Neuromyths debunked

This week’s New Scientist has an opinion piece by Tom Bennett on the subject of neuromyths that ‘badly need debunking’.

First up for unmasking is the idea that people are right or left-brained. This belief has been around since Robert Sperry of CalTec noticed when treating epileptics that, if the two hemispheres of the brain were separated, the ability to carry out specific tasks was affected. Subsequent studies seemed to support the idea of ‘hemispheric dominance’. However, in recent times, it has been firmly established that the two hemispheres of the brain work together collaboratively and in complex ways.

The article also mocks the theory that people have certain learning styles. Apparently, the most popular version of this notion (VARK) dates back to the idea proposed by Neil D. Fleming, a New Zealand teacher, that learners are visual, auditory, reading and writing inclined, or kinaesthetic or tactile.

According to Susan Greenfield (Telegraph and TES, July 2007), from a neuroscientific perspective, the idea is ‘nonsense’. Moreover, Steven Stahl, in his essay ‘Different Strokes for Different Folks’, claimed that there has been an ‘utter failure to find that assessing children’s learning styles and matching to instructional methods has any effect on their learning’. John Hattie (Visible Learning for Teachers, 2012, p.89) maintains that ‘common measures [of learning styles] are notoriously unreliable and not predictive of much at all’. Some critics go even further and suggest that labelling children can have the harmful effect of restricting their learning.

Similarly, Howard Gardner’s much publicised ‘multiple intelligence’ theory has failed to survive closer scrutiny. Jerome Bruner described the ‘intelligences’ as, at best, ‘useful fictions’ and George Miller, a cognitive psychologist, described the theory as ‘hunch and opinion’. In fact, according to Bennett, even Gardner wrote in his book that ‘there is little evidence to support multiple intelligence theory’!

As Bennett says, there is plenty of solid, evidence-based research on which to base good educational practices but we need to inoculate ourselves against ‘snake oil’.