Author Archives: Karen McCarthy

Pat and the Professor versus Genes and the Gifted

Lada vs LamborghiniLast week’s science slot on Pat Kenny’s radio show on Newstalk featured a discussion between Pat and his regular guest Professor Luke O’Neill from Trinity College’s Biomedical Sciences Institute. The topic was genetic research into human intelligence, an interesting and potentially controversial subject. We had several problems with this slot which we intend to highlight over the next while, but in this post, we take issue with some of Pat Kenny’s comments about why bright children shouldn’t be given the same support as other children. This is one of the most pervasive myths about gifted children and one which we continue to try to dispel.

In the course of the discussion, Pat said: “So if kids with high intelligence are growing up in what you might call underprivileged surroundings, their brain power will probably pull them out of their difficulties or else turn them into master criminals but they’ll use their brains somehow. But those who don’t have that kind of brainpower will end up consorting with other people of not so much brain power and their lot will not get better.”

Professor O’Neill responded by saying “Well that’s the sad truth and this is a horrible truth, nobody likes to think of intelligence just being genetic you see, because that can give rise to all kinds of problems later, and there’s eugenics and things but that does seem to be the evidence.” He explains this by using the analogy of different car engines using the same petrol, engines representing the genetics and the petrol the environment – the performance of the cars will be different, the more efficient the engine the better the performance even if they all get the same petrol.

Pat goes on to suggest that “so…. you could let the smart fellas, if you like, look after themselves. All your resources should go into the less smart people to give them the opportunities in life that they can enjoy?”, a point agreed to by the Professor who later goes on to say that with the right funding in education “you can tailor the education to specific kids needs and that benefits that kid hugely”. Well that sounds like a great idea, tailoring education to meet each child’s needs. But wait, they mean to exclude gifted children, because their “engines” are already powerful enough, and we need to hold them back until the less powerful “engines” catch up?

The casual disregard for gifted learners or those with “high IQ” is feeding into a stereotype which we work hard to dismiss. We listened in astonishment as they seemed to say that the ideal education system is one in which individualised learning is available for all except the really clever ones who will be able to “look after themselves”. They appeared to be claiming that as the research now shows that “genes (for intelligence) will emerge”, we can justify exclusion of equal provision for these children within the education system in order to redress the balance in favour of less “brainy” children.  What a discriminatory suggestion! It is as preposterous as suggesting that children who struggle in an academic environment should be sidelined while those with more “brainpower” as Pat calls it, would be supported to reach their potential. I doubt many educators in Ireland would agree with either system, but Pat and the Professor really thought they were on to something based on incorrect interpretation of brain research and a large dose of wild extrapolation.

It is hugely disappointing that two well-regarded professionals, both from a scientific tradition, would peddle this populist nonsense and feed the stereotype that giftedness is enough of an advantage that these children should be almost artificially held back by withholding educational resources until other children have “caught up”. In fact, gifted children are at risk if their abilities are not recognised and supported like any other child’s. Gifted learners from disadvantaged backgrounds are particularly in need of support for several reasons, among them issues such as  family and social problems, lack of expectation, lack of educational support or tradition in the home, or lack of financial resources to support extra activities such as CTYI. Research from the Centre for Academic Achievement in Dublin City University shows that putting a robust support system in place is of enormous benefit not just to the individual students, but for their families, schools and fellow pupils. Supporting highly able children from disadvantaged backgrounds opens up possibilities and potential that they are unlikely to find if left to “look after themselves” as Pat and Luke suggest. It is simply wrong of them to advocate such a thing based on a very shallow understanding of the research referenced on the show and no regard at all for pedagogy.

Every child, every single one, should be able to expect the support that they need to succeed. Gifted children need as much support as any other child to reach their potential, they will not simply make it on their own, and have even less chance if their needs are wilfully ignored. Dr. Colm O’Reilly, director of CTYI and Ireland’s leading expert in gifted education and research said in a RTE documentary in 2010: “We tend to have the attitude of ‘well, sure it’ll all work out in the end’. For a lot of them, it doesn’t work out in the end and they end up underachieving greatly, and what do we say then? ‘Well, they weren’t that smart to begin with’. I can’t agree with that. The reason they underachieve is because we never did anything for them in the first place, to allow them to fulfill their potential”.

