Freeing teachers from learning styles (and other neuromyths).

Do we really only use 10 percent of our brain? Is there a critical period beyond which we are unable to learn new things? Should we teach pupils according to their preferred learning style? Does listening toeducation-neuroscience Mozart or topping up on Omega 3 fatty acids make us more intelligent?

These are important questions, especially in education, because if the answer is yes then we need to utilise methods that will benefit learners. If the answer is no then we need to ensure that we don’t waste precious time and money investing in their use. In fact, the evidence supporting all of the claims above is incredibly weak.

Forget about Learning Styles (please).

Education has never really been an evidence-based discipline and there remains a highly convincing argument that it should never be one. Unfortunately, such an approach has led the profession down some very murky dead-end alleyways as can be seen in the unending obsession to cling onto scientifically rejected concepts such as Learning Styles, while spending vast sums of money running INSET days on how to match a child’s learning style to the teacher’s own pedagogical approach. Dr Paul Howard-Jones of the University of Bristol describes a study in which he discovered that 82 percent of trainee teachers believed that teaching to a particular learning style would improve outcomes. This is despite an extensive study conducted in 2004 by Frank Coffield and his colleagues from the Institute of Education, in which it was found that such use of learning styles has little or no impact on learning itself. More recently, professional debunker of all things unscientific, Ben Goldacre has expressed frustration at the number of teachers still subscribing to the Mind Gym concept, even though studies have found that it, again, does nothing to improve learning.

Of course this is not always the case and there are some wonderful examples of schools that have managed to assess the evidence and act upon it, at times to the ridicule of the profession and the media. One particular case involves the decision by Paul Kelley, Head teacher at Monkseaton High School, to begin lessons later in the day in order to match teenagers’ circadian rhythms (a 24 hour biological cycle that appears to operate differently during adolescence). The changes adopted (one of several interconnected ideas used at the school) are all, according to Kelley, based on the kind of scientific evidence that education as a whole chooses to ignore or reject out of hand. However, educators must be very cautious when it comes to using evidence from neuroscience to inform and guide practice – we are a long way off from being able to fully understand what this evidence is telling us and the neuroscientists themselves.

The ‘Magical’ Mozart Effect?

Rejecting evidence can often be costly but perhaps not as costly as taking on faith the theories that are believedto be evidence based (or the way in which the evidence can be misinterpreted). During the late 1990’s there arose a curious idea that listening to classical music (specifically Mozart) could somehow make people more intelligent and increase children’s capacity to learn – the so called ‘Mozart effect’. It was based on a paper published in Nature magazine which found that students who listened to ten minutes of a Mozart piano sonata showed significant improvement on a spatial reasoning task when compared to other students who listened to a relaxation tape or to silence. Following the publication of several books on the topic, the state of Florida ensured that all day care centres played classical music to babies on a daily basis, while the Governor of Georgia spent $105,000 sending out classical music CD’s to the parents of all new-born babies. To date the results of the original study have failed to be replicated and no new evidence has arisen suggesting that playing Mozart (or any other classical music) to babies or children has any long-term impact on learning and development. The moral of the story is simple: Make sure the evidence you have is reliable.

Why Dialogue is Needed.

Psychologists have been investigating these areas for more than a century and in the process have amassed a huge amount of evidence on the way in which learning occurs and how to improve the effectiveness or teaching and learning. Nevertheless, the teaching profession as whole (including successive governments) has never managed to fully embrace the impact of psychology or the growing literature produced by its more recent cousin, neuroscience. For example, recent research conducted by Professor Sarah-Jayne Blakemore and her colleagues at University College London has shone considerable light on the significant changes that take place in the teenage brain, providing some convincing evidence to explain why teenagers behave in the way they do. Furthermore, Professor Uta Frith, another UCL neuroscientist, has expressed her concern over the amount of pseudoscience that inhabits our classrooms (such as left-brain, right-brain and gender specific brain twaddle) and has called for greater communication between the educationalists and the scientists. Interestingly, it has been non-scientists who have pushed forward many of the strategies that have been adopted (packaged up as science) and then abandoned by the teaching profession (including the dreaded learning styles theory) and books on such subjects are still to be found on the shelves of many an aspiring teacher.

To be fair, the adoption of such strategies are often due more to the misinterpretation of complex brain studies than to devious minds’ attempting to pull the wool over the unsuspecting eyes of educators. This simply reinforces Frith’s insistence that teachers and scientists should work together in pursuit of a common goal – ensuring the best education for our children. Furthermore, such cooperation would be wholly inclusive, free from the shackles of social class and gender. The brain, after all, just wants to learn and knowing how it goes about doing that can only be of benefit to us all.

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