Neuroscience in education – pervasive myths
Many of you will have been at a conference or event in recent years and heard Sergio Della Sala present on ‘psychobabble’ and ‘neuromyths’ as he explains some of the strongest examples of education and educationalists being sucked in by companies trying to sell their products with apparent justifications from neuroscience. Specifically he focusses on those where companies either make claims about their products which stand up to no scientific scrutiny whatsoever or who base their claims on little, no or poorly interpreted evidence.
So, what is a neuromyth? According to a 2002 OECD report into the brain and learning it is:
“a misconception generated by a misunderstanding, a misreading or a misquoting of facts scientifically established (by brain research) to make a case for use of brain research, in education and other contexts.”
Leaning on neuroscience has given many a products, companies and perspectives an enduring credibility. In “Neuroscience in Education: The good, the bad and the ugly” Professor Della Sala and his colleagues have several such companies squarely in the crosshairs. Three strong examples explored in book highlight the need always to seek evidence for claims made in the promotional literature for products.
In the chapter “Don’t try this at school: the attraction of ‘alternative’ educational techniques” Professor Della Sala, Stuart Ritchie and Eric Chudler take on Brain Gym® and make clear their views:
“the lack of a theoretical basis for Brain Gym® would not necessarily matter if there were will conducted peer-reviewed studies showing the programme’s effectiveness at improving learning. There are, however, no such studies.” “The review concludes that there is no sound research evidence for the positive effects of Brian Gym®”
This is much less used than it was a few years ago but it is still present in our schools. This decline is partly down to growing publicity around the absence of scientific evidence for claims made about its impact and some statements in the teachers manual which are simply wrong - perhaps most publicly displayed in a Jeremy Paxman interview from some years ago (you can watch it here ).
The essence of Della Sala’s argument is that while teachers may find that having pupils do some exercise to break up the day improves concentration they don’t need to rely on Brain Gym® with its false ‘facts’ about neuroscience (and anatomy) and un-evidenced claims about impact to deliver this.
According to Robert McIntosh and Stuart Ritchie, authors of a chapter dealing largely with Irlen (‘Rose-tinted? The use of coloured filters to treat reading difficulties’) that despite considerable anecdotal evidence of impact, controlled studies demonstrate that there is no benefit to be had from the use of coloured filters.
This conclusion is based on their 2010 research, conducted in Port Glasgow, which provided a controlled study into the effectiveness of using Irlen prescribed overlays, overlays of an alternative colour and clear lenses. The research demonstrated that there was no benefit to be had from the costly Irlen prescribed colour aside from an apparent placebo effect for those who knew what their prescribed colour was.
They are quite clear in their concluding remarks:
“…there is no good neuroscientific reason to expect coloured filters to aid reading, nor compelling evidence that they do. Future evidence may always change this assessment; but, at present, coloured filters should neither be recommended to private individuals, nor provided by public bodies.”
Are you a visual or verbal learner? In the chapter ‘Educational double-think’ Michael C Corballis examines evidence for the use of learning styles in education. He concludes that:
“What is unclear from the literature is whether the learning of any particular accomplishment…can be tuned to people’s different aptitudes, and so taught in different ways. The evidence remains stubbornly negative.”
Professor Della Sala has a real difficulty with the view “Just because we can’t prove these things work doesn’t mean they don’t have benefits, and they do no harm.” He believes that if we don’t know that they work (and we are paying for them) then we are wasting money which could be put to better use. A short version of his message might be: ‘Learning is complex, if a product seems too good to be true then it usually is. Products might not do what they claim, be sceptical, look for evidence of impact (preferably peer reviewed academic reviews) and if that is not forthcoming…don’t buy it.’
The article ‘Don’t try this at school: The attraction of ‘Alternative’ Educational Techniques’ also looks at the effect on pupil performance/outcomes of: regular intake of water during the school day; consuming fish oils; brain training; and, chewing gum in class. All are hailed as making a difference for pupils, all have either been proved wrong or inconclusive by research.