Responses to Critics of Brain-Based Education

There are many different lines of “attack” that critics use. You’ll notice that nearly all of them comment about the same three issues:

1) You can’t make leaps from neuroscience to the classroom. We just don’t know enough.

It's true; there are conclusions you just can't make (yet). But there are many that you can make. The following claims are well-supported by a large body of replicated, peer-review scientific studies in reputable journals:

1) the human brain is unique; there is no "one size fits all" 2) emotions cognition and movement are highly connected; there is little separation of those factors from each other 3) context influences the learning; some kids do better under non-school conditions 4) our memories are highly malleable; even long-held memories can change and, 5) our brain is changed by experience as well as our genetic programming.

There are more, but you get the idea. I have purposely left out what I call the "neuromyths." Those are the spurious claims that are oft repeated, but thoroughly unscientific. Examples would include falsehoods such as, "We only use 10% of our brain." There is no scientific proof to that statement. I am always careful about what I call factual information (that is supported by research) and folklore or common junk-science neuromyths.

2) Critics quote other critics who claim that brain-based education isn’t valid, so they must be right.

This is the argument that says that if you find someone to agree with you, it is some kind of alleged “proof.” That is faulty reasoning. Critics often find one, two or three others who have a negative opinion about brain-based education. Then, they use that as supposedly "a proof." It is not scientific proof. Even if you find 1,000 people to agree the earth is flat, that does not make it flat.

There is a process for determining scientific evidence. That process is ongoing and continually revised. Brain-based education is being continually updated by new findings. The majority of the critics use the same tired and flawed arguments over and over. Most are rigid thinkers who have not had an original thought in 20 years. Think I'm crazy? Find a critic, then look up the body of their work. Then you decide.

3) Other critics love to question the credentials of anyone making the claims. We can all understand that approach, but there are some problems.

Many of the important discoveries in history were made by people who thought outside the box and were outside their alleged specialty. The airplane was invented and perfected by bicycle mechanics (the Wright Brothers). Einstein was a patent office clerk when he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Photo-electrics, not physics. Many in the movement are not neuroscientists—and many are reputable scientists. Credentials are only part of process. A Nobel Laureate in physics said in 1923, "There is no likelihood of tapping the power of the atom." That was Robert Millikan, president of CalTech for 25 years.

You can question Eric Jensen's credentials all you want, but very few of his peers have published 26 books, 10 journal articles, hosted 19 mind and brain conferences and made 45 visits to neuroscience laboratories. He's completing his PhD in Human Development and is a member of the invitation-only Society for Neuroscience. And all that proves is that he has been a "player" in this process, not a spectator who sits on the sidelines and criticizes others. Eric Jensen understands brain-based education so well that he actually uses it in his own trainings. I have yet to find a critic of his work who would have a clue how to implement this paradigm in education; that's the problem. Critics can't think outside their own box.

4) Who is Eric Jensen anyways? What are his credentials and why should we believe him?

Eric Jensen has spent over 20 years making connections between brain research and the classroom. It’s no wonder that those who have spent 20 days at this are unable to make connections; they don’t have the interdisciplinary background to do it. This is not criticism; it’s reality. If you don’t understand something, learn about , don’t criticize it.

BELOW ARE RESPONSES TO SOME OF THE MORE COMMONLY POSTED ATTACKS

BLOG BY: Classroom Teacher, Kevin Killion

Background on Killion...

He is a prolific reviewer on Amazon and other blogs. His educational philosophy might be summed up by one of his reviews on the book “Smart Schools, Smart Kids” (Fiske). Posted on Amazon. Killion says…

"Fiske recommends adopting 'smart school' concepts: decentralizing decision-making; requiring students to take responsibility for their own learning; using portfolios for assessing student learning rather than standardized tests; training teachers to become learning coaches rather than mere dispensers of facts, etc."

