Innovation Update: You Know an Education Company Is Lying When...

Programs making false 'brain-based' claims confuse consumers about what neuro-education actually is.

(Photo: Teresa Short/Getty Images)

Jan 13, 2014· 2 MIN READ
A Bay Area native, Andri Antoniades has previously worked as a fashion industry journalist and a medical writer.

Brain-based learning, also known as neuro-education, is the practice of applying findings from the fields of neuroscience and cognitive psychology to positively affect students’ academic performance. But with the field so green and multitudes of education programs pinching its jargon to improve sales, neuro-education has been socked in by a fog of misinformation.

"Brain lab research is valid in the laboratory—you can make extrapolations, correlations, but just because something's true in a lab, we can’t prove that there’s a specific intervention in the classroom."“That’s a real concern of mine,” says Dr. Judy Willis, a neurologist, a former teacher, and the author of six books about the application of brain science to teaching and parenting. “Especially when we have such budgetary limits on education spending, it’s a double disaster when people are purchasing programs with false brain-based claims.” In addition to losing their money on ineffective strategies, educators can also lose their faith in real scientific research that could be of benefit to them.

The Organization for Economic Co-Operations and Development (OECD), which promotes policies to improve the economic and social well-being of global populations, released a report in 2007 titled Understanding the Brain: The Birth of a Learning Science. In it, the OECD detailed the popular myths surrounding the field of neuroscience, which today remain the basis of many commercial education programs.

One of the most rampant so-called neuromyths is the belief that the left brain and the right brain work independently of each other. Software programs based on this erroneous principle provide exercises for improving communication between the two hemispheres, which the companies claim result in synchronicity and therefore higher intelligence.

“Everything that the brain does involves both hemispheres, except for sensory input from one side of the body to the other,” Willis says. “There is no need to do anything at all to improve communication because that is taken care of just by being alive.”

In the high-stakes testing environments that most American schools have become, rote memorization is an important skill for students. Education companies have responded with curricula that claim to boost memory capacity. A typical exercise asks students to memorize a lengthy sequence of random numbers. But techniques like these haven’t proved to show any long-lasting or transferable benefits. Students may be able to learn to memorize and repeat back the numerical sequence, but Willis says that won’t increase the amount of information a student can store in her brain.

The belief that human beings only use 10 percent of their brains is another neuromyth perpetuated in the sales of educational programs, as is the misconception that girls and boys have radically different types of brains that require gendered learning techniques.

According to Edutopia, an online education resource funded by the George Lucas Educational Foundation, although neuro-education is new, real wisdom has been gleaned from correlative findings. For instance, emotional safety positively influences learning. A 2002 study published in the journal Neurobiology of Learning and Memory suggests that the amygdala is the part of the brain involved in mediating emotional stress when it comes to learning and memory. Willis explains that when the brain goes into fight-or-flight mode, the amygdala blocks the parts of the brain that can store memories. Another finding showed that information retention is higher when lessons are relevant to students' lives.

Parsing out the truth from the neuromyths is a challenge, but tools are available for parents and educators. The What Works Clearinghouse is a website from the U.S. Department of Education that examines research connected with popular brain-based programs. Another is the American Academy of Neurology, which can answer questions about the validity of brain-based claims made by education companies.

Finally, if a program says it’s “proven by brain research,” don’t trust it. Proven is just too strong a word this early in the game. According to Willis, “that’s a giveaway that they don’t know what they’re talking about. Brain lab research is valid in the laboratory—you can make extrapolations, correlations, but just because something's true in a lab, we can’t prove that there’s a specific intervention in the classroom.”

This article was created as part of the social action campaign for the documentary TEACH, produced by TakePart's parent company, Participant Media, in partnership with Bill and Melinda Gates.