Debunking Classroom Neuromyths

Written by Saskia Kwan, M.Ed. Knowledge Translation Program Lead at Ontario Brain Institute

Toronto, Canada (1).jpg

Public interest in brain research has increased over the past decade. We are slowly gaining a better understanding of how the brain works, and its implications in everyday life. Importantly, what we learn about the brain has implications in education, as the brain is crucial for learning and teaching. Unfortunately, brain research can often be misunderstood, misinterpreted, or exaggerated. We call these misconceptions neuromyths.


Similar to urban myths, neuromyths sound believable and logical, but their origin can rarely be pinpointed, and they lack any credibility. Despite growing scientific evidence refuting them, neuromyths have persisted and made their way into our homes, classrooms, and everyday life.

Here are some popular neuromyths, and why we should refute them.  

1.     Myth: Students have preferred “learning styles” (e.g. visual, auditory, kinesthetic) and learn best when taught through that style.

In reality: There is no evidence that teaching to a student’s specific “learning style” leads to improved learning. While students do differ from each other in their learning, decades of research have failed to provide any proof that matching a specific mode of teaching to a specific student leads to better learning and school achievement. Rather, we should match the style of teaching to the content and offer multiple different ways for a student to engage with the content. Imagine trying to learn algebra exclusively through an audiobook, because you were labeled an “auditory” learner!


2.     Myth: People are “left-brained” or “right-brained”, either using the left rational and analytical half of the brain more often or using the right creative half of the brain more often.

In reality: Research shows no evidence to support the idea that we favour one side of our brain over the other. Although there are some differences between the two sides, we are constantly using both sides of our brain. In fact, the two sides of the brain are heavily connected and continuously exchanging information back and forth. There are some functions that rely more heavily on one side of the brain over the other, for example areas crucial for language are usually (but not always) on the left side of the brain. However, these side “preferences” have largely been exaggerated for other functions. We know very little about complex functions such as creativity and rationality, and even less about what areas of the brain are crucial for these functions.


3.     Myth: You only use 10% of your brain.

In reality: You use your whole brain. Through brain imaging techniques that have allowed us to visualize brain function, researchers are able to see that the various areas of your brain are constantly engaged and active. Researchers have a long way to go to understand how the whole brain works, but there’s no research to suggest that the average person uses less than their whole brain in any given day, and absolutely no research to suggest we are only using one-tenth of it! It is also worth noting that using our whole brain doesn’t mean we can’t learn something new. Your brain has the incredible ability to learn, adapt, and change throughout your lifespan by altering connections and pathways between brain cells, a concept called neuroplasticity.

If you believed these neuromyths, you are not at fault. Neuromyths have become so prevalent they appear in books, movies, and even teacher preparation courses. But we must fight against them, because decisions based on myths can hinder a child’s learning and development. Although well intentioned, these neuromyths end up limiting our young learners from all they can do.




What Does a Montessori Elementary classroom look like?

Written by Sarah Adams, Montessori Teacher and owner of The Prepared Environment (@the_prepared_environment)

Vancouver, Canada

Westside Montessori in Vancouver ( @montessori_elementary )

Westside Montessori in Vancouver (@montessori_elementary)

"Monte-who?"..."Monte-what?"..."What is Montessori, anyways?"  I have been asked these questions many times in my life.  Have you heard about Montessori?  Most people have, even if they don’t know exactly what it is. 

I attended Montessori as a child (from ages 3-12), volunteered in a Montessori school throughout college and university, and have taught in a public Montessori elementary school since 2006.  I have spent most of my life in the Montessori world, however I often find it difficult to explain it in a clear and concise way…just because there is so much to say.

Montessori education is a system created by Dr. Maria Montessori.  Dr. Montessori was an Italian doctor born in 1870.  She challenged gender stereotypes of her time by being one of the first female students to attend medical school and become a doctor.  She developed an educational philosophy and method based on her research and observations and the findings of other revolutionary scientists and researchers.

The first school opened in a low-income district of Rome in 1906 and currently there are over 20,000 Montessori schools world-wide.  The Montessori method was (and still is) dramatically different from the traditional education system. 

It is possible to implement Montessori philosophy in any environment by following the child, learning about their development and needs and respecting the child as an individual that can reach their full potential with a prepared environment.  You might be curious about what an Elementary Montessori class looks like and how it is different from traditional education.

Here are some of the characteristics of a 6-12 Montessori Classroom:

1.    The Montessori classroom is set up to provide children with the right tools and environment so they can meet their full potential, have a love of learning and be a productive member of their community.

2.    The adults see the child as an individual and provide lessons for that child when appropriate.  Children are usually taught new concepts individually or in small groups.

Westside Montessori in Vancouver ( @montessori_elementary )

Westside Montessori in Vancouver (@montessori_elementary)

3.    The Montessori classroom encourages collaboration and not competition.  Children work at their own level, so the focus is on their own improvement instead of trying to keep up with other classmates.  Working with children of different ages helps the students to learn from others and be role models.  

4.    Independence, self-control, confidence and repetition are not only encouraged, but built into all lessons and materials.  Once a child is introduced to a new material, they are encouraged to work through a series of tasks individually (or with a classmate). 

5.    By using the thoughtfully-designed materials, children are able to concretely understand a concept before moving onto abstraction.  Montessori believed that we learn best through hands-on learning.  This is most obvious with the math materials.  The children learn what one, ten, one hundred, one thousand look and feel like through the Golden Bead materials.  They have a concrete understanding of quantity which helps lay the foundation for all future math concepts.

