When I was a sophomore in college, one of the most talked-about psychology books since the days of William James and Sigmund Freud was published: John Gray’s Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus: A Practical Guide for Improving Communication and Getting What You Want in Your Relationships. The book was an immediate and lasting sensation; it ended selling over 15 million copies and was the best-selling nonfiction book of the 1990s. Gray’s argument was simple: men and women (“the sexes,” to Gray, as opposed to “the genders”) inhabited “different planets,” were accustomed to the environment of their own planet, and thus not familiar with those of the other. It was a seductive argument: all those relationship problems you were having could be blamed on poor communication, which was now, it turns out, was just because we were from different planets. What are you going to do? I’m from Mars, after all; HELP ME UNDERSTAND YOUR STRANGE VENUTIAN WAYS.
If you were old enough to pay attention to all this hoopla, you’ll probably also remember the many criticisms Gray’s book attracted. Academic psychologists and sociologists argued Gray’s portrait of “the differences between the sexes” was both overly exaggerated and profoundly oversimplified, arguments made all the more solid from their being accurate. As has been the fate for so many pop-psychology texts, Gray’s book convinced fewer and fewer people over time, and now exists more as a pop-culture relic than as any significant contribution to science. For a sense of how the book has been viewed by posterity, just read the devastatingly laconic first sentence of its Wikipedia entry:
Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus (1992) is a book written by American author and relationship counselor John Gray, after he had earned degrees in meditation and taken a correspondence course in psychology.
Ouch. That’ll leave a mark.
Yet, even if Men Are from Mars… is laughed out of the room now, the fact remains it sold fifteen million copies. Its title became the punchline for many a 1990s joke, John Gray was a ubiquitous presence on the talk-show and morning news circuits, and the book’s argument did indeed exert significant influence on the discourse about gender and gender differences for much of the decade in which it was published. In retrospect, it’s clear Gray’s argument was—to be charitable—a caricature so simplistic as to be only marginally useful. But millions of people thought it was a lot more than that at the time. Why was that the case?
Gray’s description of communication breakdowns as the product of “planetary” differences is an excellent example of a neuromyth. Neuromyths are misconceptions about how the brain works, often based upon a distorted, incomplete, or inaccurate interpretation of neuroscience and/or psychology. Some neuromyths—like Gray’s argument that the psychological differences between the sexes are so vast as to make it seem people reside on different worlds—become so prevalent and so popular that they eclipse actual, sound research and prove exceedingly difficult to dislodge. These types of neuromyths acquire such power because they seem to neatly explain phenomena that “we all know are true,” and do with enough of a scientific gloss to pass by critical faculties that might otherwise sniff them out. But we know that science (social or physical) is rarely that simple, and complex phenomena often have complex explanations. However, that doesn’t make for a very snappy book title.
The most implacable neuromyths often relate to learning or education. In a field where we care very much about how learners actually learn, as well as how we might improve that process, it’s all too easy to let our enthusiasm take over. We then find ourselves adopting strategies or practices grounded in “research” that isn’t evidence-based or even necessarily accurate. One of the best examples in this vein is the myth of “learning styles,” the idea that students have one optimal way of receiving information for their learning. The “Visual-Auditory-Reading/writing-Kinesthetic” continuum (you might have heard of the VARK Inventory, for example) is the most common expression of the learning styles myth.1 But it’s hard to tell a student who’s convinced they’re a “kinesthetic learner” that our optimal learning method actually varies across contexts and types of information, and clinging to the idea that they can only learn optimally via one method actively undermines their learning.2
That’s the problem with neuromyths: it’s not just that they’re inaccurate, but they often undermine actual learning. In our eagerness to improve student learning, it’s easy to be swept up by claims that sound evidence-based, because they use the language of teaching and learning science. We want to improve our own teaching practice and we want our students to be successful. But we can’t abandon our critical faculties to do so. This message was emphatically driven home this week, with the release of the Online Learning Consortium’s new multi-authored International Report: Neuromyths and Evidence-Based Practices in Higher Education. You can read the overview here, and the Chronicle of Higher Education published a brief summary, also.
The most striking feature of the report is the widespread acceptance of neurmyths by faculty and staff across higher education. And the study a comprehensive one; it surveyed full- and part-time faculty, professional development administrators, and instructional designers across both two- and four-year institutions.3 What are the neuromyths that a majority of higher ed teaching and learning professionals believe? Some of the greatest hits:
- Listening to classical music increases reasoning ability.
- A primary indicator of dyslexia is seeing letters backwards.
- Individuals learn better when they receive information in their preferred learning styles (e.g., auditory, visual, kinesthetic).
- Some of us are “left-brained” and some are “right-brained” due to hemispheric dominance, and this helps explain differences in how we learn.
- We only use 10% of our brain.
None of these common beliefs are supported by research and evidence, but they are prevalent across higher education. So we have work to do.
But the news isn’t all bad; the study also found that there was widespread awareness of actual evidence-based practices that demonstrably improve learning, such as:
- Emotions can affect human cognitive processes, including attention, learning and memory, reasoning, and problem-solving.
- Explaining the purpose of a learning activity helps engage students in that
- Maintaining a positive atmosphere in the classroom helps promote learning.
- Stress can impair the ability of the brain to encode and recall memories.
- Meaningful feedback accelerates learning.
An interesting thought exercise for the week might be considering which items from either of these lists are part of your own pedagogical practices. All of us—especially our students—are on more solid ground when we’re fashioning our practices around insights and observations that can genuinely help improve learning.
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Finally, if you ever wondered how the Bee Gees would’ve sounded if they were a death metal band, well….here you go:
- Do a Google search for “VARK” to see how widespread the learning styles myth is, especially in the K-12 sector.
- Even the VARK folks implicitly admit this, in their discussion of “multimodal” learners, i.e., those who take the inventory and get results that place them in three, even all four, categories.
- I was particularly struck by the finding that “Instructional designers had greater awareness of neuromyths, knowledge about the brain and evidence-based practices than instructors and administrators.” (p. 9)