As the Professor says, tailoring an education to an individual child is indeed of great benefit to that child. Would that we had the resources to do that in our schools, but they are stretched to almost breaking point by cutbacks these days. To suggest however, that some children should be effectively ignored in favour of others, is against all educational principles and is discriminatory and misguided. Pat and the Professor should research their topics before launching a broadside at gifted children and their futures.



Neuroscience and Education: Myth versus Reality

Neuromyths in EducationEver since the time of Plato we have been attempting to discover how humans learn. Our fascination with the brain has endured and evolved as scientific research has delved deeper and deeper. Many of us think we know a fair amount about the human brain and how it works, but we are bombarded with some very prevalent myths that have taken hold in our vernacular and in some cases, our educational environments. Here we examine the three most common ones, find where they come from, how they are used in education and see how we can extricate ourselves from their grasp.

Myth 1: We are either Left-brained or Right-brained

We have all heard the theory that we have a dominant side to our brain which determines our way of thinking, our approach to learning and even our personality. Creative or logical? Rational or emotional? Verbal or visuospatial? Probably to do with which side our brain ‘leads’ with, according to this myth. The idea that people are either left-brain or right-brain dominant has been around for some time and, like most myths, has a grain of truth somewhere in its core. Two early brain researchers working towards the end of the 19th century discovered that damage to specific brain areas resulted in language deficiencies and concluded that some speech and language brain areas were lateralized. Broca’s Area  is found in the left frontal lobe and is named after Paul Broca who discovered that damage there caused difficulty in language and speech production.  Around the same time, Karl Wernicke found that language comprehension is localised in the left superior temporal gyrus and damage to this area results in what is now known as Wernicke’s aphasia. Both found on the left hemisphere of the brain, the conclusion that speech and language dominates the left side is clear to see. (Incidentally, Wernicke’s area is found in the left hemisphere in about 95% of right-handers and 60% of left-handers, so as with everything to do with the brain, it’s not all black and white!)

Adding to the basis of this myth were laterality studies of split-brain patients from the latter half of the 20th century. Split-brain patients in these studies usually suffered from epilepsy so severe as to be life-threatening and treatment involved surgically separating the corpus callosum, the main means of communication between the two hemispheres of the brain. In a series of experiments  by Roger Sperry and colleagues at CalTech on these patients, further empirical evidence was found that language function is largely lateral. This underlined the belief that the left hemisphere is more ‘verbal’ than the right hemisphere and led some researchers to the conclusion that one hemisphere is more dominant than the other. From there, the idea rolled on into different teaching strategies for left-brained and right-brained learners, and the notion that the characteristics can somehow be divided into different brain hemispheres.

Of course this is not at all as it seems because our brains are so interconnected that while some brain functions are lateralized, most are bilateral, particularly in higher order cognition. The over-simplified notion that the ‘left-brain’ is logical or analytical and the ‘right-brain’ is emotional or creative is just plain wrong. We have one brain, not two!

Myth 2: We are Visual, Auditory or Kinaesthetic learners

This myth is based on the idea that children can be divided into three different ‘dominant’ learning styles; Visual, Auditory or Kinaesthetic, or VAK. This view seems to have many origins and some amount of research.The assumption is that children learn best when material is presented via their dominant sensory modality. A quick internet search will demonstrate the prevalence of this myth and, although there are many caveats in the information, many people continue to believe that learning outcomes will be improved if a child has material presented through his or her dominant sensory channel. In reality, very little empirical evidence has been produced to back up the theory. However, learning outcomes do appear to be improved when material is presented using all of the different modalities. In other words, although children, and indeed adults may have a preference for a certain way in which they like to learn, they use all their senses to do so and therefore presenting learning material in a variety of ways is more likely to result in improved outcomes. The improvement in performance, if there is any, from being taught exclusively in one’s own learning style has yet to be determined.

