Trainee teachers: Survey reveals ignorance of brain basics

4th September 2009 at 01:00
Popular myths still in circulation as survey reveals teachers' ignorance of neuroscience basics

Original paper headline: Brain dead? The trainees who think kids learn while they chat

Many trainee teachers think it is possible for pupils to absorb information without paying attention in lessons, new research has revealed.

And almost a quarter of those surveyed believe that consciousness may be possible without a brain.

Dr Paul Howard-Jones, of Bristol University's graduate school of education, asked 158 trainee teachers for their views on how the brain functions. His findings were presented this week at the annual British Educational Research Association conference.

They reveal that significant numbers of trainees have unquestioningly accepted popular myths about the brain, despite these being repeatedly disproven by neuroscientists.

For example, almost one in five trainees thought that their brains would shrink if they drank fewer than six glasses of water per day.

And only 43 per cent believed it was necessary to pay attention to something in order to learn it. The implication is that it is possible for misbehaving pupils to talk through lessons and yet absorb information because of their physical presence in the classroom.

"It is impossible to learn in an educational sense - taking in facts and gaining understanding - without paying attention," said Dr Howard-Jones. "If you're not paying attention, information can't be processed by the brain. So the only things pupils learn if they're talking at the back of the class will be things they pick up between conversations."

Meanwhile, 11 per cent of interviewees thought that consciousness was possible without a brain. A further 12 per cent were not sure whether this could be achieved.

"I think we all carry around ideas about the relationship between the mind and the brain," continued Dr Howard-Jones. "But it does tend to indicate that they don't think the brain is very important."

He believes trainees pick up brain myths during their teaching practice in schools. For example, one qualified teacher interviewed by the academics announced that eating "some components of walnut" helped to moisturise the brain.

Little evidence to support measures used

And Dr Howard-Jones cites schemes such as Brain Gym and the belief in individual learning styles which are widely used in schools across the country despite the lack of neuroscientific evidence to support them.

"There's something seductive about neuroscience," he said. "So if teachers aren't taught formally about it, they're very likely to pick up ideas elsewhere."

Dr Howard-Jones is calling for elements of psychology and neuroscience to be included in teacher training. Similarly, he wants professional- development schemes in these topics for serving teachers.

"We've unearthed a number of alarming findings," he said. "And these ideas are clearly impacting on attitudes and learning in the classroom.

"Considering teachers are the only professionals who have the job of nurturing the connectivity of the brain on a daily basis, it's surprising that they aren't given any training about it. Then this is the outcome. This is the result."

  • `The Neuroscience Literacy of Trainee Teachers' is by Paul Howard-Jones, Lorna Franey, Rasha Mashmoushi and Yen-Chun Liao.
    • `Alarming findings'

      • 57 per cent of trainee teachers surveyed thought that it was possible for pupils to absorb information without paying attention.
      • 11 per cent believed that consciousness is possible without a brain, while 12 per cent were not sure.
      • Almost one in five thought that their brains would shrink if they drank fewer than six glasses of water a day.
      • 82 per cent said that pupils learn better when they receive information in their preferred learning style, even though there is no evidence to support this.
      • 55 per cent correctly said that there is no finite window of opportunity for learning, merely stages when information is more easily absorbed.

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