Study Finds That Teachers Embrace “Neuromyths”

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Psychologists Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons, authors of The Invisible Gorilla, have an excellent piece in the Wall Street Journal about the “neuromyths”—incorrect beliefs about how the brain works—held by teachers.

In a survey of 242 primary and secondary school teachers in the Netherlands and the U.K., Chabris and Simon report,
• 47 percent agreed with the statement, “We use only 10% of our brain”
• 76 percent agreed that “Environments rich in stimuli improve the brains of preschool children”
• 94 percent endorsed the statement that “Individuals learn better when they receive information in their preferred learning style, whether auditory, visual or kinesthetic.”

Chabris and Simons conclude by noting:

“Ironically, in the Dekker group’s study, the teachers who knew the most about neuroscience also believed in the most myths. Apparently, teachers who are (admirably) enthusiastic about expanding their knowledge of the mind and brain have trouble separating fact from fiction as they learn. Neuromyths have so much intuitive appeal, and they spread so rapidly in fields like business and self-help, that eradicating them from popular consciousness might be a Sisyphean task. But reducing their influence in the classroom would be a good start.” (Read more here.)

I agree. But I’d also like to take issue with myth #2, which states that “Environments rich in stimuli improve the brains of preschool children.” Chabris and Simons note:

“This belief might have emerged from evidence that rats raised in cages with amenities like exercise wheels, tunnels and other rats showed better cognitive abilities and improvements in brain structure compared with rats that grew up isolated in bare cages. But such experiments show only that a truly impoverished and unnatural environment leads to poorer developmental outcomes than a more natural environment with opportunities to play and interact. It follows that growing up locked in a closet or otherwise cut off from human contact will impair a child’s brain development. It does not follow that ‘enriching’ a child’s environment beyond what is already typical—for example, by constant exposure to ‘Baby Einstein’-type videos—will boost cognitive development.”

Using the “Baby Einstein” videos as an example makes their argument too simple (we know from research that such videos don’t do anything for children’s cognitive development). But what if Chabris and Simons had used as an example of “enrichment” something like “lots of talking to children, eliciting their opinion, reading to them, taking them places and pointing out and discussing things of interest”?

Is this a “typical” child-rearing environment? I’d like to think so—and in some cultural and socioeconomic niches, it is—but I fear that it isn’t. And we do know that such  activities “boost cognitive development.” So I wouldn’t be so quick to call this notion a “neuromyth.”

What do you think?

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3 Responses to “Study Finds That Teachers Embrace “Neuromyths””

  1. Sue Frantz says:

    I had the same reaction to #2. I wonder if anyone has done a field study looking at parents in malls. I’m picturing sitting in a food court and assessing how much time adults spent interacting with children versus other behaviors like looking at cell phones.

  2. Jay Cross says:

    #2. Of course people are not rats.

    We do know that kids who spend recess in nature instead of a concrete playground experience a deep reduction in learning disorders.

  3. Rterman says:

    Yes, it’s a shame that Gardner’s “theory” is still endemic among teachers.

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