Martin Rowson Mind Warp illustration

Do you forget faces but remember names? Are you distracted by sounds and noises? Do you dislike listening to others for too long? As the new school year begins, thousands of pupils across Britain will be faced with a sheet of paper containing questions like these. And the answers they give could significantly affect the education they receive.

The aim of the questionnaire is to determine each individual child’s “learning style” – the way they process and absorb new information – so that teachers can plan lessons accordingly. The existence of individual learning styles is one of the most deeply rooted – and least questioned – orthodoxies in education today.

But this may be about to change. When education secretary Michael Gove appeared before the education select committee recently he declared he was “a wee bit sceptical” of learning styles. This prompted incredulous laughter from some Labour members of the committee, but Gove’s scepticism was justified.

The idea that children show preferences for different kind of classroom activities, engaging with some teaching methods better than others, is hardly controversial. But the learning styles theory takes the idea much further, categorising children as fundamentally different types of learner.

There are more than 70 different learning style models in use, but the most widely known variant is “visual, auditory, kinaesthetic”, or VAK. Its roots are in the pseudoscientific claims of neurolinguistic programming (NLP) but it was popularised in the US by educationalists Rita and Kenneth Dunn. In the UK, the VAK model developed by New Zealand teacher Neil Fleming in the 1980s has proved more influential.

The theory is superficially plausible: it holds that an auditory learner absorbs knowledge best when listening to a teacher, a visual learner when looking – at diagrams or picture books, for example – and a kinaesthetic learner when educational activity involves moving or touching. The discovery that different types of information are processed in different parts of the brain was taken by some as proof that these categories had a neuroscientific basis.

But it’s a gross oversimplification; children may show preferences for different kinds of classroom activity, but there is little evidence to suggest they learn more effectively if teaching is delivered in their preferred “style” – and there is actually some to the contrary.

In a damning government-sponsored report, published in 2004 by the Learning and Skills Research Centre, education academics considered 13 different learning style models in detail. They rejected most of them outright and found just four that “deserve to be researched further”. It was particularly scathing about the VAK-based model developed by the Dunns, describing it as having the “appearance and status of a total belief system”.

That hasn’t stopped learning styles being enthusiastically adopted by the British education system, however. In fact, the last Labour government – under education secretary Charles Clarke – actually advocated the use of VAK models as an integral part of the “personalised learning” agenda. “Through an understanding of learning styles, teachers can exploit pupils’ strengths and build their capacity to learn,” said government guidance issued in 2004.

Today, a Google search turns up thousands of schools that make explicit reference to learning styles on their websites and in their prospectuses. Many opt for a mish-mash of different models, throwing in related theories such as that of “multiple intelligences” developed by Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner (who, it should be noted, is dismayed at how his work has been caricatured). As well as making pupils complete learning styles questionnaires, some even have “learning styles days”.

The learning styles obsession is just the most prevalent of a series of “neuromyths” – misconceptions or over-simplifications of brain research – that have taken a serious hold on British schools in recent years. Another popular one is hemispheric dominance, the idea that differences among learners can be explained by whether they are “left brained” (logical, an analytical) or “right brained” (creative, artistic). Others include the belief that stimulus-rich environments improve the brain development of very young children, that the brain can only adjust to specific kinds of information (such as language or grammar) at certain critical periods and that fish oils boost academic achievement. All have been comprehensively debunked – and all are kept alive, in one form or another, in the British education system, from nursery school to university.

It’s hardly surprising, then, that commercial products have sprung up to exploit our susceptibility to these myths. Brain Gym, a programme based on the idea that physical exercise can improve cognitive ability, is one of the most notorious. A typical Brain Gym activity sees pupils rubbing their “brain buttons” – soft tissue under the collar bone – supposedly leading to increased blood flow to the brain.

Another Teaching and Learning Research Foundation report was scathing of Brain Gym: “The pseudoscientific terms that are used to explain how this works, let alone the concepts they express, are unrecognisable within the domain of neuroscience.” And it’s expensive: schools can end up spending thousands of pounds on Brain Gym training and consultancy.

In 2009, the then department for schools and families admitted that Brain Gym had “not been evaluated using a robust and appropriate methodology” and peer-reviewed studies into the programme had “found no significant improvement in general academic skills”. Meanwhile columnists Ben Goldacre and Charlie Brooker – and even the Daily Mail – attempted to embarrass school leaders into ditching Brain Gym altogether. But it is still used by hundreds of education institutions across the country today – in fact, many proudly trumpet their use of the programme.

