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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Neuro Myths: Separating Fact and Fiction in Brain-Based Learning

New research on educational neuroscience tells us how kids learn -- and how you should teach.
Sara Bernard
Credit: iStockphoto

You've surely heard the slogans: "Our educational games will give your brain a workout!" Or how about, "Give your students the cognitive muscles they need to build brain fitness." And then there's the program that "builds, enhances, and restores natural neural pathways to assist natural learning."

No one doubts that the brain is central to education, so the myriad products out there claiming to be based on research in neuroscience can look tempting.

With the great popularity of so-called brain-based learning, however, comes great risk. "So much of what is published and said is useless," says Kurt Fischer, founding president of the International Mind, Brain, and Education (MBE) Society and director of the MBE graduate program at Harvard University. "Much of it is wrong, a lot is empty or vapid, and some is not based in neuroscience at all."

Still, there are some powerful insights emerging from brain science that speak directly to how we teach in the classroom: learning experiences do help the brain grow, emotional safety does influence learning, and making lessons relevant can help information stick. The trick is separating the meat from the marketing.

So what's an educator to make of all these claims?

Standards of Proof

The use of neuroscience in education, relatively speaking, is young. Neuroimaging technologies have really only developed over the last 20 years, so virtually nothing is "proven" at this point. Neuroscientists can point to some aspects of how different parts of the brain function and connect with one another, but when it comes to education, no one can definitively outline more than a few broad concepts.

"My basic recommendation is that if a product claims to be proven by brain research, forget it," says neurologist and former classroom teacher Judy Willis. "Nothing from the lab can be proven to work in the classroom -- it can only correlate."

This might explain why some academics bemoan the term "brain-based learning," including Robert Sylwester, Emeritus Professor of Education at the University of Oregon. "As if it were kidney-based learning last year, and now it's brain based," he grumbles.

Some software companies will "make fabulous claims and have all these testimonials," adds Patricia Wolfe, veteran teacher and administrator and founder of Mind Matters, a workshop and online resource for translating brain science into classroom practice. But in many cases, she says, "the products haven't been tested by anyone who's not selling them."

Myth Busting

Some of the biggest neuro myths, or misguided beliefs about neuroscience that have invaded the general psyche, include the following:

  • The brain is static, unchanging, and set before you start school. The most widely accepted conclusion of current research in neuroscience is that of neuroplasticity: Our brains grow, change, and adapt at all times in our lives. "Virtually everyone who studies the brain is astounded at how plastic it is," Fischer says.
  • Some people are left-brained and some are right-brained. "This is total nonsense," says Fischer, "unless you've had half of your brain removed." This may have emerged from a misunderstanding of the split-brain work of Nobel Prize winner Roger Sperry, who noticed differences in the brain when he studied people whose left and right brains had been surgically disconnected.
  • We use only 10 percent of our brains. This is also false, according to Wolfe, Fischer, and a slew of scientists across the globe. In fact, brain imaging has yet to produce evidence of any inactive areas in a healthy brain.
  • Male and female brains are radically different. Though there may be subtle differences between male and female brains, there is absolutely no significant evidence to suggest that the genders learn or should be taught differently. This myth might stem from a misinterpretation of books such as The Essential Difference: Men, Women, and the Extreme Male Brain, which focused largely on patients with autism.
  • The ages 0-3 are more important than any other age for learning. Even though the connections between neurons, called synapses, are greatest in number during this period, many of the published studies that have to do with teaching during these "critical" time periods involved rats and mazes, not human beings.

"Understanding the Brain: The Birth of a Learning Science," a report published by the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD), examines these and other unfounded neuroscience claims. Unfortunately, the science behind these ideas is often misunderstood and milked for profit.

Use What Works

Consider the case of Fast ForWord, the much-lauded phonics-based reading software, which is listed on the U.S. Department of Education's What Works Clearinghouse as demonstrating "potentially positive effects on the reading fluency and comprehension domains for adolescent learners." A 2008 study published in the Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research, however, reported that the software "was not more effective at improving general language skills or temporal processing skills than a nonspecific comparison treatment."

Some neuroscientists maintain that Fast ForWord is a prime example of what happens in the brain-based education industry: A few limited studies with a neuroscientific basis are used to underscore decades of marketing. Yet many schools and teachers across the nation who've used Fast ForWord have seen astronomical gains in their students' reading capabilities.

In other words, the conclusions here are murky at best. If a strategy or program produces results, use it. Just don't assume that its value is unequivocally proven by brain science.

We don't need to be so wary of discoveries in neuroscience that we write them off, however. They can still contribute enormously to a dynamic classroom, especially if they're seen as a "tool, rather than a philosophy," as one educator, LoriC, put it in an Edutopia.org discussion. (For specific strategies, see the "Fact" links at right.) "Maybe we need to approach this sort of learning like Thomas Edison might have," she wrote. "Try it, see what works, and learn as much from the failures as you do from the successes."

Plus, neuroscientists urge educators to trust themselves on this. If a claim seems off, it probably is, and if it confirms something that already seems to work, it's probably on the right track. "Usually, when scientists discover something true about the brain," notes Sylwester, "it doesn't surprise teachers."

Comments (13)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Carol Wilson's picture
Carol Wilson
High School and Adult Lifeskills teacher from Texas.

Forgive me...I said the student was reading at x "years" in my post, but I meant x "grade level." In response to VB: I searched the Internet for free mazes that were age-appropriate. Some mazes can have narrow paths with lots of twists and turns. I started off with mazes that were simpler in nature and had wider paths (i.e. "pinkie finger width"). The student was encouraged to stay between the lines (don't cross onto another path). That's what I mean by not "bumping" into a line. I did not want the student to have his pencil to the paper and have to scan with his eyes to choose a path to take. I wanted the hand/eyes/brain to stay together (so to speak). That's why I highlighted the correct path to follow. The other paths provide a distraction just like other words on a written page. He is training to stay focused on a specified area.

This type of exercise is typically used with TBI patients young and old. I would think that it could benefit an adult.

Hope this helps!
Carol Anne

Tracy's picture
Resource Room teacher

I read an article about Carol Anne's strategy and tried it in my classroom. My 7th grade resource students would do this upon entering the room. I can't make any claims that it improved their reading abilities, but it did get them focused and calm. I believe that since they perceived they were doing a "fun" activity that did not require critical thinking, they began class more relaxed and ready to work.

EduGamesGuide's picture

What a great article. Sometimes we need to just put down the "scientific studies" and just go with what works.

Marci Becker's picture
Marci Becker
Special Education Resource Teacher

An excellent book in this area, with loads of data to support her assertations is by neuroscientist Lise Eliot: Pink Brain, Blue Brain: How Small Differences Grow Into Troublesome Gaps -- And What We Can Do About It.


Jessica's picture
Building Confidence in Students, One Child at a Time

The topic really catches hold of the mind. The creation of brain child can be achieved through continuous learning modules and practices and in this regard the online learning resources aid in developing the concept.

Doug1943's picture

Carol Anne -- your posts on using TBI exercises with non-TBI learners are extremely interesting. I wonder if this approach has been used by others? Or whether there is any research on whether hand-eye-brain coordination exercises might help 'ordinary' learners?

I tutor children in mathematics and science and I know that there is in fact a wide spectrum -- or multiple spectrums -- of less-than-optional abilities with respect to the things we need to do to learn. Perhaps techniques worked out for people towards the end of some of these spectrums might help everyone.

Does anyone else know about this?

reta's picture

Thank you for this article. As educators, I believe we will always continue to seek out ways to support our students the best way possible, and that's fabulous. However, let us also remain critical thinkers, and teach this.

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