A quick search of the internet is enough to confirm there’s no shortage of theories about how people learn, or how to help young people learn more effectively.

The problem, says researcher and NACE patron Dr Richard Bailey, is that much of this information is not only inaccurate, but potentially harmful. He believes, “A lot of the stuff that goes in the name of the science of learning or neuroscience isn’t just wrong – it’s dangerously wrong.”

During a workshop at the NACE National Conference in June this year, Dr Bailey will expose some of the most common “neuromyths”, replacing them with evidence-based theories that teachers can apply.

How gullible are you?

Support for more able learners – the focus of the conference – is an area rife with mistaken beliefs, Dr Bailey says. His own research focuses on the relationship between sports and education, including the beneficial impact of physical activity on learning.

Often, he says, this message is completely lost. “Parents of able children may stop them being members of sports clubs or physically active because they want them to focus on their school work. But in fact evidence suggests that physical activity contributes to cognitive performance. Physically active children do better.”

Another common neuromyth is the belief in learning styles. In a recent study, Dr Bailey says he found that “90% of teachers in England believe in learning styles, 60% of sports coaches do, and 0% of cognitive scientists do.”

He calls for teachers to adopt a more sceptical stance when presented with apparently “scientific” theories about learning, to be discerning about their sources, and to take particular care if school budgets are involved. “We need to keep asking advocates of these ideas, ‘Where is the evidence?’ And anecdotes, testimonials, and impressive-sounding labels are not evidence!”

Separating the good, the bad and the ugly

What, then, should teachers believe? During his upcoming conference workshop, Dr Bailey will set out 10 evidence-based principles, drawing on neuroscience and psychology, to help teachers improve their provision for more able learners.

“The real danger with more able children is disaffection and demotivation, being bored,” he says. “So one of the things that science can offer them is a way of working at their own rate, rather than just going through the paces.”

He adds: “There’s a danger with gifted children of drilling them, getting them to do what we call decontextualised practice, meaningless drilling. Although practice is important, it’s focused practice, or what cognitive scientists would call deliberate practice.”

At the same time, Dr Bailey emphasizes that repetition per se is not a bad thing; in fact it’s an essential part of learning. “People think that children need to have continuous stimulation and new things; that isn’t true.”

One of the most effective ways to engage all learners, Dr Bailey says, is the use of meaningful real-world examples and scenarios. “Evidence is very clear that context is a key to learning. The more real and meaningful the learning is, the more likely they are to remember it.”

Overall, he warns teachers to be wary of “fashionable nonsense”, lamenting the current “trendiness” of brain research. “One of the problems for neuroscience is that it’s fashionable, and that should give us cause for concern, because fashion is not a very good criteria for science. The trick is learning how to separate the good from the bad from the ugly.”

Dr Richard Bailey is head of research at the International Council of Sport Science and Physical Education, the worldwide representative agency for sport, PE and physical activity. He also runs a specialist sport research company, and is currently working with the OECD, UNESCO, the Professional Golfers Association, Nike, and the IOC. He has written or edited 24 books, and is currently completing a master’s degree in psychiatry and mental health. You can read his blog for Psychology Today here. He is also a patron of NACE.

At this year’s NACE National Conference, Dr Bailey will explore 10 key scientific principles teachers can apply to improve provision for more able learners.

View the full conference programme.