It's time for teachers to wake up to neuromyths

Over recent years a new industry has exploded that sells educational interventions purportedly based on neuroscience to schools. In 2006 a paper published in Nature Reviews Neuroscience reported that teachers were receiving 70 emails per year marketing these tools and it seems the problem has only got worse. Unfortunately, neuroscience research simply doesn't even remotely back up a great many of the claims that are now being made.


Earlier this month Sense about Science published a great list of neuromyths that have found their way into education and called on Ofsted (the UK regulatory body for schools) to stand up to the use of neuromyths in the classroom. The methods and ideas highlighted by Sense about Science include the assumption that children have fixed auditory, visual or kinetic learning styles; methods based on Gardner's discredited model of multiple intelligences and the teaching of left/right brain theory. We also saw the publication this month of an extensive review of educational approaches informed by neuroscience by the Education Endowment Foundation.

A Wellcome Trust teacher survey published this month produced a number of worrying statistics, for example a stunning 39% of teachers used to use (and 16% still use) the discredited Brain Gym approach which is based on flawed, non peer-reviewed research. Thankfully only two of the over a thousand teachers surveyed said they planned to start using Brain Gym but for every non evidence-based intervention that is on its way out, there is a new one to take its place.

All of the above is important reading for educators but somehow seems to miss the sheer outlandishness of the rationale that many of the packages being marketed as brain based methods are based on. As Oxford developmental neuropsychologist Dorothy Bishop explained in a blog post earlier this week, at the present time neuroscience is of precious little use in the classroom when compared to behavioural indicators  - what use are abstract measures such as brain activation when we can directly assess educational outcomes with methods that teachers can actually use in real life?

A recurring theme in the conversation on educational neuroscience is the fact that teachers are simply not given formal science based guidance on what works, leaving a vacuum eagerly filled by those out to make a buck by masquerading unsupported techniques as based in science. So what does work? The resounding conclusion seems to be that for now, teachers should look to psychology and cognitive science research rather than neuroscience research. This time last year a fantastic literature review of learning techniques was published in Psychological Science in the Public Interest. I'd urge any teachers to read it in full, but as it's a rather dense document I've done my best to paraphrase it here.

Hopefully if we shout loud enough the message will get through and we won't see another generation of students wearing "VAK" badges pigeonholing them as a "V" an "A" or a "K" (for visual, auditory or kinaesthetic learner); or schools spending thousands of pounds on brain training software based on research that demonstrates nothing but that children who play a game repeatedly get better at that game.

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New fossils suggest human ancestors evolved in Europe, not Africa

Experts argue the jaws of an ancient European ape reveal a key human ancestor.

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  • The jaw bones of an 8-million-year-old ape were discovered at Nikiti, Greece, in the '90s.
  • Researchers speculate it could be a previously unknown species and one of humanity's earliest evolutionary ancestors.
  • These fossils may change how we view the evolution of our species.

Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.

A set of 8-million-year-old teeth may have done just that. Researchers recently inspected the upper and lower jaw of an ancient European ape. Their conclusions suggest that humanity's forebearers may have arisen in Europe before migrating to Africa, potentially upending a scientific consensus that has stood since Darwin's day.

Rethinking humanity's origin story

The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.

David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.

The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.

Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"

He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.

"Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."

Migrating out of Africa

In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.

Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.

The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.

The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.

Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.

Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.

Did we head east or south of Eden?

Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.

Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.