Neurocrap

…and why it survives

Paul A. Kirschner & Mirjam Neelen

In the past few decades, myths about our brains and their functioning – so called neuromyths – have been born, been propagated and have stubbornly lived on. In schools and higher education institutions as well as in the workplace, this ‘neurocrap’ seems to persist and is used to justify a mass of ineffective instructional or learning approaches. Howard-Jones stated in his recently published article in Nature Reviews Neuroscience: “Imagine that brains are active for only 10%, shrink if you do not drink 6-8 glasses of water per day and that the communication between the two brain halves can be stimulated by massaging two invisible buttons on your chest”. Such rubbish is – for a true neuroscientist – hard to imagine, yet teachers (also trainers, parents, policy makers, instructional designers, producers of learning and training materials, etc.) all over the world seem to accept or even welcome many of these myths. The acceptance of these myths and their subsequent application lead to the use of ineffective and untested approaches to instruction/training and learning or, even worse, to approaches that inhibit learning!

So what are these myths? According to Howard-Jones, perhaps the most common neuromyth is that people learn best when instruction is adjusted to their preferred learning style. However, from a neuroscientific perspective, learning styles do not exist. They are simply pure, unadulterated nonsense. The different parts of the brain all communicate with each other; there is no such thing as increased brain activity in one specific part of the brain, such as a visual or an auditory brain segment. In short, there are truckloads of proof against learning styles (see for example Coffield et. al., 2004; Kirschner & Van Merriënboer, 2013; Pashler et al., 2008).

In the same article, Howard-Jones presents a table based upon earlier research at what teachers believe with respect to prevalent neuromyths which he conducted with Dekker, Lee and Jolles (Frontiers in Psychology, 2012). That study looked at 15 popular neuromyths as defined by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). The result? More than half of the teachers who were questioned considered 7 of the 15 myths to be true!

Table neuro crap

Table 1. Prevalence of neuromyths amongst practising teachers in five different international contexts (Howard-Jones, 2014)

The table shows the most common neuromyths among working teachers in 5 countries (United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Turkey, Greece and China). The top 3 for the Netherlands and the UK consists of, in first place as the definite winner, the just mentioned myth of learning styles (96% of all Dutch teachers and 93% of all UK teachers believe that learning styles exist). Number 2 is the myth that differences in dominance of left or right hemispheres explain differences in student learning (91% in the UK and 86% in the Netherlands). The bronze medal goes to the myth that short spurts of coordination exercises improve the integration of the left and right brain halves (88% UK, 82% NL).

And here is a table that shows what Howard-Jones et al. presented with respect to how teachers came upon these myths:

table 2 neuro crap

In his article, Howard-Jones not only discusses what’s wrong with believing in such myths; he also explains why he thinks these myths are able to survive. His first conclusion is that the facts are complex and often misunderstood by those with no real background in psychology or neuroscience. Also, the evidence is often published in subject matter journals that don’t use layman’s language, making it not easily comprehensible for parents, teachers, trainers, instructional designers, and policy makers. And last but not least, many myths cannot be tested in a rigorous experimental environment. All this is an excellent breeding ground for emotions, beliefs, and cultures, which unfortunately come with very unpleasant consequences. And as James Randi has repeatedly said: No amount of belief makes something a fact.

But not all brain research needs to result in myths. Howard-Jones also explains why, although still at its early stages, a number of excellent and sometimes misunderstood research results in the neuroscience field might be relevant for learning. For example, the finding that rewarding leads to dopamine production which in turn elicits positive feelings. This has, unfortunately, been quickly simplified to the one-liner that rewarding students equals motivating them. However, for neuroscientists, the word motivation means a very short-term, almost physical need for something. So, it is incorrect that making learning ‘fun’ leads to dopamine production and hence motivation or vice versa.

Another example is the finding that adolescents do not realise the risks of their behaviour (i.e., as their prefrontal lobes are not mature they cannot – among other things – control themselves). Based on this finding, problematic behaviour is condoned. In addition, there are now educational measures that have been put into place that assume a lack of free will in adolescents. However, there is no proof with regards to ‘a lack of free will’ whatsoever. At present, far reaching but ill-founded practical conclusions are being drawn from in itself solid research findings. The research findings are correct and relevant for learning. However, the conclusions drawn from them are instructional myths, which is very risky.

Howard-Jones et al. conclude that “teachers who are enthusiastic about the possible application of neuroscience in the classroom find it very difficult to distinguish pseudoscience from real science … [and that] … general knowledge about the brain doesn’t protect the teacher against neuromyths”.

Or, as Albert Einstein once stated (actually a variation on what Alexander Pope said about learning), “A little knowledge is a dangerous thing”.

