Why ‘Learning Styles’ and Other Education Neuromyths Won’t Go Away

By Stephen Sawchuk — September 12, 2017 2 min read
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Chances are you’ve heard someone say recently: “We only use 10 percent of our brains.” Or, “she’s so creative! She must be right-brained.” As it turns out, those are what cognitive scientists call neuromyths: beliefs about how the brain works that just aren’t true, but are nevertheless prevalent in popular culture.

From the K-12 curriculum standpoint, what’s troubling about neuromyths is that teacher-training workshops and curricula perpetuate some of them, most notably the idea that students learn best when taught in a “learning style” that best suits them, such as visual, auditory, or kinesthetic.

So what’s the best way to counter neuromyths? The root of the problem, new research finds, is that the myths are persistent even when people have had some training in neuroscience. So, while efforts to counter neuromyths can help, they probably won’t eliminate them entirely.

The research appeared last month in the journal Frontiers in Psychology. A team of five researchers, led by the University of Houston’s Kelly Macdonald, surveyed more than 3,000 members of the general public, asking them to give “true” or “false” answers to 32 statements about the brain and learning. They also surveyed nearly 600 educators, and 234 individuals who reported taking “many” college or university courses on the brain or neuroscience.

Then, they analyzed the data looking for patterns about their beliefs in neuromyths.

Classroom teachers, it turns out, are less wedded to neuromyths than the general public, though they are (not suprisingly) not immune to them, either. The “high neuroscience exposure” group had the lowest belief in neuromyths overall.

What’s particularly interesting is that the “learning styles” myth, which grew out of the multiple-intelligences theory created by education and cognition scholar Howard Gardner, is pervasive—even among teachers and individuals who took courses in neuroscience. Also prevalent is the belief that dyslexia represents itself by seeing letters backwards. That’s a concerning finding. It may mean that students with dyslexia who don’t demonstrate that trait aren’t getting referred to the appropriate special education services.

So, what’s to be done about all this mythology? The researchers suggest creating a “brief, targeted, and robust training module” to address these misconceptions, though the research indicates that that could be an uphill battle.

Maybe there’s an easier way? I saw in a movie that they can now zap bad relationships from your memory. Why not neuromyths?! (Just kidding, brain scientists!)

Photo: chemicalmonkey. Licensed under Flickr/Creative Commons

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.