Neuro-garbage in education

Pop neuroscience — silly and scientifically inaccurate — has spurred a backlash, writes Alissa Quart in a New York Times op-ed. Among the critics are NeurocriticNeurobonkersNeuroskepticMind Hacks and Dorothy Bishop’s Blog

There’s a lot of neuro-garbage in education, writes Daniel Willingham, a cognitive scientist.

Sometimes it’s the use of accurate but ultimately pointless neuro-talk that’s mere window dressing for something that teachers already know (e.g., explaining the neural consequences of exercise to persuade teachers that recess is a good idea for third-graders).

Other times the neuroscience is simply inaccurate (exaggerations regarding the differences between the left and right hemispheres, for example).

Even when the neuroscience is solid, “we can’t take lab findings and pop them right into the classroom,” Willingham writes.

. . . the outcomes we care about are behavioral; reading, analyzing, calculating, remembering.

. . . Likewise, most of the things that we can change are behavioral. We’re not going to plant electrodes in the child’s brain to get her to learn–we’re going to change her environment and encourage certain behaviors. . . . Neuroscience is out of the loop.

It’s possible to use neuroscience to improve education, writes Willingham. But it isn’t easy.

Teachers who know the most about neuroscience believe the most things that aren’t true, writes Cedar Riener, a psychology professor, in Cedar’s Digest, citing this study. These teachers’ belief in myths is rooted in their values, he writes. People want to believe low achievers just haven’t found the right way to tap their “unlimited reservoir of intelligence” properly. “To dismiss the learning styles myth, we have to let go of equating cognitive ability (or intelligence) with some sort of larger social value.”

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  1. I call it brain research misdirection. It makes you sound smart and causes people to overlook problems of basic competence like why bright kids get to fifth grade not knowing the times table. If the wonders of learning styles are so important, then why aren’t kids given more control over that. Most often, kids are forced to learn in groups using art. In sixth grade, my son had to draw crayon pictures of over 100 science terms. Blah, blah, blah, … whatever. Neuroscientists have to police their turf or they will be painted with the same broad brush. On the other hand, many issues in education have little to do with brain research. They have to do with basic assumptions and competence. Neuroscientists may be able to say what is not correct, but good science may say little about what the problems are or how to fix them.