6.    In Montessori classrooms, children are usually grouped with different aged children (typically three grades are in one class).  Classrooms are child-centered, very different compared to the traditional classroom with the teacher at the front and children sitting in rows.  You might see children working on the floor, individually at a table, or with classmates.  There is usually choice in where to work.

Westside Montessori in Vancouver ( @montessori_elementary )

Westside Montessori in Vancouver (@montessori_elementary)

7.    There is an understanding and respect of children's psychological development and sensitive periods.  Montessori teachers learn about developmental stages, Planes of Development and how to prepare the classroom to optimize learning and concentration.

8.     The materials and lessons introduced have a purpose, build upon previous knowledge and usually have some form of control of error (so the child knows on their own if they have done it correctly.)  The materials are ideally made of natural products and are realistic. 

Click here to learn more!

What type of "attitude" does your student have?

written by Cindy Hovington, Ph.d. Founder of


Your attitude has an influence on your effort. Teachers see it everyday in their classroom. "Student A" gets 65% on a math test and says, "I will never be good in math. I was born dumb in math!". "Student B" gets 65% on a math test and says, "I thought I studied well for this test, maybe I missed something." and asks their teacher to explain their mistakes. Both these students have different "attitudes" towards failure. As a result of their attitudes, they will study differently and this will pave the path for either success of failure. 


Which attitude does "Student A" have?

Entity attitude. A student with this type of attitude believes that they were born either "smart" or "not smart", and that it is fixed. These types of students do not respond well to errors. They need extra guidance and support to boost their motivation both in and out of the classroom. Even if they think they were born smart, they will not make an effort to do better. Teachers might struggle to get this type of student to go the "extra mile". The student who thinks they were born "not smart" might also have negative inner self-talk or exam anxiety. They might need more positive feedback on assignments and exams


Which attitude does "Student B" have?

Figure 1.

Figure 1.

Incremental attitide. As Dr. Carol Dweck describes in her book Mindset, a student with incremental attitude, or a "growth mindset", believes they can get more intelligent with effort and that their intelligence is not fixed. It is this type of student that will put in the time and effort and will also have greater success than the student with an entity attitude. As you can see in this graph from one of Dr. Dweck's studies,  incremental improvements in math grades can be seen in students with an incremental attitude.  


Science behind motivation and achievement in a nutshell.

Motivation is a complex subject in neuroscience. Motivation recruits brain areas involved in both emotions (limbic system) and thinking/ cognition (frontal lobe).This is why it has a great impact on student learning. Scientists are beginning to get a better understanding of the relationship between emotions, cognition and motivation. An article by Crocker et al. (2013) beautifully outlines this relationship in greater detail for those of you who are interested. In addition, studies have shown that a person places greater effort when they anticipate a positive outcome. If a student begins to anticipate a low grade on a test, especially while studying or writing a test, their effort will most likely be lower, which will in turn impact their level of thinking. Stay tuned for a future article on motivation, make sure your subscribe to our mailing list at the bottom of the page.


My advice: Bring these attitudes into a students awareness. 

“As students learn, these experiences shape the architecture of their brains. Therefore, abilities are not fixed but rather continuously developing. This plasticity enables students to overcome many learning challenges. ”
— Dr. Kurt Fischer, Harvard University

My experience with students has taught me that learning about their brain empowers them, regardless of their age. Learning that the brain is plastic (able to change its architecture through learning) is fascinating to students. One of my favourite quotes from Dr. Fischer, a world class researcher who used to be the Director of the Mind, Brain and Education department at Harvard University, is that as we learn, the architecture of our brain changes (see full quote).

In the Blackwell study (2007), they studied 7th graders and followed them for a period of 2 years to assess their "attitudes". Students who believed their intelligence is malleable (incremental attitude) had a steady increase in math grades over this 2 year period, whereas students who believed that intelligence if fixed had a slow decrease in math grades (see Figure 1 above). More importantly, researchers examined whether teaching students about these attitudes and how their brain functions could change their way of thinking. See figure 2 for details of the intervention. Indeed, this intervention promoted positive change in student attitude and motivation, strengthening the fact that we can change a students attitude.

Figure 2.

Figure 2.

Classroom Application.

Challenge your students to build something. For instance, give your students toothpicks and mini marshmallows and ask them (either individual or small groups) to build the tallest possible tower. However, set some sort of limit that will make it challenging and almost "impossible". For instance, ask them to build a tower that reaches a 4 foot mark (place some tape on the wall) and give them only 15 min. Within a few minutes you will start hearing them say, "THIS IS IMPOSSIBLE" or "I CAN'T DO THIS". Perfect, the activity worked!. Don't say a word!! After 15 min, hand out this worksheet or write out the questions on the board and discuss it with them (this worksheet might be more appropriate for younger students). How many gave up? What thoughts went through their mind? Did they change strategy?  Go back to discuss the activity. Did you ever set limits for what materials they could use? No! Stack some books or bins on the floor near your 4 foot mark, and build the smallest structure with your toothpicks and marshmallows! VOILA! What is the take home message from this activity...YOUR MINDSET IMPACTS YOUR EFFORT!!!

This coming school year, start the discussion on mindset with your students or do this activity early on. Place this Poster of Growth Mindset Questions to Ask in your classroom. Be mindful of the students and their attitudes as this will guide you on how to support them. If you need advice on how to do this, feel free to email me!

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