So, although preferences in styles of learning do exist, the myth that we can be categorized into one style or another is false. Our brains are so interconnected that information from each modality is shared within and between others, so we learn in many varieties of ways rather than just one. Researchers have attempted to make clear that this is a preference or a strength whereas the education industry has been inundated with ideas for the classroom which do not take into account the evidence that a variety is what is required, rather than a crude classification of children into groups or types. The attraction of this myth is that it confirms what we know, that people learn differently and in their own unique style. It is neat and simple, learn through your dominant style and you will be smarter. Of course, good teachers everywhere already present material to children in a variety of different ways, to keep their attention and their learning styles satisfied, but the notion that by using each modality separately the brain processes the information independently is patently false.

Myth 3: We only use 10% of our brain

Amazingly, this brain myth is one of the most persistent even though there is not a shred of evidence to support it. It has been claimed that this particular idea gained traction when Albert Einstein said the he only used 10% of his brain during a radio interview in 1920, but this hasn’t been confirmed by a transcript and no record of the interview exists. If he did say such a thing it is doubtful he intended a whole industry of brain-boosting and brain-expanding theories and products to come of it! The truth is that we use all of our brain, 100% of it. As John Geake puts it:

“…if you are only using 10% of your brain, then you are in a vegetative state so close to death that you should hope (not that you could) that your relatives will pull out the plug of the life-support machine!”

In more recent times fMRI has revealed more information about what parts of the brain are used during which activity and confirms that even during sleep or restful times we are using all of our brains.

So why do these ideas persist? The answer probably lies in several directions. Technology is letting us know more and more about the human brain. In previous times brain research could only be carried out post mortem which told us the basic structure but left us in the dark about much of the workings of a live brain. With the advent of PET and fMRI we are learning more detail about what the brain does and how it does it but it is important to remember that neuroscience research is carried out in a laboratory. Extrapolating from neuroimaging data to classroom strategies needs to be done very carefully and very cautiously. Not every new piece of information about the brain can be applied in a pedagogical environment.

The media who report on advances in brain research also need to shoulder some of the responsibility for spreading and sustaining neuromyths. Good headlines seem to count for more than accurate reporting these days and research is all too often oversimplified in an effort to pull in as many readers as possible. Somewhere along the way, the caveat about what can be taken from a particular study is left behind in the wake of the interest-grabbing headline.

Add to this the lucrative industry which has grown up around these and other myths (such as the Mozart effect) and we can see that there are interests other than neuroscientific advances at issue. Educators and parents are bombarded with products, games, websites and apps aimed at maximising a child’s potential, and who doesn’t want that? Sorting out the activities based on sound pedagogy and brain research is often too confusing and time-consuming, and so the most attractive idea or product takes hold, and so the myth lives on. The key to debunking the myths is to understand that we use every bit of our brain in all of its interconnected glory, between and within hemispheres and that it is still probably the most complex thing we will ever own.


For a more indepth look at these myths and others check out the OECD’s Centre for Educational Research and Innovation (CERI)

Dekker, S., Lee, N. C., Howard-Jones, P., & Jolles, J. (2012). Neuromyths in education: Prevalence and predictors of misconceptions among teachers. Frontiers in psychology, 3.

Geake, J. (2008). Neuromythologies in education. Educational Research, 50(2), 123-133.

Goswami, U. (2006). Neuroscience and education: from research to practice? Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 7(5), 406-413.

Bright, gifted or creative…does it matter?

By Karen McCarthy. Originally published on on 29th August 2010

I was thinking recently about how fast the summer holidays have disappeared and half-dreading half-welcoming the back-to-school rush which is upon us already. That got me thinking, as usual, on whether I should ask to meet my children’s teachers right away in September to explain their learning differences. One (more!) challenge for teachers is identifying gifted learners and distinguishing them from bright high achievers. So how can teachers figure out who is bright and motivated, and who is gifted? And more pertinently, why does it matter?

