Neuroscience and Education: Teachers’ Perceptions and Misconceptions Regarding the Biological Basis of Learning among AASSA Schools’ Educators
by Rocio Mendoza Fox, Nataly Bringas and Daniel Riquelme-Uribe; Colegio F. D. Roosevelt, Lima, Peru, APLICAE- Chile
There is greater interest among educators to learn about neuroscience findings and possible implications in education. Since the “Decade of the Brain”, 1990-2000 in the United States, neuroscientific findings have received much attention from the general public and much coverage in the media. Findings in the field have been extrapolated from the neurosciences to other fields, such as psychology and education. However, sometimes gaps between neuroscience and education have been created by misinterpretations influenced by cultural conditions and differences in terminology and languages. These distortions have contributed in some cases to either create new neuromyths or exacerbate others to justify some pedagogical practices (Howard-Jones, 2010).
In order to explore how prevalent certain neuromyths were among AASSA educators, on November 2015 we started a research in this field. One of the aims of this ongoing investigation is to explore teachers’ perceptions regarding the biological basis of learning identifying any misconceptions and/or neuromyths held by educators at AASSA. Data was gathered through an online anonymous survey with 38 statements. The survey includes 31 general assertions regarding the brain and identified neuromyths proposed by Dr. Paul Howard-Jones’ research on the field. In addition, there are 7 statements that are regarded to be open to subjective opinion including the mind-brain relationship and the impact of developmental difference on moral responsibility. Our research team was comprised of Rocio Mendoza Fox, Special Educational Needs Director, Nataly Bringas Special Educational Needs teacher at Colegio F. D. Roosevelt (Lima, Peru), and Daniel Riquelme-Uribe, Director General Centro I+D APLICAE (Santiago, Chile).
The online survey gathered responses from a total of 372 educators from 37 schools in 18 countries in the AASSA region. Among these educators, 77% were female and 23% male with an average of 16 years of experience and an average age of 42 years old. We thank all AASSA educators who have participated in this research and AASSA Executive Director, Paul Poore, for his constant support.
Research results highlight that AASSA educators mostly identify correctly assertions regarding brain development and environmental influences. Educators correctly identified as myths assertions like, “cognitive abilities are inherited and cannot be modified” or “learning problems associated with developmental differences in brain function cannot be remediated by education”. Respondents seem to identify well that environment can modify abilities and remediate learning problems both proven by the concept of neuroplasticity. On the other hand, most of AASSA respondents continue to hold true well established neuromyths in regarding learning styles believing statements like: “individuals learn better when they receive information in their preferred learning style” or statements in regards to “right vs. left brained”. Lines below we analyze survey responses and give information in regards to certain assertions from the online survey. Please refer to the appendix for a list of all 38 survey statements and if these are “correct”/true or “incorrect”.
Before we talk about neuromyths or other assertions and their links to education, we need to understand about Mind, Brain and Education Science, also called Neuroeducation (Tokuhama-Espinosa, 2010) and how neuromyths originate. Mind, Brain and Education Science is a transdisciplinary field that joins three important disciplines: Psychology, Pedagogy and Neuroscience (See Figure 1). This new field provides us with a holistic view of an individual, as “without the whole picture, there is no whole child” (Perkins, 2008). It was born to build bridges between these three sciences in order to improve and go beyond the teaching and learning processes.
Figure 1: Interpretation of Tokuhama-Espinosa transdisciplinary field by Nakagawa, (2008), redrawn by Bramwell 2010.
Mind, Brain and Education Science focuses on research, practice and developing policies that encourages the pursuit of neuroscientifically sustained beliefs in the education field. Many of the results of the researches may end up as information well established in the field, also as information that is probable, or the results could fall under the intelligent speculations category. Nevertheless, those results may be read as popular misconceptions or oversimplifications that can become neuromyths. This last category, neuromyths, can be created from distortions of scientific facts, offspring of scientific hypothesis, or misinterpretation of experimental results which can continue to persist depending on how the media communicates these findings. Most of the time media presents a tendency to offer irrelevant information, which produces the omission of relevant information, creating and depending on sensationalism to sell these misconceptions (OECD, 2010). Below some of these prevalent neuromyths and other assertions that were part of the survey for our research.
1. We mostly use 10% of our brains. Incorrect!
This neuromyth continues to thrive despite all the research findings in neuroscience. From survey results, only 36.8% AASSA educators identified this as a myth. Interestingly, 39.5% of AASSA educators held this myth true and a significant number of educators responded “don’t know”, 23.7%.
