Can teachers stop believing in nonsense?

I’ve written before regarding the prevalence of pseudoscientific ideas within education. Whenever I start to become a little optimistic that our profession can move out of the dark ages, something pops up to prove my hopes are premature. Just such a case emerged this week when I happened upon a report of a motion at the ATL conference back in April.

The ATL should be cautious in using neuroscience in teaching and education

Pete Etchells, a lecturer in biological psychology, described a motion encouraging the implementation of applications of neuroscience into the classroom. He highlighted a quote from the teacher proposing the motion which concerned him:

According to the person who proposed the motion, Julia Neal, “neuroscience could also help teachers tailor their lessons for creative “right brain thinkers”, who tend to struggle with conventional lessons but often have more advanced entrepreneurial skills”.

It seems that this claim comes from a document called Investigating the EntreBRAINeur. This 106 page project attempts to persuade the reader that education fails to provide adequate the stimulation and opportunities required to produce the great entrepreneurs of the future.

“Traditionally, in school, left-brain subjects focus on logical thinking, analysis, and accuracy. Right-brained subjects, on the other hand, focus on aesthetics, feeling, and creativity.”

It is clear that the authors of EntreBRAINeur are aware that their claims are highly contentious. However, they are unusually dismissive towards those that disagree with their ideas.When it comes to the general concern regarding the validity of learning styles they say:

Given the learning styles descriptors given earlier in this report, both writers would consider themselves to be more right brain dominant and would not hesitate to speculate that the vast majority of critics of the learning styles approach are likely to be left brain dominant. …
Unfortunately, their rejection of the learning styles approach makes it difficult to determine the learning preferences of the critics – would they ever admit [that they are left-brained]?

Therefore, I must be ‘left-brained’ because I disagree that I’m ‘left-brained’ … huh?!

The idea that there are highly differentiated functions of the left and right hemisphere has its origin in a series of strange and fascinating experiments on ‘split-brain’ patients back in the 1960s. As a desperate last resort to control epilepsy, these patients had the complex nerve fibres which connect the two hemispheres of the brain severed. This allowed researchers such as Roger Sperry and Michael Gazzaniga to run a sequence of experiments to see whether each hemisphere was able to act as an independent entity. Of course, even if they had found reliable evidence to support exclusive lateralisation of functioning within one or other brain hemisphere we couldn’t generalise that to everyone else. Normally, this band of nerve fibres (called the corpus callosum) coordinates processes between the two hemispheres. I found this retrospective review of split-brain research by Gazzaniga which is quite fascinating for anyone interested in the history of neuroscience.

Etchells was right to advise caution before accepting some of the claims made within. He provides a link to a peer-reviewed piece of research looking at lateralisation of function in people who haven’t had radical neurosurgery to save them from uncontrollable epilepsy:

In popular reports, “left-brained” and “right-brained” have become terms associated with both personality traits and cognitive strategies, with a “left-brained” individual or cognitive style typically associated with a logical, methodical approach and “right-brained” with a more creative, fluid, and intuitive approach.

Despite the need for further study of the relationship between behavior and lateralized connectivity, we demonstrate that left- and right-lateralized networks are homogeneously stronger among a constellation of hubs in the left and right hemispheres, but that such connections do not result in a subject-specific global brain lateralization difference that favors one network over the other (i.e. left-brained or right-brained).

Thus it seems, as fascinating as the split-brain studies are, they tell us extremely little about the localisation of functioning in the wider population. Peter Etchells concludes his piece in the Guardian with some good advice:

… I’m concerned that the conference involved a discussion of neuroscience that wasn’t led by actual neuroscientists, and was based on research that hasn’t been published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal. If we want to have a serious discussion about whether neuroscience has a useful place within teaching and learning, we need to have an open debate involving relevant researchers, practitioners and teachers who don’t have a vested financial interest in the outcome.

Neuroscience myths in teaching

The EntreBRAINeur document is simply one example of how uncritically teachers treat neuroscience. An interesting question, given that these pseudoscientific claims are typically debunked swiftly, is why are they so prevalent within teaching and so hard to eradicate? An interesting study of teachers in the UK and the Netherlands casts some light upon that question.

Dekker et al (2012) Neuromyths in education: Prevalence and predictors of misconceptions among teachers. Frontiers in psychology.

In 2002 the OECD expressed concerns regarding the rapid proliferation of myths involving distortions or misconceptions related to neuroscience.

