Use It or Lose It: Neuromyths in Education

braindecodingIt seems that there are many myths in Neuroscience. Many times these “neuromyths” are accepted by teachers as truths and guide their teaching practice claiming that these statements will enhance the teaching and learning process in their classrooms. Far from meaning any harm, teachers are keen to find “recipes” and things that “work”. These neuromyths are perceived as black and white answers to their queries, with which teachers, by their very nature, plunge into their teaching enthusiastically and with good intentions thinking that all their questions have been answered. Others have been taught to believe them and are deeply ingrained in their belief systems.

Although there may be elements of truth in these statements, it appears that these may be very broad declarations or simplifications – they might not be updated or are misinterpretations of scientific findings applied to education or they may simply lack scientific validation.

For instance, by claiming that “individuals learn better when they receive information in their preferred learning style” many teachers, showing good will in trying to cater for the needs of their students, have struggled to try to identify each student’s preferred style in order to offer the best-fitted input and accommodate their teaching to each learner’s style. However, this is not, apparently, the best way to go about it.

The process of learning is much more complex than this. It is true that visual, auditory and kinesthetic information is processed in different parts of the brain and that the senses play a part in perceiving information from our surroundings, but this does not mean that there will be better or more learning. For understanding and learning, a further step, a step beyond perception, seems to be necessary. The learner needs to interpret the input of his senses and give this input a meaning” (EDUCERI). Think of children, who give meaning to the world around them by first perceiving through their senses, but then the brain needs to continue its work by processing the perception and learning what the perception means (EDUCERI).

There are seldom instances where one mode is used alone, anyway: all areas of the brain are interconnected and links are consistently made between the three pathways or sensory modalities. We are multi-sensing beings (Van Lier, 2004). The same happens with the left and right hemisphere dominance dichotomy: both hemispheres are active and interact all the time.

“Humans have evolved to build a picture of the world through our senses working in unison, exploiting the immense interconnectivity that exists in the brain. It is when the senses are activated together – the sound of a voice is in synchronization with the movement of a person’s lips – that brain cells fire more strongly than when stimuli are received apart. We do students a serious disservice by implying they have only one learning style.” (Baroness Susan Greenfield, director of the Royal Institute and a professor of pharmacology at Oxford University).

Let’s say I’m captivated by a painting in a museum. We would immediately conclude that what I’m doing here is visual. However, I am probably also feeling, thinking – not only creatively but also logically about what I’m seeing -, maybe even hearing sounds that come to me from the image. Therefore, I would not solely be relying on my visual domain.

Personally, teaching EFL in Kindergarten, I believe that if we offer a wide range of styles and use diverse teaching tools then we will be reaching all of our students. We can provide visual, auditory and kinaesthetic means simultaneously, we can supply concrete experiences, creative play and active learning opportunities. The best way to do this is in holistic ways using songs, dance, drama and art. By making it memorable and fun, we will grasp our students’ attention and interest, they will become involved and hence, they will learn.

In understanding how the brain works when undertaking the adventure of learning, we are amazed at how difficult it is to learn something new and how much we underestimate its challenges. Here is a great video that clearly shows what our brain is doing every time we learn something: How We Learn – Synapses and Neural Pathways (thanks to Bob Lejkowski-Clark, on EVO Neuroscience). It uses the metaphor of building a bridge to portray the brain at work, with its neural pathways and synapses. Through repetition, what is to be learnt is embedded deeper and deeper and it becomes easier to remember.

I started my piano lessons when I was about 7 and one of the first songs I learnt to play was “Mary Had a Little Lamb”. I played it and played it and knew that practice makes perfect so I kept playing it. I played the tune with my right hand, then my left, then both hands at the same time, I added chords, accompanied with single bass notes, I played it forwards and backwards and even with my eyes closed! I still remember it and I can still play it. Another one was Scott Joplin’s “The Entertainer” which I still remember today. I really loved those tunes but I can’t play anything else. All the rest just faded away. So, the lesson to be learned here… use it or lose it. Consider that playing an instrument involves physical activity, too. This action helps to make new connections in our brains, which strengthen as we repeat it.

What are the implications for teaching? Wait for neuroscientists to make more discoveries and come back again to contradict what we now know? Although neuroscientists know a lot about the brain, this “a lot” is just “a little” (Denise De Felice, on EVO Neuroscience). As teachers, we can keep reading, examining critically, learning and translating what we know into pedagogically-sound classroom practices. We can still benefit from neuroscience research and brain study.

Meanwhile, we should make sure we provide enough practice and learning opportunities for our students using a variety of strategies and involving the different senses in our lessons. As language cannot be said to exist in only one part of the brain, as we are constantly activating different areas, we need to engage in many regions at the same time to enhance learning. Songs, drama and art seem to be useful vehicles to facilitate learning. Teaching is not an exact science and so-called “methods” or “approaches” should be considered more as “tools” than “philosophies” (LoriC, in an Edutopia.org discussion). Keep learning, try out different tools and create your own belief system from what you observe in your own classroom. Use what works, like Thomas Edison might have done: Try it, see what works, and learn as much from the failures as you do from the successes.

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22 thoughts on “Use It or Lose It: Neuromyths in Education

  1. Pingback: Mentoring_EVO | Pearltrees

  2. Hi Sarah, I work in the field of ESL too – but with adult students. However, many of your reflections about language learning and the brain resonate with me too. I’m excited to see what else we can find out through this course about languages and neuroscience. My first reflections are here: http://evo2013carole.blogspot.com/

    • Thanks Chris! I think it’s best when we try to link the theory we read about with experience and what we can actually do with the information in our teaching practice.
      Best,
      Sarah

  3. Hi Sarah,

    Great post. I see teaching as one big experiment (although I would never say that to the parents of my learners!!). I think you have to try lots of things out, analyse their success or otherwise, adapt and experiment again. Learning is about making connections, but given that everyone is different you can never tell exactly where (or when) different learners will experience that ‘wow’ moment, which means we have to keep reaching into out bag of tricks and experimenting.

    I look forward to sharing more with you during this course!
    Karen

    PS. My (short) reflection is here: http://theflightlessenglishteacher.blogspot.com/

  4. Pingback: The Last Thing on the Brain | Sarah Hillyard

  5. Pingback: Neuroscience in Education | Sarah Hillyard

  6. Hello Sarah! I was at the Share congress yesterday and I loved you talk. It was really interesting. I wanted to know if you can send me by email the song about the colours and actions. I only remember the first line: red red red, touch your head.. weak memory 😦
    Thank you!

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