This useful checklist will help determine bright from gifted learners, but doesn’t help tell us why schools should make the distinction. In fact, in our current educational system, where rote-learning is rewarded with high marks in State Exams, there may be no way to distinguish gifted students from bright students. And where there are likely to be a good cohort of bright children in every school, the same cannot be said of gifted learners who form a much smaller number of the population.

So, who are the bright, high achievers? They are the ones whose school reports read: “a pleasure to teach”. They are motivated, conscientious and hard-working. They fit in well in the school system, present good work, are motivated and committed to getting good results. They do well in exams and leave school with awards and prizes under their belts. They may be sports captains, head boys, head girls or prefects and are often among the most popular members of the student body. They are seen as having much to contribute to their communities. These children still need adults, parents and teachers to support them in continuing to add to their achievements, but as they are adept at working within the system they usually have little difficulty maintaining their high standards. In short, these children are the ones teachers and parents don’t really have to worry about.

What of the gifted learners then? The common myth is that these are the children who “have it all”, the easy path to academic success. Surely if the bright, high achievers have little to trouble them, the same would be true of the gifted learners? Not always so, unfortunately. Of course, it must be said that there are many gifted learners who are consistent and high achievers, who fit happily in the system and thrive as much as do bright hard-working students. Others, however, look at learning from a very different perspective, one that can cause huge conflict and difficulty between student, school and parent. They question, notice inconsistencies and injustices, they go off on tangents, they challenge, they often irritate! At primary school, some may correct the teacher…loudly.

By secondary they may have learned not to do that any more, or may have learned to at least keep it quiet! Some may under-perform in State Exams to the frustration of their parents, teachers and even themselves. They may start to question their abilities when they don’t fit into the exam success box. They may follow their passions which may not “count” in the future points race. They might even question the “point” of the points race before they get to the Leaving Cert! Along the way they may show flashes of brilliance and excellence in certain subjects or areas. They can demonstrate erratic performance in school, from complete mastery to average or mediocre levels, depending on their interest, their teacher or their passions. The creative among them often sing from a completely different hymn-sheet, some may not even see the point of school at all in the pursuit of their dreams. They may have a different vision of their future than the one mapped out by their parents or teachers. They may be right, but the adults in their lives may think they should have a Plan B in the form of formal educational qualifications!

So, why does it matter? Two groups of learners, one for whom the system is a good fit, the other, well, they’ll come into their own at third level. Or will they? Without going down the road of heralding the potential of gifted learners as if they are mere fodder in the pursuit of economic growth and a return to the Celtic Tiger (God forbid!) these young people, as much as any other, do have the potential to make real and significant contributions to our future society. I’m not one who likes to describe gifted children as the future cancer-cure scientists or business and political leaders because I’m uncomfortable with the implication that only gifted children hold this potential. We all know the reality is that children across the intellectual bell-curve can grow into adults just as accomplished as those with the highest IQs.

However, these exceptionally able children, for whom the educational system is an uncomfortable fit, are at risk of having their potential snuffed out by it. Whether their chosen path is at the top of academia, as a carer, a teacher or an accountant, they have a right to fulfill their personal potential. In this, gifted learners are poorly served by the Irish educational system in its current form. The inflexibility of rote-learning, the volume of prescribed material to be covered and the lack of opportunity for creativity, problem-solving or innovation in our exam system greatly reduces the chances that these young people will reach that potential. The risk is that they will be switched off learning by the time they have spent 13 or 14 years within a system that does not accommodate their needs.  The result will be that their career and life-choices may be reduced. And that is why it is important that teachers are able to accurately assess who among their pupils may be gifted as opposed to bright. From there, educators may be able to support the differences in their learning needs.

So, back to whether I should have that chat with my children’s teachers? Truth is, we’re into the first week of school now and I still haven’t decided. I don’t want to be labeled as a pushy parent in the first week of term and I don’t want unreasonable expectations placed on my kids either. On the other hand, nor do I want to short-change them by ignoring the fact that they are seldom challenged by classroom work. Maybe by the time they are heading to college I’ll have an answer to my dilemma. I’ll let you know!