Table 1: Response analysis of item # 32
One reason for the prevalence of this belief, or the lack of knowledge to debunk it, could be the default belief: if we use only 10% of our brain, one could only imagine all what we could accomplish if we use all of our brain, all that unused cerebral bank (Beyerstein, 2004). Origins of this neuromyth can be attributed to Karl Lashley’s experiments in the 1930’s. In his studies of learning and memory, Lashley found that after removing large parts of cerebral cortex in rats, these were still able to relearn tasks such as finding an exit in mazes (Howard-Jones, 2010, Hardiman, 2012). This may be one of the studies that might have been exaggerated or misinterpreted to derive in this myth that supports that we do not use large portions of our brain. In addition, this neuromyth might have also become popular when it was claimed that Albert Einstein mentioned it in a radio interview when he was encouraging people to use more their brains (Howard-Jones, 2010). However, there is no record of Einstein stating that we only use “10% of our brain”.
It is important as educators to understand we use all of our brain! Studies with functional imaging generally highlight only differences in brain activity that can be seen while performing certain tasks. The areas that are not “highlighted” in these images are still active, but do not respond to the task which is the focus of the study.
2. Differences in hemispheric dominance (left brain, right brain) can help explain individual differences amongst learners. Incorrect!
Many localizationist theories lead scientists to believe that our brain was actually split in half in terms of functions, and it worked different processes with more brain activity in one hemisphere than the other. Language in the brain is one of the main topics that lead this neuromyth to rule for so long. After Broca and Wernicke’s research about the centers of language in the brain, people started locating them in the left hemisphere. This idea “evolved” into the thought that all rational activity was being processed and executed by our left hemisphere. Currently, it is discussed that language is dominantly present in our left hemisphere, yet studies in neuroplasticity have debunked this myth due to follow up made in patients with aphasia after a cranio – encephalic trauma (CET) or cerebral vascular accident (CVA). These revealed that in case of these acquired diseases, the opposite hemisphere would adopt most of the lost functions due to plasticity. Nowadays, it is well known that our brain works as a net, many areas work all together to accomplish one specific function.
A great ally to debunk these myths are neuroimages. In 2009 Dr. Joy Hirsch, from Columbia University, studied neuroimages to reassure the way in which brains work as nets. When monitoring brain activity, one can clearly see how many areas of our brain present more vascular activity when in action. Music activity is the net that “lights” the most: Passive listening, lyrics brought back to memory, singing the melody, remembering scenes from the past that are connected to the song, among others, are connected by a net.
Dividing students into left-brained or right-brained takes the myth even further. Details of such categories, right brain or left brain, vary depending on educational programs or models. For example, an “intuitive” or “creative” learner is considered right-brained and a “sequential” or “logical” one could be considered left-brained. Once again, there is no evidence that supports identifying students as left-brained or right-brained, or directing instruction towards these categories has implications for learning (Coffield et al. 2004 in Howard-Jones, 2010, Dekker et al., 2012, Hardiman 2012).
AASSA educators’ responses were in line with this popular myth. A total of 238 educators, 64% of the participants, agreed with the idea of “differences in hemispheric dominance (left brain, right brain) can help explain individual differences amongst learners”. Only 55 educators, 14.8% of the participants, correctly disagreed with this idea; and 79 educators, 21.2% of the participants didn’t know (Table 4).
Table 2: Response Analysis of Item #20
9. Individuals learn better when they receive information in their preferred learning style (e.g. visual, auditory, kinesthetic). Incorrect!
Society usually tends to look for the easiest way to solve any problem. Education is not the exception. Educators are used to receive “recipes” to repeat in class and achieve their personal teaching goals. Nevertheless, when discussing students’ preferred learning styles, teachers were prone to categorize the students in specific groups and serve them with, what they thought, was appropriate to enhance their learning experience. Pashler et al. (2008), found no evidence in terms of the relationship between children’s preferred learning style and their academic achievement; their results were not significantly different from the students who were taught in non-preferred style.
AASSA educators were no exception with the misconception of this myth. Results show 314 educators agreed that “Individuals learn better when they receive information in their preferred learning style”. This represents the 84.4% of total responses, which is a significant difference against the 10.2% of educators who correctly identified this item as a myth.
Table 3: Response Analysis of Item # 9
In 2013, Dr. Howard Gardner published an article for the Washington Post, in which he criticized the way his Multiple Intelligence Theory have -wrongly- merged with the concept of Learning Styles. He invited educators to “drop the term ‘styles’”, as it confuses others and it is not useful for teachers and students (Gardner, 2013).
3. Individual learners show preferences for the mode in which they receive information (e.g. visual, auditory, kinesthetic). Correct!
