Should teachers learn neuroscience?

Educators should learn neuroscience, some argue. From Ed Week:

Dr. Janet N. Zadina, a former high school teacher who is now an adjunct assistant professor in neurology at Tulane University, in New Orleans, said more cross-training of teachers and neuroscientists, including lab work for the teachers and classroom experience for the researchers, would help stop the “telephone game” of half-truths conveyed now in the education neuroscience field.

Starting in the late 1990s, teachers began “sending rising numbers of students to be evaluated for conditions they didn’t have, from attention deficit disorder to epilepsy,” says neurologist Judy Willis. Classroom observations showed high rates of boredom and stress, but teachers were “attributing problems to students’ brain hemispheres or to whether they were drinking enough water.”

Drinking enough water?

Teachers don’t have the time to learn neuroscience, responds Daniel Willingham, a cognitive scientist. “Neuro-myths” should be defused during teacher training, though that doesn’t always happen. Then a central-office administrator should be in charge of evaluating whether a professional development session is legit or snake oil.

The human brain adapts with experience, scientists now say. Very little is hard-wired.

“What we find is people really do change their brain functions in response to experience,” said Kurt W. Fischer, the director of Harvard University’s Mind, Brain, and Education Program. “It’s just amazing how flexible the brain is. That plasticity has been a huge surprise to a whole lot of people.”

Among the “neuro-myths and snake-oil pitches,” Ed Week notes are “programs to improve cross-hemisphere brain communication to teaching practices aimed at ‘auditory’ or ‘visual’ learners.”

I wonder what percentage of teachers believe they should tailor instruction to auditory and visual learners. More than half would be my guess.

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  1. More than half? I’d be incredibly shocked if it were more than half. Closer to 10-20%. As I said over at Willingham’s blog, progressive social justice sort hammer on about learning styles, but don’t confuse them with the average teacher.

  2. At the Learning & the Brain conference in Boston last summer one of the highlighted speakers discussed the neuro-myth of auditory/visual learning. I was worried there was going to be a mad rush at the podium as teachers angrily argued with her about her research. Even teacher’s manuals have little side notes that say, “How to reach your auditory learners:” I’ve had parents question me on how I am approaching learning styles. It’s a neuro-myth that no one refuses to let die.

  3. And you think teachers who attend “Learning and the Brain” conferences are somehow representative of the average teacher?

    There are over seven million teachers in the US. Less than half of them are elementary school teachers. Maybe 10-20% of elementary school teachers, if that, might find the learning styles theory important. It’s a fantasy found primarily among upper middle income progressives.

  4. I would say there are plenty of elementary teachers who buy into the learning styles theory, primarily because it’s taught in teacher training programs. In the transition-to-teaching program I finished last year, EVERY SINGLE CLASS had a discussion on learning styles. How would we teach our visual learners math? How would we get our tactile learners to do well in reading? And don’t forget your kinesthetic learner or you are just asking for trouble!

    I had to write a series of lesson plans that addressed how I was going to teach to all the different learning styles in order to complete my program.

    A woman I worked with at a private school collected teacher evaluation forms to use in creating a new tool for the administration at her school to evaluate teachers. All but one had some language for assessing how a teacher was presenting information in ways to address different learning styles (the language sometimes differed, but the intention was clear). So, while elementary teachers might not think about it on a daily basis, when evaluation time comes they are thinking about learning styles.

  5. palisadesk says:

    My district requires teachers to identify how they are “differentiating” for the various “learning styles” in their long-term plans, unit plans and daily plans. We even have to put it into IEPs for classified students.

    It’s impossible to say how many people actually “believe in” this clearly disproven myth, but 100% (locally) have to comply with requirements to pander to it.

    I haven’t run across many who seem to know that the whole idea is unsubstantiated, but I haven’t made a serious attempt to find out. We have to act as if learning styles exist, regardless of our personal level of knowledge.

  6. Lightly Seasoned says:

    A class or two in neuroscience would be pretty cool. I read a lot of the lay stuff written by New Yorker types — fun. Some day I’ll get my district to pay for the learning & brain conference. It is very pricey.

  7. Please note that the examples are about ed schools and district administration. I don’t dispute their fascination with it. But they aren’t the teachers, who learn about it and then ignore it once they get into the classroom.

    To the extent that ed schools and administrations are the problem, informing the teachers won’t do any good.

  8. Roger Sweeny says:

    “Addressing individual learning styles” is a lot like “differentiating instruction.” Prospective teachers are told in ed school that “learning styles” exist and that different students should be taught in different ways. However, most soon find that doing what their ed professors said to do is extremely difficult and time-consuming, and the results turn out to be disappointing. So they largely stop trying.

    On the other hand, department heads, principals, and superintendents have to go back to ed school for additional certification, and they get their faith renewed.

  9. Richard Aubrey says:

    Difficult, technically-challenging courses for non-majors are…not particularly useful. By necessity, they hit the high spots, avoiding the endless caveats. What they can’t afford to say is that with this knowledge, you’re more dangerous than you were before. What you think you know you can’t apply effectively on account of this year’s worth of deep-drilling detail you didn’t get that the pros have on practically every issue. And, because it’s new and novel, you’ll be using it when you shouldn’t. Just because we told you it addresses almost all your problems doesn’t mean it addresses all your problems. Just a few, and you won’t know which.
    So now you have a hammer, not a tool kit. And when all you have is a hammer….

    • You hit the nail on the head! (a little pun back at you there! heh) We can thank Howard Gardner for this idiocy. His theory was meant to do nothing more than sell books and get his name out there in the Ed field; it did its job, and in the process harbored this massively destructive urban legend / scientific myth.

  10. It starts in the textbooks we get in 9th grade (and earlier, but I don’t have those). The future teachers are influenced by their high school teachers, who get some of it from inservices (still) and from their ed-schools (still).

    Here’s a scan of the author’s note from the Larson Algebra 1, 2012 common core edition:
    or at :

  11. Teachers seek to build a knowledge base, the capacity to struggle with unknowns, and make connections. All of these things happen inside the brain. Seems pretty straightforward to me, and a massive gap in teacher preparation.

    Eric Jensen’s work is particularly salient, and valuable.

  12. Richard Aubrey says:

    Killian. Good point. As long as the practitioner is a professional and not somebody who got a Cliff’s Notes version of the Classic Comics version of the field.

  13. “Classroom observations showed high rates of boredom and stress, but teachers were “attributing problems to students’ brain hemispheres or to whether they were drinking enough water.””

    Don’t laugh–staying hydrated is very important. One of my kids doesn’t have a very strong self-monitoring system, and in early elementary school she used to get agitated and distracted when she needed the bathroom, got dehydrated, or didn’t have a meal or snack on time. At the time, she had no idea why she felt bad, and it was often necessary to manage her bathroom visits, watering, and feeding much more closely than you might for a typical child.

  14. BadaBing says:

    I love it when a student raises a hand and asks, “Can I go get water?” That’s almost as good as “I barely got here” or “Did you cut your hair?”