Neuromyths and brain-based learning by Martin Westwell*
Last year, the makers of the brain-training product Luminosity were fined two million dollars for false advertising claiming, among other things, that users would perform better at school.
There’s a long history of people using the seed of a scientific idea and mutating it so that it grows into a meme that spreads and reproduces. The mutant meme bears little resemblance to the original healthy seed but thrives because someone’s nurturing it to make money and the original science makes it sound plausible. The mutant idea promises a quick fix or at least a simple way to deal with a complex problem.
So called educational “neuromyths” have some of these mutant characteristics. Take the notion that a child can be identified as a left or right-brain thinker. This takes solid science about how parts of the brain are specialized and necessary for specific thinking processes, some of which are on the left side of the brain and some on the right. It then incorrectly assumes that because these parts of the brain are necessary then they are sufficient. It forgets the enormous interconnectivity between brain cells and that for someone to understand something simple, e.g. a picture of a face, requires many brain regions, from left and right, working together. The final twist subverts teachers’ and parents’ understanding that children do have preference, at any given time, as to how they express themselves whether that be, for example, artistically, technically or analytically. Identifying children as left or right brain thinkers makes a complex situation seem simple and this never works. Giving in to temptation to teach the left-brain thinkers in their so-called preferred learning style and the right-brain thinkers in theirs, is likely to do more harm than good.
This caricature has all the real ingredients of a neuromyth: some good science, an accidental or wilful misinterpretation of the evidence, plausibility to educators and some apparent value. Then educational consultants take the idea and start selling it.
… and so it goes. I recall a presentation I made to colleagues 6 years ago about the marketing of educational ideas, warning that schools and educational institutions are low-hanging fruit for an emerging and voracious education industry. We were ripe for the picking if we did not net our fruit against fatuous claims masked as significant research. The allure of simple solutions to complex and, dare I say, in some cases near-impossible levels of understanding about learning, except for the most single-mindedly immersed expert, was too much to withstand. The research craze just took hold across the world and bagged the fruit to excess. When ‘mutant’ ideas, in this case ‘neuromyths’, take hold a great deal of damage can be done, particularly in schools.
I tend towards an unsubstantiated theory that most of contemporary educational reform is in the grip of a market in educational solutions, selling their wares to overly eager and undiscriminating schools and systems of education who are very anxious that they may be missing something, and to unsuspecting parents and teachers experiencing the same anxiety and who want desperately to do the right thing by the children in their care. I have written about this before. There is truth in it but there is also truth in the idea that we need to remain fully alive to the changes around us and how they impact education. How do we know what is good education?
The problem plaguing much contemporary research and public policy stems from a misconception that school education is the only key able to unlock an uncertain future. The growth and urgency of the market in educational ideas follows, and fuels, this misconception. It is a self-serving market strategy that has in turn become a societal anxiety.
School is fundamental to the formation of young people. Schools do deliver an education based on the knowledge and skills, and characteristics and values, that our community believes should be known and encouraged. Schools underpin and support the formation of the habits, skills and attitudes essential to encourage a knowledge of and curiosity about the world and a passion for learning over a lifetime. It would be foolish to underestimate their role. But they are only and have only ever been part of the picture, and the consistent inability for policy makers to acknowledge school education as part of a broader community context heightens the anxiety.
What advice is there, really, on how we can avoid the pitfalls explored in the abovementioned article? What are some fundamental principles of the educational experience that we apply at Pembroke for 3–18 year olds that help remind us all to avoid deliberately overstated claims and ideas? I have a few I’ve thought about that may help to provide a filter and ‘myth’ detector, and I have distilled them into seven ideas:
1. Love children abundantly and knowledgeably: know that there is no greater impact on the positive development of human potential than experiencing love—we all have a responsibility to do this and it’s about support, security and belonging.
2. Consider knowledge and learning as essential but their acquisition as gradual and not, in fact, inevitable—we learn and gain knowledge to our dying day and there are some things we will never learn.
3. Appreciate and enjoy school as offering much more than assessment results alone—we all know that worthwhile learning occurs everywhere, all the time, so validate it as no less important because it may either not be assessed, or assessed in a different way.
4. Relish the opportunities that children are given to be so challenged that they fail, and then help them try again—the experience of falling short is crucial to healthy development and, as an adult,
articulating your responses to those experiences is of infinite value to school- age children.
5. Don’t think of the future as the generation to come but think of it as now and, in so doing, be responsible for shaping the future; we can too often make the future either an excuse for inaction (it’s not in my power) or a justification for overreaction (urgency to change in case we don’t keep up)— neither is sufficient.
6. Our job is to encourage students to independence and a mature, knowledgeable understanding of their interdependence. While also focusing on the healthy development of the self, it is too much to expect student maturation to be uniform in place and time, but it is important to provide the opportunity for it. Having said that I am constantly surprised how uniform growing up is across cultures and time.
7. Hard work, concentrated effort and time make considerable differences to the quantity, rate and quality of student learning—each comes more easily to some than to others.
These seven ideas may be helpful when trying to consider education in the broader context of Pembroke sharing in and being part of the development of young people.
Back to the original story that prompted this piece—where do brain games fit into such a concept? They don’t, really. So, we need to change the perception that they are somehow special, different and separate, or a product to be purchased. This is damaging to the market but good for school education. Every day at Pembroke is a brain-game day, as it is at home. The brain develops at an extraordinary rate and, frankly, in a miraculous manner, exciting and baffling to even the cleverest in the neuroscientific community. The brain is brilliantly complex and will defy any attempt to corner it neatly in an educational market for self-improvement—frankly speaking, it’s far too powerful and valuable for that.
*Martin Westwell is the Strategic Professor in the Science of Learning at Flinders University. He recently undertook research in South Australian schools demonstrating that brain-training does not transfer into increased performance at school