In 2004, Coffield et al. failed to find convincing information about the effectiveness of matching instruction style with students’ learning styles. Nowadays, educational neuroscience discusses the term “Learning preferences” as the concept that holistically see prime students’ factors in education (Tokuhama-Espinosa, 2014). Yet, prior knowledge, background in content, level of mastery skill, motivation, or learning difference are better means to differentiate. As Tokuhama-Espinosa mentions, “suggesting that a child and teacher has “styles” that don’t coincide causes harm” (Tokuhama-Espinosa, 2014).
A high percentage of AASSA educators (89.2%) believe that individuals show preferences for the mode in which they receive information; only 22 participants identified the item as a myth, and 18 participants were not sure about it (Table 6).
Table 4: Response Analysis of Item # 30
4. Omega 3 supplements do not enhance the mental capacity of children in the general population. Incorrect!
When discussing the relevance of food supplements that contain Omega-3 and/or Omega-6, nutrition has played an important part in the creation of neuromyths related to brain development. To prove this theory right, many researchers have used individuals with developmental disorders, such as AD/HD. These individuals were provided with many multivitamin supplements that included Omega-3 (Richardson and Puri, 2002). The results did not show reliable evidence about the role Omega-3 played in the development of cognitive skills, yet they improved due to a number of factors. According to Paul Howard-Jones (2012), the consumption of this supplement does not show any significant improvement on academic achievement.
The results of the survey showed that 54.6% of the participants did not know whether or not Omega-3 played an important role in mental capacity development. 32.8% of participants were aware and recognized this item as a myth; and only 12. 6% of participants persist in thinking about the importance of consuming Omega-3 to develop brain capacity (Table 7).
Table 5: Response Analysis of Item # 3
5. Cognitive abilities are inherited and cannot be modified by the environment or by life experience. Incorrect!
Cognitive skills are malleable through life due to brain plasticity. The brain’s ability to continuously change in response to environmental stimuli -through experience- is called neuroplasticity, changes are in the connectivity between neurons (Howard-Jones, 2010). These changes impact cognitive skills making these malleable and shaped by biological and environmental factors through life. Genetic makeup and environmental interactions set the course for the brain to change (Shonkoff & Phillips, 2000 in Hardiman, 2012).
What is more important to understand as educators is that learning experiences impact these changes. As Hardiman (2012) explains, “learning involves changes in the strength between neural synapses after a sensory input or motor activity”. These are seen in the brain as: formation of new dendrites, growth of new axons, development of new synapses, and the changing or eliminate (pruning) of established neural connections over life. Constant practice of acquired skills reinforce neural networks and improve skills, including cognitive skills. These findings that support that intelligence is not fixed is one of the key foundations of Carol Dweck’s’ growth mindset theory.
AASSA respondents correctly identified this assertion as incorrect and overwhelmingly disagree (95%) that cognitive abilities are inherited and cannot be modified by the environment or by life experience.
Table 6: Response Analysis of Item # 5
6. Learning problems associated with developmental differences in brain function cannot be remediated by education. Correct!
A high percentage of AASSA educators, 73.7%, who responded to the survey identified this statement correctly as a myth. About 10% believed this statement true and about 17% chose to respond “don’t know”. This is a key myth to debunk and to appreciate how as an important variable in the environment we can contribute positively in our students’ learning (refer to Table 7).
Table 7: Response Analysis of Item #22
This myth which related to brain development and environmental influences is easily debunked with studies of brain plasticity and, more particularly, studies with students with Dyslexia. These studies have shed light on how the method in which students are taught to read has a major difference in how Dyslexia shows up. More importantly, it is proven that intervention programs that combine instruction in phoneme awareness, phonics, fluency development, and reading comprehension strategies, provided by well- trained teachers, can increase reading skills in poor readers (Blanchman 2004, Torgensen, 2005).
These are just some neuromyths that have been found true among educators through various research studies and some shared by AASSA educators who responded to the survey. It is important for educators to learn about neuromyths, learn to be cautious about “research findings” in popular media articles, and learn more about research findings in the Mind, Brain, and Education field to not perpetuate common neuromyths or create new ones. It is very important to learn more about what neuroscience findings suggest to make informed decisions in our craft. As Howard-Jones (2010) suggests, there are three simple but key questions to ask when we read about any “brain-based” idea: (1) What are the scientific principles? (2) How was the idea evaluated in educational terms? and (3) Where were these principles and evaluations published?
In regards to our investigation among educators in the AASSA region, our research team will continue to analyze data and share results. It is encouraging to find that AASSA educators mostly hold true assertions like “cognitive abilities can be changed by the environment” and that “learning problems can be remediated by instruction” understanding that the brain changes constantly with experiences. This is particularly encouraging for educators as an important part of the child’s life, and as Tokuhama-Espinosa states, even when we feel we are not reaching students, given the complexity of the brain, we may be very well challenging them bit by bit. We could say, after all, that we are in the business of changing brains!
