Can neuroscientists dispel the myth that children have different learning styles?
A new initiative from the team behind “I’m a scientist – get me out of here” aims to bring neuroscientists and teachers together to discuss how brain science can inform education
Over the past few years, there seems to have been a insidious pandemic of nonsense neuroscientific claims creeping into the education system. In 2013, the Wellcome Trust commissioned a series of surveys of parents and teachers, asking about various types of educational tools or teaching methods, and the extent to which they believe they have a basis in neuroscience. Worryingly, 76% of teachers responded that they used learning styles in their teaching, and a further 19% responded that they either use, or intend to use, left brain/right brain distinctions to help inform learning methods. Both of these approaches have been thoroughly debunked, and have no place in either neuroscience or education.
In October last year, I reported on another study that showed that in the intervening time, things hadn’t really improved – 91% of UK teachers in that survey believed that there were differences in the way that students think and learn, depending on which hemisphere of the brain is ‘dominant’. And despite lots of great attempts to debunk myths about the brain, they still seem to persist and take up residence as ‘commonplace’ knowledge, being passed onto children as if they are fact.
When I wrote about an ATL proposal to train teachers in neuroscience – a well-intended idea, but ultimately grounded in nonsense about left brain/right brain myths – I commented at the end that we need to do more to bring teachers and neuroscientists together, to discuss whether neuroscience has a relevant role in informing the way we teach students. Now, a new initiative funded by the Wellcome Trust is aiming to just that.
“I’m a Scientist – Get me out of here” is a long-running public engagement initiative that brings scientists and students together, giving children a chance to ask real-life researchers their burning questions about science and the life scientific. It also gives scientists a crucial opportunity to learn how to engage with children, and it’s one of the best science communication events I’ve ever taken part in. Until 9th May, they’re running a special Learning Zone, which gives teachers the opportunity to pose questions about neuroscience, evidence for learning styles, and generally anything to do with the brain and education, to five practicing neuroscientists.
“Teachers are encouraged to improve their teaching, and improve student progress at schools, but they don’t necessarily have the access to knowledge that researchers have” says Shane McCracken, Director of Gallomanor Communications, the team who run the event. “This is our way of letting them access that knowledge without having to subscribe to and read a bunch of academic papers.”
So far, questions have asked about a wide range of topics, including the potential effects of diet on memory, to what extent parental involvement can have an effect on learning and development, exam revision techniques, and the impact of apparent increase in rates of dyslexia among schoolchildren. Over a hundred teachers from schools across the country have been involved to date.
Of course, given the scope of the event, it’s impossible to target a critical mass of schools. But while it may not make a widespread mark on busting brain myths in education, it’s an excellent start, and it’s great to see these sorts of initiatives being funded. “We’re hoping these four weeks demonstrate that teachers want to talk with researchers about the science of learning” says Shane. “If the demand is there then we hope to keep providing similar opportunities in future on the platform. And potentially for researchers in other areas to talk to professionals in different fields.”
The event is running until May 9th, and if you’re a teacher, or know one who may be interested in getting involved, then you can take part by following this link.