Neuromyths and Educational Psychology: A Persistent Problem

Educational psychology in teaching practice is a hotly contested issue within education. As personal development is becoming an increasingly important part of being a teacher, research into educational psychology and understanding how children and adolescents best learn is being focused in more prominently. Despite this, there are many false ideas, or neuromyths, about how the brain works in terms of learning. One of the issues with neuromyths is that despite mounting evidence to the contrary, they persist and have become accepted not only within education circles but more broadly. Though falling out of favour, ideas such as humans only using 10% of their brain and learning styles persist to this day. Other theories, such as Dweck’s Growth Mindset, while more empirically valid, are misused and incorrectly applied, in ways which can be detrimental to students’ learning.

Learning Styles

Among the most persistent of these neuromyths is that of learning styles. The learning styles myth is based around the idea that students learn based primarily through a single one of their senses. These are often categorised as visual, auditory or kinaesthetic (physical activity based) styles of learning. It is believed, according to this theory, that if students learn in the style most suited to their personal preference, more learning will take place as a result. As of 2012, a staggering 93% of teachers in the United Kingdom still believed in this theory, despite the lack of evidence for it. The learning styles myth can be particularly damaging for students. For example, a student who is struggling with reading but is assumed to be a strong ‘auditory’ learner may be given audiobooks to listen to in lieu of reading a text. Though well-intentioned to help the student understand a text, this denies the student a chance to practice their reading skills. The myth of learning styles also has negative implications for planning and preparing lessons. An adherent to this myth, believing they must present all learning activities and materials in multiple ways regardless of context, increases their workload significantly. It is well-known that there is an alarming problem with teachers being over-worked as it is. Pedagogical practices which mandate significant differentiation, regardless of the teaching context, increase this workload further.

Growth Mindset

Another neuroscience theory with dubious evidence to back it up that is prominent in schools is Growth Mindset, popularised by Carol Dweck. Dweck’s theory posits that there are two mindsets to learning: ‘fixed’ and ‘growth’. According to Dweck, a fixed mindset is one which believes intelligence is static and cannot be changed. A growth mindset, by contrast, is a mindset in which Though there is evidence to support the theory overall, it has not yet been determined whether it applies in the context of educating children and adolescents. A 2016 survey by the Edcuation Week Research Center has shown that 80% of teachers who implement Dweck’s findings do not make effective changes in the classroom. Recent examination of Dweck’s original research has found some key issues with the theory. For one, it has been not been able to be replicated. This fact alone is a salient point when drawing conclusions from this research. If a study is not able to be independently replicated, the validity of its findings is immediately diminished to a significant degree. It is important, therefore, to apply scepticism to theories such as Dweck’s Growth mindset and consider the research behind them before implementing them in the classroom environment.

Bloom’s Taxonomy

Bloom’s Taxonomy is a further example of a persistent idea in educational psychology which is misused and abused. Bloom’s Taxonomy is a theory which states there are six levels of thinking. These are remembering, understanding, applying, analysing, evaluating and creating. Conventional wisdom surrounding the taxonomy is that there are ‘lower-order’ and ‘higher-order’ levels of thinking. Remembering is often considered to be the lowest, or most basic level, and creating is considered the highest. One of the issues with the way Bloom’s Taxonomy is understood in the modern teaching context is the rigid hierarchical thinking applied to it. The assumption that some forms of knowledge are inherently ‘higher’ or ‘lower’ order is misguided and can be detrimental to learning. In many instances, Blooms’ Taxonomy has become a rigid means of sequencing content from lower to higher order thinking, rather than as a means of assessment, as was originally intended by Benjamin Bloom when he originally devised the theory in 1965. As with the misuse and adherence to the other learning styles and neuromyths mentioned in this article, this has negative implications for lesson planning and pedagogy.

Evidence-based and scientific approaches to education are essential to ensure students are able to learn and teachers able to teach as effectively as possible. As teachers, we must cast a critical eye over neuroscientific ideas and learning theories and ensure there is sound evidence and value in implementing these ideas within the classroom.


Don’t Sell Students Short: On Teaching Challenging Content

I was motivated to write this piece by a series of conversations I had viewed on Twitter. The initial conversation had been sparked by a poll run by the TES Twitter account, on the subject of emojis and their place in the English classroom. The question the poll raised is an interesting and oft-contested one in teaching circles: can (and should) emojis be used as a legitimate form of communication in the classroom? An interesting debate ensued. Those who supported their use argued that emojis are a legitimate form of communication. Emojis, they argued, were simply the evolution of the way in which people communicated to each other, and classrooms should reflect this change. Another argument raised in favour of emojis in the classroom was their effectiveness as tools of engagement. As a familiar form of communication, their use could accommodate students who struggled with regular written and verbal communication. This argument was argued particularly strongly for students who had conditions such as Autism Spectrum Disorder. On the other hand, those who argued against using them raised concerns about their effectiveness as a teaching tool, particularly in mainstream classrooms. Another concern raised about their use was whether this would come at the expense of developing skills in traditional written and verbal communication.

One of the most consistent arguments raised was that the use of emoji was a useful tool as a ‘hook’ or as a means of engaging students. Engaged students, the argument goes, are more likely to be motivated to learn and subsequently achieve better learning outcomes. On this basis, emojis seem like a reasonable tool for teaching within the classroom. The argument supporting such approaches on the grounds of ‘engagement’ falls short in light of research into educational psychology, however. While motivation and engagement are important, these factors alone do not inherently lead into quality, worthwhile learning. Correlation, in this case, does not equal causation. Research has shown that students tend to be most motivated by what is familiar to them. Using the above example, it is not surprising that students would be more motivated to learn language via emoji than through engaging with a challenging, unfamiliar text, such as one of Shakespeare’s plays.

I have previously written on a similar topic to this on my blog, when I argued the merits of teaching the literary canon. Central to this argument was the challenging nature of these texts, which would push students outside of their comfort zone. These texts are also outside of what they would normally read. Teaching students concepts and ideas which are out of their everyday experience and beyond common knowledge, sometimes referred to as powerful knowledge, is an important part of a comprehensive teaching experience.

Further to this point, the teaching of powerful knowledge involves a belief that all students are entitled to a quality, robust and challenging education, regardless of background. Though well-intentioned, utilising emojis or other gimmicks in lieu of providing students with challenging content can also be a sign of the soft bigotry of low expectations. Rather than assisting struggling students through effective instruction, scaffolding and guidance to achieve higher standards, course content is lowered in difficulty and complexity to accommodate a student’s current level of achievement. This approach does not allow for the growth of the student in terms of achievement and learning and, worse, denies this as even being possible.

With all this in mind, I am sceptical about utilising emojis and other trendy teaching tools, such as fidget spinners, on the grounds of engagement and motivation. With the occasional exception for non-mainstream classrooms and for students with clearly identified communication difficulties, such as students on the Autism spectrum, I believe students are ultimately better served without these tools being used, or being used sparingly and in clear, specific contexts. Though engagement and motivation are of course important factors to consider in lesson planning, meaningful, rigorous and challenging lesson content which give students substantive knowledge and skills are of greater importance.