At parents’ night, some years ago, my daughter’s middle school math teacher told my wife and me, “Your daughter just doesn’t have a talent for math.” That attitude fortunately only had a temporary impact on my daughter. She had parents who refused to believe this neuromyth. Instead of changing out of math, my daughter changed math teachers.
This is a specific example of what’s become known as a fixed mindset. People with a fixed mindset believe we’re born with all the talent we’ll ever have and no amount of work will change our abilities. The opposite, as Carol Dweck called it, is a growth mindset. People with a growth mindset believe we learn from our mistakes and by working hard to improve.
I’m using the word “belief” with “growth mindset,” in spite of a mountain of evidence that it truly helps learning, because we operate from our beliefs and mindsets. Because of this, false or limiting beliefs will cause harm to those who hold them, or when those beliefs are imposed on another.
What are the Ten Neuromtyhs?
To help dispel neuromyths Kristen Betts and a team, on behalf of the the Online Learning Consortium, surveyed educators about their knowledge of brain science. They published their findings in their International report: Neuromyths and evidence-based practices in higher education (2019). The survey analyzed the answers of each participant whether 23 statements about the brain and learning are believed to be incorrect or correct.
Rather than present the full list of 23 statements, here are the top 10 neuromyths identified by the study, in order of belief (edited from the original):
- Listening to classical music increases your reasoning ability.
- A primary indicator of dyslexia is when someone sees letters backwards.
- Individuals learn better when they receive information in their preferred learning styles (e.g., auditory, visual, kinesthetic).
- On average, males and females have the same size of brains.
- Some of us are “left- brained” and some are “right-brained” which helps explain differences in how we learn.
- We only use 10% of our brain.
- Abnormal birth and death of brain cells limits brain development.
- Children should learn their native language before beginning a second language.
- The brains of males and females develop at the same rate.
- Learning does not cause modifications to the brain.
Evidence does not support these statements. They are myths. Yet between 85% (for myth #1) and 33% (for myth #10) of instructors believe them to be true.
Neuromyths are not Harmless
The most important question after “Where do neuromyths come from?” might be “Are they harmful?”
You might argue, “So what if listening to classical music doesn’t increase my reasoning ability? I still enjoy it. How am I harmed?”
Here’re some counter-arguments when such myths are held by instructors (or parents for that matter):
- Repeating myths erodes an evidence-based, truth-regarding culture.
- Acting on myths takes time, attention, and other resources away from effective practices.
- Myths can become limiting beliefs in the learners who are told them by authorities. Believing you’re right-brained may lead to an excuse for why math is difficult, for example.
- Citing neuroscience tends to shut down healthy doubt toward a claim.
Educators have made progress. The least believed myth about learning, by instructors, is #23 with only 7% of instructors reporting it to be true:
23. Mental capacity is genetic and cannot be changed by experiences.
We know neuromyth #23 as having a fixed mindset. Educators know this one. Do students? Do parents?
Let’s become sensitive to statements that claim neuroscience as their basis. But let’s also go further and educate ourselves on proven effective practices like
- get enough sleep — see Irregular sleeping patterns linked to poorer academic performance in college students: Timing of sleep found to be as important as number of hours slept
- exercise regularly — see This is your brain on exercise: Vigorous exercise boosts critical neurotransmitters, may help restore mental health
- adopt a growth mindset — see our posts on this subject
- implement positive education — related: Children With Positive Outlooks Are Better Learners
- use mastery learning — Mastery learning – Wikipedia
- demand active learning in your classes — ‘I can’t figure out how to do this!’: Active-learning techniques effective for large scale classes?
- give feedback with assessment and coaching — see our Free Guide to Improve Anything – How to Give Feedback That Works.
Additional information links are provided below, and we will be writing more about these subjects in future posts.
Apple, D. K., Ellis, W., & Hintze, D. (2016). 25 Years of Process Education. International Journal of Process Education, 8(1), 1–154. Retrieved from IJPE website: http://www.processeducation.org/ijpe/2016/color033116sm.pdf
Betts, K., Miller, M., Tokuhama-Espinosa, T., Shewokis, P., Anderson, A., Borja, C., … Dekker, S. (2019). International report: Neuromyths and evidence-based practices in higher education. Retrieved from Online Learning Consortium website: https://onlinelearningconsortium.org/read/international-report-neuromyths-and-evidence-based-practices-in-higher-education/
Brown, P. C., Roediger, H. L., III, & McDaniel, M. A. (2014). Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning (1st edition). Cambridge, Massachusetts: Belknap Press: An Imprint of Harvard University Press.
Freeman, S., Eddy, S. L., McDonough, M., Smith, M. K., Okoroafor, N., Jordt, H., & Wenderoth, M. P. (2014). Active learning increases student performance in science, engineering, and mathematics. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 111(23), 8410–8415. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1319030111
Guskey, T. R. (2010). Lessons of mastery learning. Educational Leadership, 68(2), 52.
Paunesku, D., Walton, G. M., Romero, C., Smith, E. N., Yeager, D. S., & Dweck, C. S. (2015). Mind-set interventions are a scalable treatment for academic underachievement. Psychological Science, 26(6), 784–793.
Waters, L. (2011). A Review of School-Based Positive Psychology Interventions. The Educational and Developmental Psychologist, 28(2), 75–90. https://doi.org/10.1375/aedp.28.2.75