Friday, 17 March 2017

Common myths about the brain and learning – James Williams

Part of becoming a teacher is observing teachers and children in schools. If you’re on a teacher training degree programme, this will happen on a regular basis. But, is everything you see good teaching?

Neuroscientists have been trying to figure out how our brains work for decades. This includes how we learn. Some teachers will tell you they use ‘neuroscience’ based techniques. But beware, there are some bad teaching methods and brain myths still being used in some schools that aren’t backed by any scientific evidence.

In this blog I’ll look at some myths about the brain, look at those discredited teaching methods and explain how we know they don’t work.

We only use 10% of our brain!

This is a common ‘fact’ that’s false. We use all of our brain nearly all of the time. How do we know?

Studies of brain damage - If only 10% of the brain is normally used, then damage to other areas shouldn’t cause us any problems.
Brain scans - These show that all brain areas are always active.
Evolution - If we only need 10% of our brain, why did we evolve a much larger brain?
Energy use - Our brain requires up to 20% percent of the body's energy – that’s a lot for just 10% of the brain.
Brain imaging (neuroimaging) - Positron Emission Tomography (PET) and functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) reveal that even during sleep, all parts of the brain show some level of activity. The brain has distinct regions for information processing. No functionless areas exist.

Left Brain Right Brain differences

Have you heard that the left hand side of your brain controls rational, logical thinking and the right hand side controls your emotional responses? It’s completely wrong. How do we know?

In 2013 a research team looked at brain scans of over 7,000 different regions of the brain and how they were connected in people while they were resting, they found:

Heavy ‘neural traffic’ (messages being passed) in different regions
On average, both sides of the brain were equal in their neural networks and connectivity.

The learning pyramid

Have you come across the ‘learning pyramid’ before? None of the information in the pyramid is evidence based. How do we know?

The percentages are just ‘too’ neat and rounded. Experiments and research rarely, if ever, give such clear results.
Nobody can track down where this first appeared and who made these claims
We all use a combination of ways of taking in information so this doesn’t make much sense.

Brain Gym

Brain Gym is a teaching system that uses movement to ‘stimulate’ brain function. For example it claims that placing your fingers on your ‘brain buttons’ (the rounded ends of your collar bone) and rubbing them gently while placing one hand over your belly button and looking left then right, will ‘wake up’ your brain. Drinking water, it’s claimed, ‘gives you energy’. Gently folding and ‘unrolling’ your ears ‘switches on’ your hearing. It’s all pseudoscientific nonsense. How do we know?

There is no direct linking pathway in the nervous system between your collar-bones, belly button, eyes and brain.
Water is essential, but contains no ‘energy’ that can be released in the body.
We ‘hear’ with our inner ear as electrical impulses are transmitted from the inner ear to the brain to be interpreted. Our pinna (the outer ear) simply collects sound waves and channels them towards the ear drum.

Learning Styles

Many teachers still believe that children ‘learn better’ if they are taught in their ‘preferred’ learning style – using either visual, auditory or kinaesthetic (movement) techniques, commonly known as VAK. There’s no evidence to back this up. It’s true that we may state that we prefer to learn using one style over another, but the evidence shows we use many different senses to gather information as we learn. How do we know?

How good food tastes depends not just on our taste buds, but also on what the food looks likes, smells like and feels like when we eat it.
Different contexts for learning require different dominant senses e.g. you can’t easily pass your driving test if you only learn by looking and listening you also have to turn the steering wheel and control the pedals.
Lots of studies have shown that ‘learning styles’ is a myth and shouldn’t be used in teaching.


James Williams was a science teacher in secondary schools for 12 years and has twenty years’ experience as a lecturer in education. His current post, at Sussex University, involves teaching on undergraduate education, postgraduate teacher training and MA programmes. He has authored science textbooks, writes for national and regional newspapers, and magazines on education. His current interest is looking at how myths in neuroscience spread between schools.

Further reading

The Learning Brain: Lessons for Education (2005) by Sarah-Jayne Blakemore and Uta Frith (Blackwell publishing)

Urban Myths about Learning and Education (2015) by Pedro De Bruyckere, Paul A. Kirschner and Casper D. Hulshof (Academic Press)

Neuromyths in Education, Canadian Education Association (CEA) 


If you liked this…

It’s one of a series of blogs to help make your introduction to teacher training a little easier. Get up-to-speed with some of the topics you’re likely to encounter in your training:

There’s more to assessment than meets the eye

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