Fighting the Good Fight…Against Neuromyths

A recent article (The Impact of a Modified Initial Teacher Education on Challenging Trainees’ Understanding of Neuromyths) took a look at an intervention attempting to curtail the proliferation of neuromyths among teachers. To do this, researchers seized the opportunity to appraise and educate trainee teachers while in their initial teacher education (ITE) program. Specifically, the study investigated (1) “the neuromyths held by the trainees and the impact of the intervention on this, (2) whether trainees’ prior experiences of brain-based training affected their responses, and (3) the impact of the intervention on trainees’ interest in, perceived value of and confidence in applying knowledge of the brain to education.” Resource materials were created to educate primary trainees in the learning sciences and prepare them to assess claims they might confront in the future.

Looking at the results of other studies on the prevalence of  neuromyths, researchers identified three of the most common myths: tailoring instruction to particular learning styles, left or right brain dominance, and fatty acid supplements as a positive effect on academic achievement. While other myths are mentioned in the article (see table 2 below), there is a special focus on these. A total of 130 participants (Female = 102, Mean age = 25.39, SD = 5.93) completed all of the following over the course of a nine month time period: a pre-training survey, a 90 minute workshop covering the allure of neuroscience, a 10 minute overview of key structures of the brain, a challenge to the popular myths mentioned above, a 10 minute ‘science literacy lesson’, a brief overview of neuroplasticity in a lecture, and a post-training survey. 

Why did the researchers focus on primary trainee teachers? “ITE makes an important contribution to the values, beliefs, and ideas that teachers carry with them throughout their careers.” Personally, my intuition (super flawed, I know) agrees this time for aspiring teachers is vital for developing belief systems about how to educate that may be quite difficult to change later…even if evidence instructs otherwise. Who wants to believe their professors are wrong? Who is willing to disagree with their intuition and/or their administrators with respect to instructional practices appropriate for the classroom? For many reasons, it becomes quite difficult to reverse these beliefs once the ideas have set. So, I have long believed that an intervention during teacher training would be fruitful in its attempts to diminish the spread of these false beliefs. To be completely honest, I wonder why I (and many others) did not have an entire course on popular neuromyths, how the memory works, and how this knowledge should impact the classroom. As Sweller, Ayers, and Kalyuga stated in Cognitive Load Theory (2011):

“Without knowledge of human cognitive processes, instructional design is blind.”

But…I digress. That’s another blog post for another day.

Results of this intervention? A bit of a mixed bag, to be honest. 

*Likert scale 1-7: 1 = definitely false, 7 = definitely true

Table 1 shows really know change in general knowledge of the brain. But, after only a 10 minute overview of brain anatomy, this doesn’t surprise me much. There is a small reduction in the belief of certain neuromyths.

Table 2 shows tells a better story, I believe:

For the 7 myths shown, all scores indicate a better understanding of their falsehood. All show an increased percentage of ‘definitely false’ and all but one myth show a decrease of ‘definitely true’. 

 Also, with the post-training survey, there was a section that asked certain open-ended questions. One such question was “What was the main message about the brain that you gained from your university- based teacher training? There were two themes with respect to the trainees’ answers: an understanding of neuroplasticity and an awareness of neuromyths. 

“The brain is a huge network of connections that is continually developing and changing to accommodate new information and retain existing knowledge”

“Debunking common myths about the brain and learning”

There was also evidence from some responses that participants were more skeptical of brain-based claims:

“Don’t believe everything you read about the brain just because they have a picture of a brain scan and tell you that scientists say…”

“Don’t believe anything you read/hear in the media!! (without asking at least some questions?)”

So, what do these results mean? I’ll start with the study’s synopsis:

“…the intervention had a positive impact in that it somewhat reduced belief in the neuromyths it addressed. However, their persistence confirms that trainee teacher neuromyths may be resistant to education and the reasons for this need further exploration. The main effect of the teacher training was to ‘unsettle’ trainee beliefs in brain-based claims, making them more uncertain of what ideas to trust. Arguably, this is a desirable outcome that may indeed make them less susceptible to false claims as future teachers and contribute to their scientific literacy.”

From my perspective, I’m mostly encouraged by these results. The participants received less than two hours of information 2-3 weeks into a nine month course. That’s it. Considering this, I’m somewhat surprised and encouraged that there were any positive results at all. Of course, as the researchers state, there are many new questions that need to be studied as a result. Here are a few that come to mind:

This study was conducted with primary teachers, what about the impact on secondary teachers?

How did this change in beliefs by the trainees impact their instruction? 

How did this change in beliefs impact the learners in their classroom?

What can be provided beyond the approximate two hour intervention to further support the 130 participants?

Would this intervention produce results with more experienced teachers, perhaps through professional learning/development sessions?

This certainly isn’t the end of the story, though. I believe measures similar to this study’s interventions are just a piece of the puzzle. We (really, everyone involved in education) need to attack the problem of neuromyths on all fronts; from more extensive interventions with teacher trainees to continued efforts with experienced teachers in schools, from articles written by education journalists to teachers on Twitter questioning these myths during edchats, from researchers continuing to run studies in labs and classrooms across the world to teachers in their classrooms telling their students that they do not, in fact, have a preferred learning style. All of these actions are important. They all matter in this fight against intuition and poor information.

So, what can you do? Retweet articles (like this one :)) on social media. If you feel comfortable, send information on these neuromyths to administrators. Be skeptical. Question any claims that either seem too good to be true or are presented without evidence. Fight the good fight. Make social media, our universities, and our classrooms more effective and accurate for our students. At the end of the day, that’s what this is all about…better learning environments for our students. The presence of these neuromyths can stymie learning and potentially negatively impact learners long after they leave our classroom…yes, we need more studies on this, too. 🙂

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