Myths about how the brain works have no place in the classroom

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Are you left-brained or right-brained? Are you more creative or rational? You can find out easily enough – there are myriad online tests that will help you find your dominant hemisphere.

Or so they claim. In fact, a study in PLOS One last year showed fairly conclusively that the idea one side of our brain is more dominant than the other – and by extension, that this dictates what kind of person you are – is little more than a myth.

It's a shame: this seemed such an attractive idea. After all, there are two distinct (though connected) hemispheres of the brain and some of us are clearly more arty, others more sciencey. Excuse the pun, but it seemed something of a no-brainer. That's the trouble with myths about the brain – just because they sound credible and have the veneer or neuroscience doesn't make them true.

"Neuromyths" can merely perpetuate misconceptions about the brain. Of greater concern is when they influence how we are raised or educated. You may be familiar with the idea of different types of learner. For example, if you are a "visual learner" you need content delivered primarily visually. But there is very little scientific evidence to support this idea, and labelling pupils by type of learner and delivering content accordingly limits the richness of their learning experiences and may reduce what is learned.

Neuroscience is a blossoming field of research and its potential impact on education is wide-ranging. We are already beginning to see examples of it being applied. For example, many American schools now start their classes later in the morning after research suggesting that teenagers do not like early starts – not because they are inherently lazy, but because they have a natural sleep pattern that leads to a late-to-bed, late-to-rise cycle. When systematically tested in US schools, later start times were found to be beneficial. Whether this would be the case in the UK is as yet unknown.

 

Written By: Dr Hilary Leevers
continue to source article at theguardian.com

16 COMMENTS

  1. ” The truth is that there is a real shortage of scientific studies and there has not been a good system for sharing the findings of those that exist with teaching practitioners. “

    What I took away from that article. What we do have in education is sloppy thinking about teaching and a scatter gun approach to pedagogy. somebody is doing this right, just not somebody in the US..

  2. This is going immediately onto my Facebook page, for all my pseudo-sciency friends who still peddle this woo and share around their idiotic ‘personality tests’. Akin to the ‘tests’ that analyze your personality on the basis of the posture you sleep in or the colors in your wardrobe.

    • In reply to #4 by QuestioningKat:

      …now will someone please bash the Myers Briggs or enneagram?!
      I love MB precisely because it gives us nomenclature for differing personality preferences, or predilections, that are useful. Not so generalized as the four temperaments, and not so specific that they pin one down like a spider on a specimen tray. Also, knowing that I was 1% of the population explains a lot of things about my childhood that I wished I’d known much sooner. I benefitted me greatly and should be taught in middle or high school, if only for the means it gives people to talk about the different aspects of personality, which otherwise are sadly lacking, at least in an intelligent way.

  3. A good lesson contains a myriad of different opportunities to first get curious, second get knowledge, and third demonstrate knowledge. It is a multisensory and varied experience. I know of absolutely ZERO teachers who would ever ever ever tailor a lesson down to just one “learning style” whatever the hell that means. These researchers may be figuring out shit about the brain, but they are woefully lacking in experiencing anything that is an actual classroom.

  4. Genuine question.
    Where does the “dominant sided” part come into this, if at all.
    Most people are either right or left handed, I was under the assumption that this was something to do with the whole left brain/right brain thing.
    As this doesn’t appear to be the case, why are most people stronger with one side of their body rather than equal?

    • In reply to #7 by iain.mcewan.146:

      Genuine question.
      Where does the “dominant sided” part come into this, if at all.
      Most people are either right or left handed, I was under the assumption that this was something to do with the whole left brain/right brain thing.
      As this doesn’t appear to be the case, why are most people stronger wit…

      I’m not sure how it’s determined which side is dominant but I think you are inferring too much from the article. I agree with the author that the over simplified view that one side is analytic and the other emotional or whatever is wrong but there definitely are different roles for each side and those roles are switched depending if you are left or right handed.

      You can see it most clearly in patients who have had the corpus collusom (the nerves that connect the two hemispheres) severed. You can show them information via a picture. Then if you ask them a question based on the picture and ask them to verbalize the answer they can’t do it but if you ask them to point to the answer in a picture they answer correctly.

      One of my favorite parts of this research is what happens when patients like this do things they can’t understand. So for example, they will show someone a picture that essentially says “get up and leave the room” and then they will ask them “why did you leave the room?” and they will make up rationalizations which they absolutely believe like “I wanted to get a coke”. It just shows how amazingly good humans can be at rationalization and self deception.

      • In reply to #8 by Red Dog:

        In reply to #7 by iain.mcewan.146:

        Genuine question.
        Where does the “dominant sided” part come into this, if at all.
        Most people are either right or left handed, I was under the assumption that this was something to do with the whole left brain/right brain thing.
        As this doesn’t appear to be the ca…

        Good reminder on that split brain work.

