The neuromyths of the classrooms

March 03, 2014
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Neuroscience is shaping up to be a fierce battleground for how we should organise our societies, as Prospect has predicted in the past. Gender differences, criminal law, political persuasions—we should be prepared to tackle difficult questions about whether or not “our brains make us do it.” To judge from some commentaries, the more established psychological frameworks such as Freudianism and Kleinianism traditionally used to decipher behaviour such as dysfunction, trauma and intelligence—are about to be replaced with the MRI scanner.

One of the bloodiest fields of combat is likely to be education—not only because of the levels of angst that schooling already invokes in parents but because few areas of social policy are so susceptible to ideology, fads and dogma. That’s why a recent report from the Education Endowment Foundation looking at the supposed neurological evidence for specific teaching techniques is so timely. The report focuses on 18 methods and distinguishes between those that have sound neurological support, such as the cognitive value of minimising stress and engaging in physical exercise, from those for which the evidence or understanding is a long way from offering benefits in the classroom, such as genetics or personalised teaching methods.

The report also acknowledges that some techniques, such as learning games or using physical actions to “embody cognition” (enacting “action verbs” rather than just reading them, say), warrant serious consideration despite the current lack of understanding as to how best translate them to the classroom. These findings, along with earlier studies by specialists of the “neuromyths” that propagate in classrooms, are nicely rounded up in a commentary by Sense About Science, a non-profit organisation that seeks to help people make informed choices about scientific issues and whose successes include debunking the myth surrounding the pseudoscientific programme called Brain Gym, which has convinced many schools worldwide (including the UK) that it can make children’s brains “work better” through a series of movements and massage exercises.

All this helps cut through the hype and fuzzy thinking. The EEF report will be valuable reading for teachers, who are rarely encouraged to investigate the basis of the methods they are required to use. But we need to be wary of setting up neuroscience as the arbiter of our understanding of the brain and cognition.

It is, after all, still a young science, and we have a sometimes rudimentary understanding of how those colourful MRI brain scans translate into human experience. As the EEF report acknowledges, neuroscience has in some instances been able to add little extra to what has already been established by well conducted psychological tests. It is a relief to see brain science now undermining simplistic beliefs about, for example, “left brain” and “right brain” personalities. But as Raymond Tallis has elegantly explained in Prospect, neuroscience is sometimes in danger of spawning a spurious dogma of its own.

It’s not just that the science itself might be poorly interpreted or over-extrapolated. The problem is deeper: whether there exists, or can exist, a firm and reliable link between the objective functioning of neural circuits and the subjective experience of people. Psychology is as much about providing a framework for thinking and talking about the latter as it is about pursuing a reductive explanation in terms of another obscurely named part of the brain anatomy such as the “superior frontal gyrus”.

It is currently fashionable, for example, to claim that neuroscience has debunked Freudianism. But it’s not even clear what this could possibly mean. Freud’s claims that his ideas were scientific are apt to irritate scientists today partly because they don’t recognise how differently that word was used in the late 19th century, when novelists like Emile Zola could claim that they were applying the scientific method to literature. More to the point, Freud’s identification of an unconscious world where primitive impulses raged was really of cultural rather than scientific import. One could argue, if one feels inclined, that the identification of “primitive” instinctive areas of the brain such as the basal ganglia (which controls voluntary motor movements, procedural learning and routine behaviours), as well as the modern understanding of how childhood experiences affect the brain’s architecture, in fact offer some scientific validation of Freud. But the broader point is that there was never going to be any real value in seeking a neuro-anatomical correlate of the Freudian ego, superego and id. As (admittedly somewhat crude) metaphors for our conflicting impulses and inclinations, they still make sense—as much sense as concepts like love, jealousy and disgust (which are sure to have complex and variable neural mappings).

This consideration arises in the matter of “multiple intelligences”, a concept promoted in the 1980s by the developmental psychologist Howard Gardner and which now underpins the widespread view that education should cater to different “learning styles” such as visual, auditory and tactile. The Sense About Science commentary suggests that neuroscience now contradicts that idea, since different brain functions all seem to stem from the same anatomical apparatus. But like many ideas in psychology, the multiple-intelligences theory runs into problems only when it hardens along doctrinaire lines—if it insists for example that every child must be classified with a particular learning style, or that different styles have wholly distinct neurological pathways. No one who has any experience on the football pitch (a relatively rare situation for academics) will have the slightest doubt that it makes sense to suggest Wayne Rooney possesses a kind of intelligence quite indifferent to an apparent inability to read beyond the Harry Potter books. To think in those terms is a useful tool for considering human capacities, regardless of whether fledgling neuroscience seems to “permit” it.

In case you think this sounds like special pleading from a particularly flaky corner of science, bear in mind that the so-called hard sciences are perfectly accustomed to heuristic concepts that lack a rigorous foundation but which help to make sense of the behaviour scientists actually observe—witness, for example, the notions of electronegativity and oxidation state in chemistry. These concepts are not arbitrary but have proved their worth over decades of careful study. The task of psychology is surely to distinguish between baby and bathwater, rather than policing its ideas for consistency with the diktats of MRI scans.