into this potential. The evidence that emerges will help inform classroom practice – but whose role is it to ensure that teaching is based on evidence?

Who should Ask for Evidence behind teaching methods? Teachers? Ofsted? Parents? Governors?

Ofsted describes its mission as “raising standards, improving lives.” Shouldn’t asking for the evidence behind teaching methods be a crucial element of this mission? We have found hundreds of examples of Ofsted reporting neutrally on a school’s use of a neuromyth-based teaching method. We asked Ofsted how their inspectors evaluate what happens in the classroom; they replied that “during an inspection, inspectors will always look to see how the school itself seeks to evaluate the effectiveness of the interventions it uses, and then how the school’s leaders use this evaluation to modify or replace the intervention. Some schools are very good at this, others less so” (emphasis added). So schools self-evaluate, without necessarily looking at independent evidence. There are also rarely adequate controls (matched groups of children who didn’t experience Brain Gym or weren’t separated as V, A or K leaners) to allow teachers to judge whether the method in question improves performance versus not using it – all we have is self-reported correlation, not causation.

With limited resources, it is understandable that Ofsted inspectors do not themselves carry out rigorous evaluations of each and every teaching method they encounter, but inspectors could look at the EEF’s Toolkit, or search the Institute of Education’s Evidence for Policy and Practice Information and Co-ordinating Centre (EPPI-Centre) database, or simply ask education experts whether an intervention has any supporting evidence. If they did, their reports on brain-based techniques could include a simple indication of whether they’re likely to be effective or not.

A senior Ofsted official wrote to us to say that some interventions might work through a form of the Hawthorne effect, where the simple fact of doing something different improves results. This raises an intriguing ethical question– is it right for teachers to use methods that are known to be based on myths, if they act as a placebo? Should teachers be expected to be familiar with evidence about the effectiveness of classroom techniques, much as doctors are? Should Ofsted play a role by checking for evidence with independent experts?

Without critically evaluating classroom methods using the best available evidence, Ofsted will continue to neutrally report on neuromyths, reporting on the use of neuromyths that leave parents ill-informed about neuroscience in the classroom. Further, students will continue to be taught using techniques that have no supporting evidence. There remains a strong case for better use of reliable evidence on the use of neuroscience in the classroom, which means teachers, governors, parents and inspectors asking for evidence.

If you want to know more about how to ask for evidence behind teaching methods that are claimed to be based on neuroscience, please contact us at enquiries@senseaboutscience.org.