Neuroscience in education: Unpicking the helpful and the harmful

Written by: Daniel Sobel | Published:
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Neuroscience has so much to tell us about how children learn and how we should teach, but we must be aware of the neuromyths, says Daniel Sobel. He considers the challenges and offers six pointers for using neuroscience in education

Gather around, we’re starting with a pop quiz: who can tell me what the following all have in common?

  • Left vs right brain thinking.
  • We only use 10% of our brains.
  • Learning styles such as visual and kinesthetic.
  • A common sign of dyslexia is “seeing letters backwards”.
  • Listening to classical music increases children’s reasoning ability.
  • Some people can multi-task and some cannot.

If you said: they are all false and misleading then you are correct! I think a lot of the love for neurology and psychology that has seeped into education is not only rubbish, it can actually be harmful.

I spoke with a very experienced teacher colleague Sarah Halter, who undertook her undergraduate study in neuroscience and Master’s in psychology at Cambridge and helps me with research in this field. This article is a summary of our discussion. Time to sort the fact from the fancy – our own version of fact-checking the neuromyths...

Teachers are really into it

Before we throw the baby out with the bathwater, our intention is not to put people off from neuro-informed education, quite the opposite – it is to try and set the record straight about what is and isn’t helpful.

Indeed, as the field of neuroscience continues to grow and makes strides in our understanding of the human brain, it is only natural that educators look to this field to inform their practice (at least, one would hope!).

This desire for increased neuroscience knowledge and its implications for education has been well reported (Chang et al, 2021).

Most educators report an interest in educational neuroscience and consider it to be beneficial to their teaching practice (Dekker et al, 2012;Torrijos-Muelas et al, 2021).

However, as Chang et al (2021) put it: “Neuroscience and education have been struggling to determine their conceptual and practical relationship for a generation.”

It’s like the blind leading the blind

The idea that teachers find it difficult to distinguish pseudoscience from scientific fact is actually the subject of interesting research (see Dekker et al, 2012).

One of the key problems is that self-informed knowledge about the brain and the reading of popular science or educational magazines – as good as SecEd is! – alone is insufficient to improve this capability(Torrijos-Muelas et al, 2021). Therefore “the gap between researchers and practitioners has caused the misconception and over simplification of scientific research” (Ferrero et al., 2016).

A debunking case study

Take for example the left/right brained theory and the influence of specific food types on brain functioning or even one of the most common neoromyths, VAK-learning style theory. This is actually based on valid research finding that visual, auditory and kinaesthetic information is processed in different parts of the brain. Cool, right?

However, and this is the kicker, it is erroneous to purport that just a single sensory modality is involved with information-processing, since these individual structures are highly interconnected and there is extensive communication between sensory modalities. And although children may show a preference for a specific learning style, educating them accordingly does not result in more effective information processing(Dekker et al, 2012).

Neuromyths can mean big bucks

The popularisation of these neuromyths is in part due to the spread of neuro-educational programmes in the education sector.These claim to be “brain-based” but lack scientific validity (Dekker et al, 2012).

Brain Gym was used in more than 900 schools in the United Kingdom (Goldacre, 2006). Meanwhile, “Brain-training”, a neuro-educational programme, is a yearly $300m industry in the USA: “Many of these programs which popularise pseudoscientific practices are unlikely to produce any benefit and can even harm schoolchildren” (Ferrero et al, 2016) – and possibly distract resources from potentially effective solutions.

Couple therapy for education and neurology

So, is the divide between neuroscience and education a bridge too far or does neuroscience have something useful to say about pedagogy? I think we can all assume that having accurate scientific information about the brain can have benefits for educators.

In fact, the research suggests that providing teachers with training in neuroscientific principles results in a pedagogical shift towards increased student-centred practices (Chang et al, 2021) and promotes the use of novel, theory-informed, teaching strategies for the benefit of student learning (Tan & Amiel, 2019).

Professional development programmes in neuroscience resulted in increased inquiry-based pedagogy and increased higher-order thinking, deep knowledge, substantive conversations, and connections to real-world problems (Chang et al, 2021).

You also see that training teachers in neuroscience increases self-reported teacher self-efficacy and the use of student-centred practices and you see this in trauma-informed practices in particular (Chang et al, 2021)

Some rules for meaningful neuro-informed education

First, neuroscience findings may not be directly applicable in the classroom since research explores brain processes while education focuses on the improvement of learning outcomes. However, it does help teachers to understand how their teaching works. Use it to stimulate discussion and think about the learning process.

Second, communication between neuroscience experts and teachers is vital to avoid using neuromyths in practice (Dekker et al, 2012). Practically, if you are quoting or using neuroscience materials, double check your facts: Is this a neuromyth? How do I know it is valid?

Third, it has been suggested that educators should work as part of an integrated research community in the application of neuroscience into teaching, thus preventing misunderstanding and misapplications of research (Tan & Amiel, 2019).

Teachers are busy and we simply don’t have this luxury, but many schools work in groups, and it could be that a handful of teachers can lead this on behalf of a group of schools.

Fourth, much research emphasises the importance of including neuroscience education in teacher training (Torrijos-Muelas et al, 2021). I would suggest we ask teachers at interview if they have had trauma-informed training, for example, as well as their understanding of how the brain works differently in neurodivergent children. This will enable you to know what your teachers know about the science of learning.

Fifth, Dommett et al (2011) demonstrated the success of co-constructed dialogue between educators and scientists on the topics of neuroscience training and the translation of this knowledge to classroom practices. This may seem like one of the least urgent topics but it can be a different way of doing an INSET day and digging deep into what learning means to us.

Sixth, do not waste money on pseudoscientific “brain-based” learning programs. Ask one question of all your interventions: Is this really tested and proven to work?


I’m not a neuroscientist. I care deeply about the evolution of education and especially in favour of understanding the most vulnerable and challenging students. I think neuro-informed education has a lot to offer in stimulating ideas, questioning our practice, and helping us to see learning differently. But let’s do it with sense and avoid making obvious mistakes.

  • Daniel Sobel is founder of Inclusion Expert which provides SEND, Pupil Premium and looked-after children reviews, training and support. Find his previous articles for Headteacher Update via

Further information & resources

  • Chang et al: Neuroscience concepts changed teachers’ views of pedagogy and students, Frontiers in psychology (12), 2021.
  • Dekker et al: Neuromyths in education: Prevalence and predictors of misconceptions among teachers, Frontiers in psychology (429), 2012.
  • Dommett et al: From scientific theory to classroom practice, The Neuroscientist, (17, 4), 2011.
  • Ferrero, Garaizar, & Vadillo: Neuromyths in education: Prevalence among Spanish teachers and an exploration of cross-cultural variation, Frontiers in human neuroscience (496), 2016.
  • Goldacre: Brain Gym-Name & Shame, March 2006:
  • Tan & Amiel: Teachers learning to apply neuroscience to classroom instruction: case of professional development in British Columbia, Professional Development in Education (48,1), 2019.
  • Torrijos-Muelas, González-Víllora & Bodoque-Osma: The persistence of neuromyths in the educational settings: A systematic review, Frontiers in Psychology (3658), 2021.

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