Woo Watch: The rise of Neuro

There are those in ELT who aren’t fans of  science and research. ‘It’s an art‘ they protest, ‘stop trying to measure everything!’ On the other side are those who grab science and embrace it wholeheartedly. Sometimes these hugs can be a little too hard, leaving science with broken bones and internal bleeding. The intention is good but the result is a squishy, science shaped mess. 

One example of this is the rise of “Neuro” in teaching. The Neuro crowd are not doubt well-intentioned but can sometimes seem to stray dangerously close to the “woo” side of the forceSatel and Lilienfeld note that neuroscience “is vulnerable to being oversold by the media, some overzealous scientists, and neuroentrepreneurs who tout facile conclusions that reach far beyond what the current evidence warrants”. 

Neuroscience is a legitimate science which offers many promising insights but as Dorothy Bishop, Professor of developmental neuropsychology notes, the attempts to link it to education are often misjudged. And she is not the only one. Daniel Willingham has written that Neuroscience applied to education is “mostly unimpressive“, stating that there is “definitely a lot of neuro-garbage in the education market.” As the authors of “Brainwashed” note, there are many educational enterprises that seem to “merely dress up or repackage good advice with neuroscientific findings that add nothing to the overall program.

“Neuro” is popping up increasingly in ELT. For instance, in a recently published piece by Cambridge University Press on “neurolearning” the author argues that “neurolearning” is useful for creating a “brain-compatible environment”. The article goes on to use language like “Homeostasis” and “Hypothalamus” in order to suggest rather ordinary things like keeping the classroom at a good temperature. The author published another article saying that “no matter the target language, try to think about activities that will appeal to the different learning styles – visual, auditory and kinaesthetic.” and “a brain-compatible environment can only be created by a passionate teacher”. Unfortunately, after some online criticism, the page seems to have been removed. Exactly what the word “neuro” adds to any of the approaches suggested in article, is not clear. 


Another example of the rise of “neuro” is “neurolanguage coaching®“, which is a mix of coaching and neuroscience. It’s creator claims that:

Neurolanguage Coaches are trained in the practical application of neuroscientific principles, relating to how the brain learns, functions and reacts, in particular in relation to emotional triggers when learning a language, drawing Krashen´s affective filter into the scientific evidence arena.

Similarly, in Japan, ‘neuro’ has taken off! The Japanese Language Teaching association (JALT) has a special interest group know as the “mind brain and Education” sig. The sig promotes something called NeuroELT. The group began as a charity project after the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami and went on to hold a series of conferences called the FAB11


I don’t know much about these approaches and don’t particularly have any bones to pick with either, but in both cases, as with neurolearning, it’s a little unclear as to what precisely the role of “neuro” plays, other than to provide a slightly scientific veneer to otherwise ordinary educational practices. Is there that much to be gained by knowing that the prefrontal context “lights up” when students play Hangman? 

Bloblolgy 

Another curious side-effect of the rise of Neuro are the endless pictures of colourful brains accompanied by effusive explanations that this proves that X or Y is the case:

Here’s a spot that lights up when subjects think of God (“Religion center found!”), or researchers find a region for love (“Love found in the brain”). Neuroscientists sometimes refer disparagingly to these studies as “blobology,” their tongue-in-cheek label for studies that show which brain areas become activated as subjects experience X or perform task Y. (link)

These images can be surprisingly effective. It has been shown that brain images of the type neuroscience produces, actually helps to make research seem more believable. However, when even a dead salmon in an FMRI scanner can produce exciting looking blobs, we should proceed with caution. 

This current “neurophilia” is not completely without precedent in ELT. The 90s saw a rise in popularity of Neuro-linguistic programming. NLP, which has very strong pseudoscientific elements became so popular that it made appearances in a number of respectable people’s work. And what concerns me is that people who might have previously been previously swept up in various “brain-based” approaches might now be getting swept up in the “neuro” craze. 

For example, I recently discovered that the “language teacher“Journal had had an NLP special edition (volume 21, no. 2) and one of the contributors to this special edition, an advocate of educational hypnosis and a proponent of NLP, is also a founder of the JALT Brain, Mind and Education sig. Other founders have also published articles on, for example, the Kolb model of learning styles, the learning pyramid (a theory which must surely be on life support at this point) and a study into the VAK learning styles of over 30,000 dental students. 

These articles are fairly old and it is possible that the authors no longer buy into these kinds of practices. Evidence for this can be seen in that the group has a handy neuro myths website and the NeuroELT website explicitly warns readers to watch out for neuromythsThe creator of “neurolanguage coaching®” has, likewise, explicitly distanced herself from NLP (her upcoming conference, however, does feature one speaker who is an NLP practitioner.)  All of this is reassuring, but  I am still left with a linger sense of unease about the prospects for “neuro” in ELT. 

One area where ‘Neuro’ has already ‘contributed’ to education is in the proliferation and acceptance of many neuromyths. Lethaby and Harries have shown that, as in other areas of education, many ELT teachers believe that people only use 10% of their brains or that there are left brained and right brained learners. But the prevalence of neuromyths and experts warning about giving too much attention to the “neuro” prefix seem to falling on deaf ears. No doubt neuroscience can bring interesting and useful findings to education, but the rush to embrace this new toy could also end badly.