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A Disturbing Number ofTeachers Don’t Understand How Brains Work

Neuromyths could cause educators to miss or disregard important signs of student struggle.

False beliefs about brain research, called neuromyths, are common even with school teachers that have received some neuroscience training, according to a new survey. Researchers found large support for popular neuromyths like “we only use 10 percent of our brain” in the general public, suggesting that persistent myths could lead to the continued support of ineffective educational tactics underpinned by disproven ideas.

“I encountered neuromyths throughout teacher trainings and saw many teachers using related practices in their classrooms,” said Kelley Macdonald of the University of Houston, coauthor of a new study documenting the beliefs, in a statement.

To arrive at their disconcerting conclusion, Macdonald and other researchers surveyed around 4,000 adults in the U.S. to suss out the accuracy of their knowledge of current brain research. Participants included over 3,000 members of the general public, 598 educators and 234 individuals who self-reported taking “many” neuroscience courses at a college or university. Individuals completed an online survey of 30 true-false questions including neuromyths like, “a common sign of dyslexia is seeing letters backward” or that some people can be left or right brained, which determines how they learn.

brain activity

After collecting survey results, researchers found that the general populace supported about 68 percent of the neuromyths presented. However, those identified as being educators or highly educated in neuroscience also supported a high percentage of neuromyths at 56 percent and 46 percent respectively. Among the highest accepted neuromyths were the commonality of dyslexia and letter reversal and the idea that individuals learn better when they receive information via their particular learning style.

Educator and neurologist Dr. Judy Willis, who was not involved in the study, has been exploring neuromyths in education for much of her career. She explained to Fatherly that it can be difficult for professionals to rebuff the popular appeal of certain research. “The neuromyths that persevere do so because the initial research was over interpreted, and compellingly so,” she says. She points out that often the most compelling research is presented in concert with a product. “It’s edu-cash-in, and not education,” Willis says.

The study authors note that their findings point to the need for a multidisciplinary neuroscience training for educators. They suggest a way forward that will help teachers and administrators understand the myths and craft practices that are more grounded in brain science rather than old norms. That particularly true if their brain beliefs are allowing kids who need intervention to slip through the crack.

neuroimaging class

The researchers note that’s particularly true for the neuromyth connected with dyslexia. If teachers are screening children for dyslexia by asking if they are seeing reversed letters, they might miss children that have the learning disability but do not show what is considered to be a typical symptom.

Willis has been working to train U.S. teachers to challenge the neuromyths that they support. But she warns that whatever path is taken by those looking to bust neuromyths needs to be better than the poorly interpreted studies that spread them in the first place. “Intervention to help people understand neuromyths needs to be thorough, well documented and well-assessed before it’s considered adequate,” she says.