School & District Management

Study: Teachers Like Neuroscience, But Confusion Abounds

By Sarah D. Sparks — April 14, 2011 2 min read
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Incoming teachers believe neuroscience has the potential to improve their practice, according to new research, but there remain a lot of misconceptions about what science of the brain really proves about learning.

Arizona State University researchers Debby Zambo, an associate professor in educational leadership and innovation, and Ronald Zambo, an associate professor in teacher preparation, queried two groups of teachers—215 pre-service and 63 in-service teachers—on their thoughts about the value of neuroscience in educational practice as well as whether neuroscience findings should be included in teacher pre-service education and professional development.

The results, presented at the American Educational Research Association convention in New Orleans last week, showed that teachers generally approved of new science that can improve their practice, but they tended to confuse legitimate findings with commercial promises that simply mentioned neuroscience but weren’t really based on research. Moreover, many associated popular but discredited theories with neuroscience.

“Fifty-seven percent believed in [neuroscience] wholeheartedly, believed it could answer questions now debated in education—but they also believed learning styles were part of it,” Debby Zambo said, referring to a widely scientifically discredited theory about types of learning. (See this Psychological Science briefing.pdf for a good review of the evidence.)

One in four teachers took a more cautious stance, saying they thought neuroscience showed promise but needed to be better translated into actual instructional practices teachers can follow. Just under one in five teachers rejected it outright, with many pointing to flimsy science under some commercial products to say that the emerging research too easily could be skewed.

Yet throughout the sample, Ms. Zambo said teachers got most of their information about neuroscience research from popular media, up to and including The Oprah Show and Dr. Phil television shows. Teachers reported that they already included neuroscience in their instruction because they used practices such as teaching with music or taking stretch breaks.

Ronald Zambo followed up the interviews with a separate study of 267 pre- and in-service teachers who were given a fake scientific article on learning research. One third of the articles include a graph, another third included a picture of an fMRI image, and the final third included only text. He found that teachers were more likely to believe the text was legitimate if it included a picture of an fMRI, he found, but teachers remained cautious about basing instructional practice on a single example.

The results pointed to the need for greater explanation of emerging research in neuroscience, the Zambos said, both to identify true effective practices and weed out the fakes. “I don’t think we’re quite there in clarity in teachers’ minds,” Mr. Zambo said.

These are very small studies themselves, and not yet published, but they do make me wonder why effective research takes so long to filter down to real classroom practice when educators seem incredibly eager to stay current in their field. Have you seen neuroscience affecting classroom practices? What education myths seem to be the most resistant to new evidence? Let me know what you are seeing out there.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.