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Neuro-mythology

October 23, 2014

Earlier this week the NYTimes Op-Talk section featured an article by Anna North titled “How Brain Myths Could Hurt Kids”. The article described three brain myths that are prevalent among teachers and potentially damaging to students:

  1. We only us 10% of our brain
  2. Some learning disabilities are genetically linked to brain structure and cannot be remediated
  3. Students learn best when the teaching approach matches their learning style.

Drawing from the findings of Paul Howard-Jones, an associate professor of neuroscience and education, North’s article dispels each of these myths and does so in a fashion that is not demeaning to teachers nor blames them for this. Instead, Howard-Jones makes the following points:

“Something we have to get across to educators is the fact that the brain is plastic and the fact that its function, structure and connectivity changes as a result of education.”

“There is something kind of ironic here,” he added, “that we place such an emphasis on science education, and yet the science of learning is very often not included in the training of teachers.” And as he notes in his article, accurate neuroscience information can be hard for teachers to get, because it often appears only in specialized journals.

To dispel neuromyths, Dr. Howard-Jones advocated a collaborative approach: “We need messages, ideas and concepts that are constructed together by neuroscientists and by educators.” And, he said, “we need a field that actually combines concepts from both of these areas in a meaningful way.”

I know that Dartmouth College is making an effort to bridge this gap between neuroscience findings and applications in education and have long believed that teacher education program content could be enhanced by placing a greater emphasis on emerging research in child psychology and neuroscience. But there is one obstacle that neither North nor Howard-Jones acknowledge: these myths have taken root because they are “agreeable fantasies”. The notion that we could all be geniuses if we only drew on more of our neural capacity… OR that it is impossible to teach a segment of the population whose brain scans show they have neural deficiencies… OR that matching teaching styles with learning styles will yield better outcomes… each of these could make it easier to accomplish the goal of getting all CAPABLE students to a higher level of learning and sorting out those who are INCAPABLE. One other obstacle in place now: removing the myth from the minds of teachers. A bad myth, like a bad habit, is hard to displace. Once a mental model takes root in the mind, even though are brains ARE plastic, once a neural passage is dug in, re-routing it requires conscious effort.

North’s article concludes with this paragraph:

A former teacher himself, Dr. Howard-Jones was clear on one point: “These myths are not because teachers are stupid.” Part of his goal in writing about neuromyths was to emphasize how important teachers are in the drive to dispel them. The ultimate message of his article, he said, was, “we’ve got a problem here, and it can only be solved by neuroscientists and educators talking to each other.”

Let the conversation begin!

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