Three Neuromyths and a Truth
Common Myths about the Science of Learning (and the Truths Behind Them)
Claire Cook & Dr. Annie Snyder, Applied Learning Scientists
Every day, Jesse differentiates instruction by consistently assigning some of his third-graders physical activities instead of written tasks because he has seen those students exhibit the traits of kinesthetic learners. In a classroom across town, Claudia separates the fourth-grade students in her class who appear left-brain dominant into a “Math Achiever” group and provides them with extra math enrichment. In another state, Martin, an experienced reading support teacher advises a parent that his first-grade student probably has dyslexia because she reverses letters.
All of these teachers are applying brain-based research to their teaching and classroom differentiation in ways that benefit their students.
Actually, not so much.
In fact, every one of the above examples illustrates a neuromyth– a common, yet false, idea about how the brain works. These myths are so prevalent that their effects can be seen in nearly every educational setting, from teacher education programs in universities, to online curricula, to classrooms.
If you believed any of the neuromyths in these examples, you are not alone. Researchers such as Kelly Macdonald and her colleagues (2017) have found that neuromyths are so common that many educators, even those trained in the neurosciences, believe them. Furthermore, these same educators tend to perpetuate neuromyths by teaching them to others.
Neuromyths are persistent and sometimes difficult to debunk. They are often rooted in scientific research, but are the result of distortions, oversimplifications, or overgeneralizations of research findings. They are akin to a game of learning science “Telephone,” in which the final message becomes garbled during transmission. This game of Neuromyths Telephone, however, is transmitted on a grand scale, and not always in a harmless way.
Using what we know about the science of learning, let’s take another look at our three teachers to better understand some of these myths and how they might impact education:
Myth #1: Learning Styles
One of the most widely disseminated and influential neuromyths is the concept of learning styles. The popularity of this particular myth can be traced to the Carl Jung’s work in the 1960s. Jung’s theories of analytical psychology led to the development of the popular Myers-Briggs Type Indicator Test, still used today, that sorts individuals into one of 16 personality types.
From there, the idea that different people learn best in different ways– that we all have different “learning styles” — became widely accepted in all educational circles, despite the fact that there is little to no scientific evidence to support this concept. While we do tend to have preferences about how we learn, the evidence shows we learn equally well in all modalities.
What’s the harm?
Teachers all over the world have altered instruction due to their belief that students have different learning styles. Often, this happens by dividing students into groups (e.g. the “kinesthetic learners” from our example) and then providing information only in that modality.
This not only leads students to depend on that modality for learning, but it also deprives them of the opportunity to learn in other modalities. In a comprehensive refutation of the learning styles neuromyth, Harold Pashler and colleagues (2008) conclude:
“Given the capacity of all humans to learn, it seems especially important to keep all avenues, options, and aspirations open for our students, our children, and ourselves. Toward that end, we think the primary focus should be on identifying and introducing the experiences, activities, and challenges that enhance everybody’s learning” (p. 117).
Myth #2: Left Brain vs. Right Brain
We humans love to categorize things, including ourselves! Case in point: are you more logical, analytical, and mathematical, and therefore left-brained? Or are you more right-brained, meaning you tend to be more creative, emotional, and artistic? As it turns out, those left-brain/right-brain categories don’t actually exist. There is, quite simply, no such thing as “hemispheric dominance.”
This neuromyth is an old one. In the 1800s, neurologists explored the idea that each hemisphere of the brain functioned somewhat independently of the other. Discoveries by scientists such as Pierre Paul Broca fed this myth, but for the wrong reasons. Broca, for instance, found that patients with a specific type of language function all shared damage in the left frontal hemisphere (and not the right). This was empirical evidence that our brain has specialized regions for processing and producing information.
The problem was, we overgeneralized these scientific findings. Although our brains do indeed have asymmetries when processing sensory data, there is no scientific evidence that specific categories of thinking reside in specific hemispheres. In fact, current research is finding quite the opposite — both hemispheres work together in every cognitive task!
What’s the harm?