  5. Do any other teachers here know of studies or websites that have been helpful–a place with some reliable scientific information that can benefit teachers?

    My other question–is right-brained/left-brained wrong only in that the brain doesn’t physically work that way, or is the whole concept of predominantly conceptual/predominantly analytical also wrong? Many people certainly seem to excel or struggle in one category but not the other, but I can imagine a number of other reasons why that might be.

    • The Khan Academy is awesome. Also, youtube “bozeman science” is excellent as well….

      In reply to #10 by Misfire:

      Do any other teachers here know of studies or websites that have been helpful–a place with some reliable scientific information that can benefit teachers?

      My other question–is right-brained/left-brained wrong only in that the brain doesn’t physically work that way, or is the whole concept of pred…

    • In reply to #10 by Misfire:

      Do any other teachers here know of studies or websites that have been helpful–a place with some reliable scientific information that can benefit teachers?

      I’m not a teacher but here’s a couple of things that I think might be interesting to teachers:

      Despite superficial appearances teenagers do not have any natural sleep pattern that leads to a late-to-bed, late-to-rise cycle. This has been clearly demonstrated through sleep lab research. Though negative scientific findings tend not to be very newsworthy.

      There is a self-inflicted unnatural sleep pattern but which mostly only affects the heavily socially engaged kids as a consequence of the late-to-bed cycle associated with weekends. Staying up really late (e.g. to 5 am the next day for dance parties, sleepovers, LAN parties etc, often with pharmaceutical assistance) typically commences on Friday nights and ends up with kids sleeping in until after midday on Sundays, often too hung over or sleep deprived to function effectively that afternoon. By midnight Saturday they’re nearly ready to go out and party and things are even worse the following Sunday. Often they also don’t get much exercise which contributes to their not being sufficiently tired to sleep on Sunday night until around 5 am on Monday mornings. Boredom can normally help make people sleepy ahead of their natural state of tiredness, but electronic devices in teenager’s rooms now tend to eliminate boredom as an option. The blue/white light of LED screens and the nature of on-line gaming also play a role in maintaining wakefulness.

      Implications for teachers might be that normal sleep pattern kids’ test results tend to outperform the more gregarious kids earlier in the week because the normal sleep pattern kids retain sufficient mental capability to attend to homework and test preparation on weekends. Test and learning performance differences between normal sleepers and the party kids might even up later in the week because the weekend party kids eventually come back into sync, only to lose sync again the next Friday night.

      Delaying school commencement times to allow socially outgoing kids more party opportunities might penalise test performances of kids with normal sleep patterns who are likely to be at their most effective in the early morning, but with concentration dwindling into the afternoon. A time at which the party kids are peaking, because the afternoon is their equivalent of ‘morning’. (Essentially they have jet lag.)

      The other thing is that treating kids as a uniform age cohort can only ever produce below average outcomes. Reason being that sometimes what is regarded as ‘normal’ is based on measurements which average other unaverageable aspects. Only what gets measured gets managed. But often what is being measured (averaged typically) is what is easiest to measure, but which might be made up of independent and distinct classes of objects so the resulting average becomes meaningless. E.g. The average sex of a coed class of equal numbers of boys and girls is meaningless.

      The assumption that all kids minds are more or less the same capability in all aspects is now known to be not even wrong. Yet it seems to be the basis of routine classroom practise. Even things like IQ are a consequence of a variety of influences and capabilities. It may sometimes be best to focus on the specific exceptional capabilities and deficiencies of contributing of the various independent attributes from which outcomes like measurable IQ emerges. There may only be a limited number of these specific attributes, some of which are more relevant and addressable by teachers than others.

      Some of the fruits of mind research relevant to teachers can be found here:

      http://www.allkindsofminds.org/learning-framework

      Levine suicide

      Unfortunately the leading advocate for this approach, Mel Levine, was implicated in child abuse. Nevertheless his book remains an excellent resource about how educators can comprehend and work around the way emerging mental capabilities vary and are inherently dispersed in time and extent among groups of developing kids.

      In connection with the class action litigation and sexual abuse allegations against against Dr Levine, and also very relevant for teachers to comprehend the impact of cognitive biases on learning, is this book:

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mistakes_Were_Made_(But_Not_by_Me)

  6. Carol Dweck has done some behavioural/pedagogical/sociological (?) studies that say that anyone can learn anything in any way through working hard and believing they can achieve their goals. Children and young adults are detrimentally affected by negative and closed mindset messages such as “you’re a visual learner” or “you’re an art person not a maths person”.

  7. There are thoughts and there are facts. Feed the facts and facilitate the thoughts and the free-thinking individuals shall blossom. Of course, if the state doesn’t want you to think freely…

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