Any questions or comments please feel free to contact us!
Nataly Bringas: mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Rocio Mendoza Fox email@example.com or
APPENDIX: Survey statements
1Brain activity depends entirely on the external environment: with no senses stimulated, we don’t see, hear or feel anythingI2Children are less attentive after sugary drinks and snacksI3Omega 3 supplements do not enhance the mental capacity of children in the general populationC4Emotional brain processes interrupt those brain processes involved with reasoningC5Cognitive abilities are inherited and cannot be modified by the environment or by life experienceI6Learning is not due to the addition of new cells to the brainC7Extended rehearsal of some mental processes can change the shape and structure of some parts of the brainC8Environments that are rich in stimulus improve the brains of pre-school childrenI9Individuals learn better when they receive information in their preferred learning style (e.g. visual, auditory, kinaesthetic)I10One’s environment can influence hormone production and, in turn, personalityC11The mind is the result of the action of the spirit, or of the soul, on the brain*12We use our brains 24 hours a dayC13To learn how to do something, it is necessary to pay attention to it.C14“State of mind” is a reflection of the brain state in a given moment*15Learning occurs through modification of the brain’s neural connectionsC16Short bouts of co-ordination exercises can improve integration of left and right hemispheric brain functionI17Regular drinking of caffeinated soft drinks reduces alertnessC18If there are ways to study brain activity, the mind can be studied through them*19Performance in activities such as playing the piano improves as a function of hours spent practisingC20Differences in hemispheric dominance (left brain, right brain) can help explain individual differences amongst learnersI21The mind is a product of the working of the brain*22Learning problems associated with developmental differences in brain function cannot be remediated by educationI23Without a brain, consciousness is not possible*24It is with the brain, and not the heart, that we experience happiness, anger, and fearC25Intuition is a “special sense” that cannot be explained by the brain*26There are no critical periods in childhood after which you can’t learn some things, just sensitive periods when it’s easierC27Vigorous exercise can improve mental functionC28Hormones influence the body’s internal state, and not their personalityI29Memory is stored in the brain much like as in a computer. That is, each memory goes into a tiny piece of the brainI30Individual learners show preferences for the mode in which they receive information (e.g. visual, auditory, kinaesthetic)C31Drinking less than 6-8 glasses of water a day can cause the brain to shrinkI32We mostly only use 10% of our brainsI33Exercises that rehearse co-ordination of motor-perception skills can improve literacy skillsI34 Memory is stored in networks of cells distributed throughout the brainC35Production of new connections in the brain can continue into old ageC36Keeping a phone number in memory until dialing, recalling recent events & distant experiences, all use the same memory systemI37Individuals are not responsible for behaviour associated with a developmental difference in brain function*38When we sleep, the brain shuts downI
* These are 7 statements that are regarded to be open to subjective opinion including the mind-brain relationship and the impact of developmental difference on moral responsibility.
Beyerstein, Barry L. (2004). Do we really use only 10 percent of our brains? Scientific American. Recovered from: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/do-we-really-use-only-10/
Coffield, F., Moseley, D., Hall, E., & Ecclestone, K. (2004). Learning styles and pedagogy in post 16 learning: a systematic and critical review. The Learning and Skills Research Centre.
Dekker S., Lee N.C., Howard-Jones P., and Jolles J. (2012) Neuromyths in education: Prevalence and predictors of misconceptions among teachers. Front. Psychology 3:429. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2012.00429
Hardiman, M. (2012). The brain-targeted teaching model for 21st century schools. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.
Howard-Jones, P. (2010). Introducing neuroeducational research. New York: NY: Routledge.
Howard-Jones, P. (2014). Neuroscience and education: myths and messages. In Nature Reviews Neuroscience (15 pp. 817–824). doi:10.1038/nrn3817
Howard-Jones, P., Franey, L., Mashmoushi, R., & Liao, Y. -. C. (2009). The neuroscience literacy of trainee teachers. In Neuroscience Literacy (pp. 1-39). Recovered from http://220.127.116.11/~neuro647/wp-content/uploads/2012/03/Literacy.pdf
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Pashler, H., McDaniel, M., Rohrer, D., & Bjork, R. (2008). Learning styles: Concepts and evidence. Psychological science in the public interest, 9(3), 105-119.
Ritchhart, R., & Perkins, D. (2008). Making Thinking Visible. Educational Leadership.
Strauss, V. (2013). Howard Gardner: ‘Multiple intelligences’ are not ‘learning styles’. The Washington Post, 16.
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Tokuhama-Espinosa, T. (2014). Making Classrooms Better: 50 Practical Applications of Mind, Brain, and Education Science. WW Norton & Company.