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Howard-Jones, P. A. (2014). Neuroscience and education: Myths and messages. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 5, 817–824. doi:10.1038/nrn3817

Summary by Dr. Jack M. Fletcher

Overview and Key Findings

There are many misunderstandings about how the brain is involved in development and learning. These concepts are evolving as research into brain development continues to unfold. However, many popularized beliefs about the role of the brain in educational programming and intervention have proven to be persistent. In this article, these beliefs are termed "neuromyths" because they have cultlike status in education and, if believed, lead to assumptions about student learning and remedial effectiveness that have little scientific basis. These beliefs can be harmful if they lead to interventions that are not effective or assumptions about the efficacy of an intervention.

Some readers will be surprised by these neuromyths. In a survey of teachers across multiple countries, at least 50% of the teachers in one or more of the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Turkey, Greece, or China endorsed the following neuromyths: (1) We use only 10% of our brain; (2) learning is facilitated by knowledge of learning style; (3) coordinated exercises can improve integration of the left and right hemispheres; (4) problems with hemispheric dominance are related to learning difficulties; and (5) attention problems in children are related to sugar consumption. Howard-Jones shows that each of these neuromyths is not supported by scientific evidence and has little basis in contemporary scientific understanding of brain development and function.

Other neuromyths include the belief in critical periods of development and that learning before age 3 is most important because that is when the most brain development occurs. In fact, although there is little question about the value of early intervention, the brain develops continuously and there is little evidence of sensitive periods in which learning is more or less difficult. Learning trajectories are not fixed by age 3 in general and certainly not because of relations with brain development. The brain is marvelously malleable across the life span in ways that facilitate learning and in ways that may not facilitate learning. Early deficits often lead to accumulating difficulties in a particular domain, such as vocabulary or word reading.

To illustrate, as discussed in the June 2014 issue of Education Research Matters, we know that to learn to read proficiently, areas of the brain that are predisposed to support language and other functions must be exposed to practices that allow these areas to mediate reading. A network of areas emerges through these practices—different forms of teaching and exposure to print and teaching—that allows the brain to develop the capacity to support reading. If these areas are not programmed early in schooling because of a lack of access to print, this functional network will not develop adequately. In particular, the child will not have enough exposure to print to facilitate development of a sight word vocabulary where the patterns of letters lead immediately to recognition of the meaning of the word without conscious efforts at sounding out the word—commonly referred to as fluency. If a child falls behind early in schooling, it is difficult to provide enough exposure to print to make up what is essentially an experiential gap in the development of fluency. The brain is certainly involved, but even if we teach the child to decode in middle school, slow and labored reading occurs because the child does not have the sight word vocabulary to read efficiently.

This example demonstrates another set of neuromyths that involve biological determinism in children with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and learning disabilities. In both of these broad domains of learning and behavioral difficulties—which are widely accepted as variations on normal development and not qualitatively distinct disorders—there is evidence of the efficacy of intervention and the malleability of brain function. Intervention-neuroimaging research from our center in reading and from research studies on math in Howard-Jones (2014) show that intensive intervention results in normalization of brain function, with the brain showing considerable malleability (plasticity) when the intervention is targeted toward the correct skill set. Thus, interventions focused on actual academic skills in reading and math are not only effective, but also are associated with clear evidence of malleability that parallels what happens in the brain when reading and math skills develop in a child who never receives a label like ADHD or learning disability. The absence of biological determinism does not indicate that such problems are not real and do not present lifelong obstacles to learning and development. Rather, what we know about the relation of the brain and learning suggests that the persistence of these difficulties is partly experiential because of the cumulative nature of learning—children with these problems often respond to intervention.

Implications

Howard-Jones points out that the persistence of many neuromyths reflects cultural factors that lead to bias and implicit assumptions about the brain and learning that are simplistic and do not reflect a sophisticated understanding of how the brain develops and is involved in learning. That a particular intervention is "brain based" is often invoked as a reason for using it instead of careful attention to efficacy studies. Similarly, invoking a neuromyth may be protective in terms of explaining why children have learning difficulties and may also lead to biases in terms of how well a child can learn and behave. In fact, better communication between neuroscience and education is needed, especially when a popular source simplifies research but is accepted as authoritative.

Many concepts in contemporary use—like whether one is left- or right-brained, learning styles, the effectiveness of interventions based on computer training of "brain functions," oculomotor and vision training for reading difficulties, diets for ADHD—are neuromyths. Little evidence supports such practices, yet they are seductive in their advertisement and appeal to science and the brain. It is important to scrutinize the claims made about different interventions and determine whether there is evidence for efficacy in the outcomes of interest—academic skills and behavior—and not be misled by neuromyths. Dialogue between neuroscientists and educators needs to improve, especially as "educational neuroscience" becomes more prominent. The key in thinking about educational instruction and intervention is not whether an intervention is aligned with what we know about the brain, but whether it produces the desired outcomes. These outcomes need to be evaluated in controlled experiments so that the validity and generalizability is clear. Understanding mechanisms—like how the brain and genes are involved—is important for developing comprehensive understandings of complex human conditions. This type of research may lead to new directions in teaching and learning. But scrutiny of the claims made by different interventions is important, lest we continue to perpetuate not only neuromyths, but also ineffective teaching and learning strategies.


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