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The Science behind the Ideas

As we near the end of our Academic Theme for the year - Science of Learning - and having looked at the strategies and theme in detail as a whole-staff, we wanted to make sure that we all understood the myths that surround the topic. But what are they?

Our Head of Psychology, Kate Molan, lead the Teaching + Learning Group in a fantastic session on some of these Neuro-myths and Neuro-hits and some of the comments are included below:

Studies showing static pictures, like the one above, of well-defined islands of activity can be easily misinterpreted. They appear to show just a few parts of the brain as being active. In reality, however, the activity in these ‘hot spots’ has only exceeded a threshold as defined by the researcher. It is not true that regions of the brain outside of the hot spots are not active at all. In fact, they are just less active than inside the hot spots. All the brain is active all the time. No part of the brain is ever normally inactive in the sense that no blood flow is occurring. You would be very ill if only 10% of your brain was active.

The idea that students learns most effectively when they are taught in their preferred learning style, such as “visual”, “auditory” or “kinaesthetic” (VAK) is a neuromyth.

An extensive review found that there were no clear implications for pedagogy arising from any existing models of learning styles (Coffield et al., 2004). Psychological research using controlled experiments has concluded that teaching student in their VAK learning styles is “wasted effort” (Kratzig and Arbuthnott, 2006). Despite this, the idea that it is educationally helpful to categorise students and teach to their learning styles remains popular and has spread to higher education. In our review of the literature, 89% of recent educational papers implicitly or directly endorsed the use of learning styles in higher education, despite lack of scientific or educational evidence for their effectiveness (Howard-Jones, 2014).

The left and right brain are already integrated via an ‘information superhighway’ called the corpus callosum. Both hemispheres work together in a very sophisticated parallel fashion. Brain activity at any moment is occurring throughout the brain.

The idea we use the left side of our brain in one task and the other side of our brain in another myth, and the division of people into “left-brained” and “right-brained” takes this misunderstanding one stage further. Performance in most everyday tasks, including learning, requires many regions in both hemispheres to work together in a very sophisticated parallel fashion. This is helped by an information superhighway that joins left and right hemisphere (the corpus callosum). In reality, brain activity at any moment is occurring, to greater or lesser extent, throughout the brain. Static brain images fail to capture the rapidly changing nature of real brain activity. If the technology was better, scientists would be able to show shimmering changes of activity all over the brain, fluctuating on time scales of milliseconds.

The brain is plastic (it can change) and a number of neuroimaging studies have shown that education can help remediate both the behaviours and the brain function differences associated with common developmental disorders. (e.g. dyslexia, dyscalculia).

Our educational outcomes are not biologically determined by our DNA, but are the result of our genes interacting with our experience. Throughout our lives, the brain always remains plastic. That means that the way our brain functions, and even the shape and size of its various parts, can change as a result of experience, and that includes educational experience. Many learners feel their brains limit their potential and prevent them from learning. However, learning can change our brains in terms of function, connectivity and structure. Our brain shapes our learning but learning shapes our brain, and research has shown that simply knowing about brain plasticity can improve the self-concept and academic potential of learners. This means that teachers have an important role to play in constructing students’ brains!

The brain works most efficiently when it can focus on a single task for a longer period of time. Multitasking is pretty much seen as a necessity in the modern world. The ability to do several things at once – even if it’s something as apparently simple as emailing and talking at the same time – is taken for granted. But the belief that engaging in several tasks at once means we are more productive is a myth. Instead of saving time, multitasking not only takes longer but also makes mistakes more likely. Previous research shows that multitasking, which means performing several tasks at the same time, reduces productivity by as much as 40%.

Now a group of researchers specialising in brain imaging has found that changing tasks too frequently interferes with brain activity. This may explain why the end result is worse than when a person focuses on one task at a time. Supported by research into how the brain functions, Dr Deak argues that the brain is only able to focus deeply on one task at a time. And not only that, trying to do too many things at once causes the brain to lose the capacity for deep thinking altogether. What is worse, Deak went on, the more developing minds do this the more it stimulates parts of the brain associated with pleasure. Activities that do not involve rapid and repeated switching between tasks – such as listening to a teacher talking – become boring, while those that do become sought after. For students, multitasking does not end with listening to music while doing homework. Taking notes while listening to a teacher also counts as multitasking, as does listening to a teacher while using an electronic device in class. In the same way, highlighting a passage while reading does not help learning, but if it is done after reading.

We as staff want to make sure we are as aware of these myths as possible when planning our teaching and provision for our students. We should always be striving to provide the best form of education for the groups.

To find out more use the below as sources to read around the topic further:

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