What’s standing in the way of change in education? I believe that one of many other barriers is related to the fact that teachers often have misconceptions about how their students’ brains work. I think that these misconceptions (often called neuromyths) represent a barrier to changing and improving education, because when a change is opposed to a misconception, there is always a natural and expected tendency to resist that change. I also believe that one way to overcome this barrier is to include, in teacher training, a course about neuroeducation, which is an emerging field that tries to improve teaching by knowing more about the brain.
One of the Barriers to Changing Education: Neuromyths
First, let’s talk about misconceptions. You certainly have some ideas or intuitions about how the brain works. Maybe you believe that students learn better when they receive information in their preferred learning style (such as auditory, visual, or kinaesthetic); or that students are either “right-brained” or “left-brained”; or perhaps you think that we only use 10% of our brain; or that there are critical periods in childhood after which certain things can no longer be learned.
As you may have guessed, all these claims are, in fact, neuromyths. If you believe in some of these ideas, don’t worry because you are not the only one. A study published last year showed that a majority of teachers believes in these neuromyths and others. For example, more than ninety percent of teachers in the UK and Netherlands believe in the learning style theory, although there is empirical proof that teaching according to learning style of students doesn’t lead to better learning (see, for example, Pashler, H., McDaniel, M., Rohrer, D., & Bjork, R. (2008). Learning styles: Concepts and evidence. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 9(3), 105-119.).
One Possible Solution: Offering Neuroeducation Courses
To combat these neuromyths and overcome one of the barriers to changing education, I believe that we should include, in the training of our teachers, a neuroeducation course. Not only would this course help dispel the most common neuromyths but it would also enable teachers to understand a little more about what is going on in the brain of their students.
Some years ago, there was limited significance to focusing on the brain in education. However, in the past several years, knowledge about the brain has greatly advanced thanks to brain imaging. Up to 90 % of our current knowledge about the brain comes from the past 15 or 20 years of research. Three significant discoveries reinforce the relevance of focusing on the brain in education.
The first discovery: learning changes the brain. More specifically, learning changes the connections between neurons in the brain. When a student learns to read or count, his or her brain changes. With the help of brain imaging, it is now possible to observe the effects of academic learning on the brain.
The second discovery: the brain’s structure influences learning. In fact, the configuration of the brain prior to learning influences how new learning becomes established in the brain. Thus, gaining a better understanding of the brains of your students means gaining a better understanding of the cerebral constraints inherent to learning and better understanding the difficulties that your students may encounter.
The third discovery, possibly the most significant and certainly the most recent: how someone is taught has an impact on the changes that result from learning. Two different types of teaching do not necessarily bring about the same changes in a student’s brain. Research has demonstrated that teaching reading according to a syllabic or a global approch has a significant impact on how the brain functions. Not only does the brain of a student a change when he or she learns, but teachers can play a key role in the development of their students’ brains.
To summarize, I have tried to highlight the fact that neuromyths can be a barrier to changing and improving education. I also suggested that, to combat these neuromyths, a neuroeducation course should be incorporated into the initial training and professional development of teachers and others working in education. But the interest in including a neuroeducation class as part of teacher training extends beyond overcoming neuromyths. There is now knowledge about the brain that can have concrete pedagogical implications. This knowledge is still widely unknown by teachers, a fact that should be addressed in the coming years since, today, and even more so in the future, a better understanding of the brain will likely help us improve how we learn and how we teach.
Dr. Steve Masson is the co-winner of the 2013 CEA Pat Clifford Award for Early Career Research. For more information about his research, please visit: www.cea-ace.ca/cliffordaward
Photos courtesy of Steve Masson