Monday, October 21, 2019

Educational Neuromyths and Cognitive Biases

On Friday, my co-blogger, Jim Levy, wrote a post on the pernicious effect of educational neuromyths.  (here)  Among the neuromyths he mentioned were "listening to classical music increases reasoning ability," "students learn best when they are taught according to their preferred learning styles," and  whether one is “left-brained” or “right-brained” explains differences in how we learn.  Jim's conclusion: "But perhaps the most important point to emerge from the OLC report is that continuing to adhere to these neuromyths may be detrimental to student learning because, for example, it encourages students to seek out information presented only in a particular way such as visually. This has led the study's authors to recommend that educators be disabused of these pernicious myths and instead adopt teaching practices informed by research and science."

Since so many cognitive scientists and educational experts have attacked these pernicious neuromyths, why are so many teachers clinging to them.  As Jim and the authors of the Report point out, using these disproven techniques can damage student learning.

The answer is cognitive biases. Cognitive biases (thinking or brain biases) are “systematic error[s] in thinking that affect[] the decisions and judgments that people make.”  (here at p.1)

The bias that most affects the adherence to educational neuromyths is the Semmelweis reflex.  The Semmelweis reflex is “The tendency to reject new evidence that contradicts a paradigm.” (definitions from Wikipedia: List of Cognitive Biases)  For example, anti-vaccinators believe that vaccines cause autism and other serious conditions.  This belief is based on a discredited report that declared that vaccines cause autism.  Despite the fact that scientists have proven that there is no connection between vaccines and autism, there is still a large group of people who cling to the vaccine myth.  Anti-vaccinators include famous and/or well-educated people like Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., Alex Jones, Jenny McCarthy, Jessica Biel, and Rob Schneider.  In fact, celebrities are partially responsible for creating the myth.  Obviously, this is not a benign myth, as the recent outbreak of measles demonstrates.

Another cognitive bias that helps perpetuate learning neuromyths is the confirmation bias.  The confirmation bias is "The tendency to search for, interpret, focus on and remember information in a way that confirms one's preconceptions."  Under this bias, people who hold a false or questionable notion only look for evidence that confirms their notion.

Finally, there is the bandwagon effect--"The tendency to do (or believe) things because many other people do (or believe) the same."  As I noted above, the bandwagon effect had a great deal to do with the perpetuation of the vaccination myth.

These biases also apply to educational neuromyths.  For example, the learning styles neuromyth ("students learn best when they are taught according to their preferred learning styles,") was very popular during the 1990s and early 2000s.  Around 2009, scientists and educators began to look at learning style theory more closely, and their studies have disproven the theory. For example, "An open letter signed by 30 leading neuroscientists, cognitive scientists, psychologists and other prominent researchers and scholars declares that there is no evidence to support the notion that individual student learning styles exist such as the so-called "visual," "audio" or "kinesthetic" styles commonly identified by teachers."  (here)  Moreover, a significant "problem is that categorising individuals can lead to the assumption of fixed or rigid learning style, which can impair motivation to apply oneself or adapt." Similarly, "These neuromyths may be ineffectual, but they are not low cost. We would submit that any activity that draws upon resources of time and money that could be better directed to evidence-based practices is costly and should be exposed and rejected. Such neuromyths create a false impression of individuals’ abilities, leading to expectations and excuses that are detrimental to learning in general, which is a cost in the long term."

The Semmelweis reflex has caused educators to cling to the learning styles theory myth because our minds tend to reject new evidence that contradicts a paradigm, even though the evidence concerning learning styles theory is overwhelming.  The confirmation bias has a similar effect on learning theory adherents.  Finally, as stated above, the theory was popular for a time, so the bandwagon effect has aided its continuation.

The main reason that I wrote the above is the harmful effect that learning neuromyths can have on students, especially learning styles theory. The most important lesson from this is that is that we must base our teaching on educational research predicated on how the brain learns (cognitive science), not ancient lore.

(Scott Fruehwald)


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