As with learning styles, the idea of hemispheric dominance has led some educators to “differentiate” instruction in ways that can actually prevent students from accessing a wider array of learning opportunities. For example, in a misguided effort to meet a child’s individual learning needs educators may offer “right-brained” students more tasks that involve creative thinking and writing, at the expense of providing practice with so-called “left brain” skills such as logical reasoning.
Moreover, such an approach can actually lead students to believe this neuromyth themselves. “I’m right-brained so I’m not good at math” is not the sort of statement we want to hear our students utter, which is why this neuromyth is particularly pesky and perhaps downright dangerous.
Myth #3: Letter Reversal = Dyslexia
Walk into any first-grade classroom, and chances are very good that many of the students will be reversing their letters. Do they all have dyslexia? The notion that letter reversals either signal or cause dyslexia is yet another common neuromyth.
This idea likely stems from early theories about dyslexia, long since shown to be false, that suggested that readers with this disorder had trouble with visual processing. At the time, it was believed that a reader with dyslexia cannot distinguish the visual inputs of letters from each other, such as a b from a d.
Research has long since revealed that dyslexia is in fact due to a disruption in phonological processing — how we associate sounds with letters and letter blends. Letter reversals do occur with readers with dyslexia, but they also occur with readers without dyslexia, especially when first learning to read. It is only when letter reversals persist into the later grades that they may signal dyslexia, but only as a consequence of the disorder, not as a cause (Blackburne, et al., 2014).
What’s the harm?
On a large scale, the letter reversal neuromyth has led to the development of a number of reading interventions that are based on a visual-deficit model, rather than the more accurate phonological confusion model. As such, these interventions do not always include evidence-based strategies designed to improve phonological awareness.
On a more individual scale, this neuromyth has led to misdiagnoses, either with too many children being diagnosed with dyslexia (and given the wrong sorts of interventions), or too few, with practitioners delaying intervention when struggling readers do not demonstrate letter reversals (Macdonald et. al., 2017).
These neuromyths are just three out of many that are widely accepted and disseminated. How can we avoid falling prey to these false “facts”? Whether we are teachers, parents, researchers, administrators — we can all become savvier consumers of information about our own brains. As educators, we need to continue to use our professional judgment to differentiate and personalize instruction to meet the needs of learners. We can and must educate ourselves, and each other, about what science really tells us about how we learn. Many studies are freely available to the general public, and increasingly researchers are beginning to provide explicit training in the real science behind learning.
In our quest to learn how we learn, we can end the cycle of neuromyths, and usher in an era of true learning science-based education, to the benefit of all.
Curious about learning science? Check out these resources to learn about learning science as a field of study, to learn what applied learning scientists do, and to see how you can leverage what we know about learning science to better serve your students:
Blackburne, L. K., Eddy, M. D., Kalra, P., Yee, D., Sinha, P., & Gabrieli, J. D. (2014). Neural correlates of letter reversal in children and adults. PloS one, 9(5), e98386.
Dekker, S., Lee, N. C., Howard-Jones, P. A., & Jolles, J. (2012). Neuromyths in education: Prevalence and predictors of misconceptions among teachers. Frontiers in Psychology, 3, 429. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2012.00429
Howard-Jones, P. A. (2014). Neuroscience and education: myths and messages. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 15, 817–824.
Kirschner, P. A., & van Merriënboer, J. J. G. (2013). Do learners really know best? Urban legends in Education. Educational Psychologist, 48(3), 1–15.
Macdonald, K., Germine, L., Anderson, A., Christodoulou, J., & McGrath, L. M. (2017). Dispelling the myth: Training in education or neuroscience decreases but does not eliminate beliefs in neuromyths. Frontiers in Psychology, 8, 1314.
McCabe, D. P., & Castel, A. D. (2008). Seeing is believing: The effect of brain images on judgments of scientific reasoning. Cognition, 107(1), 343–352.
Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. (2002). Understanding the Brain: Towards a New Learning Science. Paris: OECD.
Pashler, H., McDaniel, M., Rohrer, D., & Bjork, R. (2008). Learning styles: Concepts and evidence. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 9(3), 105–119.