The apparently firm grip of such spurious theories on education in Britain prompted an outspoken attack by neuroscientist Sergio Della Sala at a recent education conference in Edinburgh. Della Sala, professor of human cognitive neuroscience at Edinburgh University, called on schools to stop investing scarce resources in pseudoscience, advising them to buy new computers instead.

“Too often, people with the clout to make decisions about which practice is potentially profitable in the classroom ignore evidence in favour of gut feelings, the authority of gurus or unwarranted convictions,” explains Della Sala shortly after the conference. He says most neuromyths are “ugly mistranslations” of bona fide research, variously the result of scientific illiteracy, financial greed or the desire to give an ideological stance a veneer of academic credibility. “We love to believe that we understand and we love to think that there are magic silver bullets fixing all,” he says, but warns that neuroscience “has so far proved to have little to offer to everyday, normal education.”

Della Sala may have put neuromyths back on the news agenda, but criticism of these fanciful ideas is nothing new. More than a decade ago the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development warned that neuromyths were being too readily adopted by teachers and educational specialists. “As a result of both pressure to improve overall school performance and excitement and interest about education that could be brain-based, many myths and misconceptions have arisen around the mind and brain outside of the scientific community,” it said.

So how ingrained are these myths? Neuropsychologist Sanne Dekker, from the Department of Educational Neuroscience at VU University Amsterdam, wanted to find out. Dekker and her team compared the prevalence of neuromyths in UK and Dutch classrooms. What they discovered should shock advocates of evidence-based learning: 98 per cent of British teachers had encountered learning styles and 93 per cent believed in their validity. And while 82 per cent had encountered Brain Gym, 88 per cent believed its underlying claim that short bouts of exercises can improve brain function. The most widely believed neuromyth was that an environment rich in stimulus cam improve the brains of pre-school children – 95 per cent of British teachers said that this claim was correct.

But behind these stark figures was an intriguing discovery – those teachers with knowledge of genuine neuroscientific facts were more likely to simultaneously accept the fiction. “Possessing greater general knowledge about the brain did not protect teachers from believing in these myths,” explains Dekker. “This suggests that teachers found it difficult to distinguish pseudoscience from scientific facts.”

Dekker says it’s of “vital importance” that these myths are eliminated from the classroom. “From a neuropsychological perspective, children need to be stimulated and trained to develop skills in multiple domains,” she says, “and time spent on programmes that do not have benefits for learning cannot be spent on more useful educational activities.”

Dekker’s findings confirm what Leah Tomlin, a Bristol primary school teacher with a background in scientific research, has long suspected. She says it’s hardly surprising that pseudoscience has proved so persistent in British classrooms, given the continual reform the education system has undergone for decades. “In Britain, the teaching profession has been pretty much constantly bombarded by new initiatives in the last 20 years or so,” she says. “Teachers’ workloads are excessive and they simply haven’t had the time, resources or knowhow to be able to challenge ideas behind the initiatives that are thrown at them.”

Tomlin says that teachers’ strong desire to help pupils, often coupled with a lack of scientific literacy, makes them particularly prone to accepting neuromyths as facts. “There’s a lot of anecdotal evidence floating around the world of education: ‘Look, I did this thing with my class and it worked brilliantly!’ This, combined with the fact that the vast majority of education research is poorly conducted and open to bias, leads to a highly misinformed profession.” Tomlin would like to see the Department for Education take a more robust approach to neuromyths, encouraging schools to study the evidence before adopting new initiatives and to “challenge those that present false claims in the name of science”.

So what should a parent do if they suspect their child’s school is complicit in peddling neuromyths? Tomlin points them towards the University of York’s Institute for Effective Education and the Education Endowment Foundation, both of which provide free and easy access to evidence-based information on education. If it seems that a classroom initiative is based on pseudoscience, Tomlin advises parents to ask the school for evidence: “Without the challenge, we give them license to cause greater damage to the education of our children.”

In Britain debate about education, perhaps more than any other area of policy, is bad-tempered and polarised. Hard evidence – where it exists at all – is often overlooked in favour of hyperbole and grandstanding. When it comes to neuromyths in the classroom, neat political divisions no longer apply – ministers from left and right, teaching unions and education pressure groups have all done their bit to promote them. And with each successive education secretary keen to establish a permanent legacy, often leaving teachers bewildered by the changes thrust upon them, the distinction between science and wishful thinking has become blurred. The neuro-realists may now be fighting back, but they have years of myth and misinformation to undo.

This piece is from the September/October 2013 issue of New Humanist. Subscribe