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Macdonald, K., Germine, L., Anderson, A., Christodoulou, J., & McGrath, L. M. (2017). Dispelling the myth: Training in education or neuroscience decreases but does not eliminate beliefs in neuromyths. Frontiers in Psychology, 8. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2017.01314

Summary by Kelly Macdonald

Overview

In this article, Macdonald, Germine, Anderson, Christodoulou, and McGrath (2017) present their findings from a U.S. survey on neuromyths that was administered to three important groups: (a) the general public, (b) educators, and (c) individuals who reported high exposure to neuroscience. Neuromyths are misconceptions about the brain and learning; for example, the idea that dyslexia is caused by letter reversals is a neuromyth. Belief in neuromyths is potentially harmful for student outcomes because it may encourage practices that are not supported by research. Macdonald et al. found high rates of neuromyth endorsement in their sample, even in those with training in education or neuroscience. The authors believe their findings can be used to guide the development of teacher training modules aimed at dispelling pervasive neuromyths.

Background

The field of educational neuroscience (also known as mind, brain, education science) has emerged over the past few decades to create cross-disciplinary connections among the fields of education, psychology, and neuroscience. However, as the field of education has become increasingly interested in applying scientific findings to educational practice, gaps in communication have led to the proliferation of neuromyths. Commonly held neuromyths include the ideas that classical music increases children’s reasoning ability, that students learn better when presented with information in their preferred learning style (e.g., visual, auditory, kinesthetic), and that dyslexia is caused by letter reversals. The purpose of the study by Macdonald et al. (2017) was to identify which of these neuromyths are most prevalent and persistent among educators and what factors might predict these misconceptions. Prior studies suggest that endorsement of neuromyths is high among educators, particularly when the neuromyths were related to learning styles and classified students as left-brain or right-brain learners. Belief in neuromyths among educators can be problematic when it interferes with strong research about factors that promote student learning and development.

No prior studies had examined the prevalence of neuromyths in a large U.S. sample and compared rates of endorsement among educators to groups of noneducators. The noneducators in the Macdonald et al. (2017) study included the general public and a group of individuals with high levels of self-reported exposure to neuroscience coursework. Macdonald et al. (2017) used a neuromyth survey developed by Dekker, Lee, Howard-Jones, and Jolles (2012) on a sample of educators from the United Kingdom and the Netherlands. The authors made some modifications to it for their U.S. sample, including adding items about the Mozart effect and dyslexia. The authors also examined the factor structure of the neuromyths survey and tested predictors of belief in neuromyths, including demographics (age, gender), educational background, and science-related media exposure.

Key Findings

Clustering of Neuromyths

In exploratory factor analysis, seven "classic" neuromyths factored together; these neuromyths were related to learning styles, dyslexia, the Mozart effect, the impact of sugar on attention, right-brain/left-brain learners, and using 10% of the brain. The results were surprising because it would seem equally plausible that a belief in one of these neuromyths would be unrelated to a belief in the others. It is possible that an underlying misunderstanding about the complexity of the brain and learning makes one susceptible to believing many neuromyths. Alternatively, it is possible that these neuromyths are taught explicitly and simultaneously in some professional contexts. This finding suggests that programs aimed at dispelling neuromyths should target multiple misconceptions simultaneously.

Predictors and Prevalence of Neuromyths

Lower endorsement of neuromyths was predicted by age (being younger), education (having a graduate degree), and exposure to peer-reviewed scientific literature. Individuals from the general public believed 68% of neuromyths, educators believed 56%, and individuals with high neuroscience exposure believed 46% of these myths. Thus, it appears that training in education or neuroscience decreases but does not eliminate belief in these misconceptions. Although it is surprising that the neuroscience group endorsed nearly half of the neuromyths, the authors note that many of these myths were related to learning and behavior, not the brain and its function. This finding suggests that training in neuroscience doesn’t necessarily cross disciplinary boundaries to topics that are the purview of psychology or education.

The most prevalent neuromyths endorsed across all three groups were related to learning styles and dyslexia, and these have direct implications for educational practice. The learning styles neuromyth, which contends that students demonstrate higher levels of achievement if they are taught in their preferred learning style, was endorsed by 76% of the educator sample. The most popular learning styles theory is the “meshing” hypothesis, which explains that auditory learners should learn through primarily auditory means and visual learners should learn primarily through visual means. However, studies testing the straightforward prediction that visual learners should learn better when they read information and auditory learners should learn better when they hear information have not found support for the theory. One unintended positive consequence of believing the learning styles neuromyth is that teachers might weave multiple modalities into their lessons to accommodate a classroom of visual, auditory, and kinesthetic learners, which may allow for novel repetition, which itself is good practice for supporting learning.

The dyslexia myth, which states that the disorder is caused by letter reversals, was believed by 59% of the educator sample. This myth stems from early visual theories of dyslexia, but it has since become clear that difficulties in specific language skills, especially phonological awareness, form the basis of dyslexia. This myth can be difficult to dispel because some children with dyslexia do show letter reversals when they write. However, some typically developing children also make letter reversals, particularly when learning to read. Thus, dispelling this myth requires a nuanced understanding of the complexities of the condition.  

Conclusions and Recommendations

Macdonald et al. (2017) conclude that training in education or neuroscience can help decrease, but does not eliminate, belief in neuromyths. Also, more accurate performance on neuromyths is predicted by age (being younger), education (having a graduate degree), and exposure to peer-reviewed science. Finally, a core group of “classic” neuromyths clustered together, meaning that belief in one of these myths is associated with belief in many others. The authors recommend that programs designed to dispel neuromyths should target multiple misconceptions simultaneously.

The authors recommend that their findings be used to guide teacher training modules to dispel neuromyths. To effectively dispel the myths, professional development training should cover (a) how each myth came to exist (e.g., overgeneralization or misunderstanding of scientific evidence), (b) why the myth appears plausible but is incorrect and insufficient as an explanation, and (c) why the updated conceptualization is a stronger explanation than the misconception. Although the authors acknowledge that some of these myths might be easily dispelled with a handout or short justification, they caution that more complicated neuromyths (i.e., myths about learning styles and dyslexia) may require deeper engagement with the educational community. The authors argue that dispelling these neuromyths is important because doing so will provide educators with a basis for more thoroughly evaluating pedagogical approaches based in neuroscience.

The authors of this article (along with Dr. Daniel Willingham) discussed the myths that persist about how we learn on the NPR show Science Friday with Ira Flato. An archive of the show is available online.

For Further Reading

Dekker, S., Lee, N. C., Howard-Jones, P., & Jolles, J. (2012). Neuromyths in education: Prevalence and predictors of misconceptions among teachers. Frontiers in Psychology, 3, 429. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2012.00429
This study, which uses the same survey adapted by Macdonald et al. (2017), was one of the first to examine neuromyths among educators.

Goswami, U. (2006). Neuroscience and education: From research to practice? Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 7, 406–413. doi:10.1038/nrn1907
This work discusses the challenges associated with bridging the gap between neuroscience and education.

Howard-Jones, P. A. (2014). Neuroscience and education: Myths and messages. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 15, 817–824. doi:10.1038/nrn3817
This article discusses the possible roots of some pervasive neuromyths and suggests possible solutions to overcoming barriers to communication between neuroscience and education.

Pashler, H., McDaniel, M., Rohrer, D., & Bjork, R. (2008). Learning styles concepts and evidence. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 9, 105–119. doi:10.1111/j.1539-6053.2009.01038.x
This meta-analysis about learning styles concludes that there is not enough evidence to justify incorporating learning-style assessments into educational practice.


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