 

References

Coffield, F., Moseley, D., Hall, E., & Ecclestone, K. (2004). Learning styles and pedagogy in post-16 learning: A systematic and critical review. London, UK: Learning and Skills Research Centre.

Dekker, S., Lee, N. C., Howard-Jones, P. A., & Jolles, J. (2012). Neuromyths in education: Prevalence and predictors of misconceptions among teachers. Frontiers in Psychology, 3, 429. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2012.00429

Howard-Jones, P. A. (2014). Neuroscience and education: myths and messages. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 15, 817–824. doi:10.1038/nrn3817

Kirschner, P. A., & van Merriënboer, J. J. G. (2013). Do learners really know best? Urban legends in Education. Educational Psychologist, 48(3), 1-15.

Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. (2002). Understanding the Brain: Towards a New Learning Science. Paris: OECD.

Pashler, H., McDaniel, M., Rohrer, D., & Bjork, R. (2008). Learning styles: Concepts and evidence. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 9(3), 105-119.

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13 thoughts on “Neurocrap

    • Paul Kirschner says:

      Dear Sue,

      Thanks for this. I looked at the blog (more an article than a blog post; not meant as criticism), but I think that it would be better to ask Dekker, Jolles or Howard-Jones what they think of your blog than asking us.

      paul

      • logicalincrementalism says:

        I wasn’t really asking what you thought about it, rather I was asking for your comments on the points I made about the Dekker et al paper.

        The Dekker et al results could be due to an experimental artifact caused by ambiguity in the items in the questionnaire and in the response options. Ambiguity was controlled for in the study the Dekker et al one was derived from, but not in the Dekker et al study itself.
        I just wondered what you thought about the ambiguity issue.

  1. @infinitejigsaw says:

    What you describe happening with current neuroscience in becoming instructional myths is possibly what has happened with learning style research. Many of the things quoted as myths are either wrong interpretations of research due to lack of understanding or just plain wrong, however it appears as though learning styles research is currently being wholly demonised. The much quoted Coffield et al report, although critical of the much of the research in the learning style field, does not state that it is of no worth nor that all of it has no validity in its conclusions. Merely it does what it set out to which is to critically review the field, finding that some research is promising but essentially requires more independent review. Absolutely when an idea is proved incorrect or incomplete this information should be disseminated but I think we must deal with specifics only. By jumping to black or white views on general fields of research such as learning styles we merely show our own confirmation bias I fear and as such become guilty of the same thing we look to critisise, inadvertent myth pedalling. Maybe another Einstein quote is good to end on “Learn from yesterday, live for today, hope for tomorrow. The important thing is not to stop questioning.”

    • logicalincrementalism says:

      @infinite jigsaw is right; the Coffield report certainly doesn’t reject learning styles out of hand. One feature that emerges time and again from the models they evaluate is that the constructs are poorly operationalised. In other words, there may be some valid, positive outcomes from interventions but because of poor operationalisation it’s not clear what has caused them.

      • Paul Kirschner says:

        Strange that we consider using something that “may be valid” but has not been proven so since research on it as well as the implementation of interventions based on it have been “poorly operationalised.

      • logicalincrementalism says:

        It’s not strange at all. People do things that make intuitive sense. Our intuition can seriously let us down. That’s why we have science.

        Coffield drew attention to the flaws in the learning styles models, but was quite clear it wasn’t a black-white/right-wrong kind of problem.

  2. Paul Kirschner says:

    Dear Jigsaw from South Oxfordshire,
    In my humble opinion there is more than enough evidence (Coffield is just one very comprehensive report) showing that learning styles (1) are almost never properly researched and thus most if not all of the “proof” is practically worthless and (2) that when it is properly researched, then there is not really any evidence found for it. I know that there will always be one or two that might show something, but as a pedagogical choice it is not really worth the effort and if the effort is made, teachers often do it wrong.

  3. Dick Schutz says:

    More worrisome than teachers who “do it wrong,” are the “experts” who turn the neurocrap into educrap that teachers and parents with the best of intentions use to mess up kids–not all kids, but kids who are the most vulnerable.

    Sci-crap per se is ubiquitous and for the most part harmless in everyday life. That is, if you are just walking and driving around, it doesn’t matter if you believe the earth is flat. It feels like it is. But if you act on the myth generally, you’re going to be misled.

    Educrap is more difficult to deal with than neurocrap, because the undesirable effects are delayed, and failures are conventionally attributed to the kids rather than to the faulty scientific beliefs.

    Antidote: It’s not in the brain; it’s in the instruction. Take care of the instruction, and the brain will do its part to take care of itself.

    Put another way: We have to work with the brains we have, not those that we would like to have.

  4. Pingback: Myths | MrHistoire

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