Other examples of neuromyths include such ideas as “we only use 10% of our brain”, “there are multiple intelligences”, “there are left- and right brain learners”, “there are critical periods for learning” and “certain types of food can influence brain functioning” (e.g., Organisation for Economic Co-operation, and Development, 2002; Geake, 2008; Purdy, 2008; Howard-Jones, 2010). Some of these misunderstandings have served as a basis for popular educational programs, like Brain Gym or the VAK approach (classifying students according to a VAK learning style). These programs claim to be “brain-based” but lack scientific validation (Krätzig and Arbuthnott, 2006; Waterhouse, 2006; Stephenson, 2009; Lindell and Kidd, 2011). A fast commercialization has led to a spread of these programs into classrooms around the world.

They put together a list of 15 myth statements and looked at how prevalent they were amongst a sample of teachers from the UK and NL. Here’s a list of the statements they used:
How many do you score? How many would teachers in your school agree with? Why not run this as a little activity at an SMT meeting or INSET day?
They found that the teachers believed nearly half of the myths presented. Some of them, as you might expect, were highly common:

The most prevalent of these myths were (1) “Individuals learn better when they receive information in their preferred learning style (e.g., auditory, visual, kinesthetic)”, (2) “Differences in hemispheric dominance (left brain, right brain) can help explain individual differences amongst learners”, and (3) “Short bouts of co-ordination exercises can improve integration of left and right hemispheric brain function”. More than 80% of the teachers believed these myths.

It seems that enthusiasm for trying to apply neuroscience by teachers who have a fairly weak understanding of the domain is one of the biggest factors which sustain these myths. The authors suggest that explicit education for teachers regarding neuromyths and the lack of evidence for so-called ‘brain-based learning’ programmes might reduce the incidence and propagation of these junk-science claims. Finally, they note how teachers find it difficult to distinguish between pseudoscience and scientifically valid ideas.

6 Good habits of mind to avoid believing in nonsense.

I’ve written before regarding the biases in human reasoning and the role of science in helping to ‘weed out’ the bad ideas that tend to accumulate within culture over time. There’s a good exploration of these problems in ‘When can you trust the experts’ – but (adapted from this long article on pseudoscience ) – here are 6 good habits to develop when you hear what appears to be an ostensibly plausible scientific claim:

1. Be suspicious of “experts”. Don’t accept something just because there’s a Dr or Prof in front of their name – especially if they are trying to sell you something. Don’t be impressed by a long bibliography – how many of the books and articles they list actually support their claims?

2. Ask yourself, what would show the claim to be false? Is the claim structured in such a way that it can never be tested? e.g. the claim relates to outcomes that cannot reasonably be measured in any sort of accurate or valid way.

3. Find out whether the claim has been tested. Assuming there’s a testable claim, why hasn’t this been done? e.g. If it claims to raise attainment or improve well-being, is there a well-controlled RCT to test those claims?

4. Be wary of ‘cherry picking’. A common strategy of charlatans is to only present narrow evidence that appears to support their claim – whilst ignoring a greater body of work which refutes it. Is the evidence being provided only from a single study or just one researcher? Be a little proactive at least – check online to see what the counterarguments are for a claim before you decide.

5. Are they hostile or dismissive of scepticism? Is the person selling the idea defensive or dismissive of skeptical questions? Do they attack the person who questions their claims rather than engage with the debate?

6. Do they ignore conventional logic. Finally – remember that the burden of proof falls on the person making a scientific claim, it is not the skeptic who has to provide evidence that the claim is wrong. Here’s a handy diagram to use whenever you’re challenged with the phrase “absence of evidence doesn’t mean it’s not true” or “well, you can’t prove that I’m wrong.”


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15 Responses to Can teachers stop believing in nonsense?

  1. Nick Brown says:

    Please correct the spelling of the name of Sperry’s co-researcher, Michael Gazzaniga (you can verify this on his Wikipedia page).


  2. R. Craigen says:

    Are the headings in the table of myths backwards? The highest numbers for “Incorrect” correspond to those described here as “most prevalent”. As I read the table it reports that (for example) 93% of UK teachers regard the first myth to be “incorrect”, which would seem to be the opposite of what is stated here. Perhaps I am reading the table differently than its maker’s intent, but I think my reading is the most natural one.


    • Ah I see what you mean – but I believe that ‘incorrect’ means that the teachers agreed with the incorrect answer in the questionnaire. Thus 93% of teachers believed that ‘individuals learn better when they receive information in their preferred learning style’ whereas only 4% gave the correct answer for that item. I should have probably explained that in the article as it is potentially confusing – so thanks for asking!


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