“Good heavens, that kind of touchie-feelie junk is exactly what is KILLING American education! Sheesh, does anyone actually believe these pie-in-the-sky theorists any more when they say stuff like teachers should be "learning coaches" and avoid "dispensing" discredited things like (gasp!) "facts"?...Where the heck is a parent supposed to go to find a school that still believes in real teaching (not "coaching"), real assessment (not art-heavy portfolios), and learning of factual content? Is any mainstream public school like that left?” (Killion’s exact words)

Killion’s Review of Eric Jensen’s Teaching with the Brain in Mind

Killion: The author's premise is stated on the back cover: "...Parents trust that the professionals who teach their children know something about the brain ... but most schools of education offer psychology, not neurology, courses ... [this book] fills this gap.” But this is not a science book as that premise suggests, rather, it is an idea book.

Presentation: Killion: “Eric Jensen clearly has a gift for presenting material in a way that is most likely to have an impact. In effect, his own presentation is a great illustration of the philosophy he espouses! Jensen manages to present a great deal of material in a relatively slim volume.

Killion: “How Best To Approach the Book. “Rather, the book is designed to do one thing: focus the reader's attention on some speculations of how the brain works, and how ideas about these speculations can be applied to real teaching situations and techniques. If it inspires teachers to try new methods or new approaches, or if it inspires administrators to think creatively about management and curriculum issues, it has sufficiently accomplished its goal.”

Killion: Classroom Impact. “In fact, one feature of the book that greatly appeals to some teachers is Jensen's concluding of every chapter with "Practical Suggestions", to answer the implied "so what" question with thoughts on how the insights of the chapter lead to specific implications for the classroom. But do his "Practical Suggestions" actually work?

Killion: “Which ones work better than others? Unfortunately, we have no guidance from Jensen on these questions, as there are few if any citations given for any real classroom benefits gained. Even on one of Jensen's own commercial ventures there is no solid evidence presented for positive educational impact. On Jensen's website, his "SuperCamp" is described as "the world's first and largest brain-compatible teen program", whatever that means. He discusses SuperCamp across three pages of the book but, remarkably, gives no shred of evidence that it actually accomplishes anything useful, with the single exception of a reference (with no details given) to a pop book called "The Learning Revolution". It would be terrific to learn that this 10-day program could produce lifelong benefits, or even solid short-term benefits!

Killion: “He says that "many" people "admire Hollywood teachers from movies like 'Stand and Deliver'" and he then asks, "What if such a teaching model were wrong?” In doing so, Jensen ignores the fact that Jaime Escalante (the teacher portrayed in 'Stand and Deliver') was and is a real teacher, not just a "Hollywood" teacher, whose engaging and challenging style of direct instruction was a real world success, not a "model".

Killion: Sources Used in TWBIM. “With the source as given, there is no way for the reader (or presumably Jensen himself) to evaluate the quality of the research design, the claims made by the experimenters themselves, or the suitability to real world situations.

Killion: “What About REAL Brain Research? There certainly is extensive, serious research being done on how the brain learns. However, Jensen largely ignores it at best, and is possibly unaware of it at worst.

February, 2008 -- A "risk-taking" researcher who has helped create what is fast becoming a new discipline has been awarded the first-of-its-kind prize for "Transforming Education through Neuroscience." Announced on Feb. 9 at a national interdisciplinary scientific and education conference in San Francisco, the award comes with $2500. The winner, Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, who holds a doctorate in education from Harvard, is a research fellow at the

Brain and Creativity Institute at the University of Southern California, where she works with the internationally renowned neuroscientist, Antonio Damasio.

"There are major discoveries coming out of Mary Helen's work," said Kurt Fischer, director of the Mind, Brain & Education program at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and a former adviser to Immordino-Yang.

Her research proves, "when you're learning, there's a physical change in your body," said Jay Giedd, chief of brain imaging at the child psychiatry branch of the National Institute of Mental Health, who was on the selection committee. "You are not born smart or dumb. Your brain is plastic, so to speak. You can change."

"It is the connection to how students learn and how teachers teach," said Dr. Fischer.

Awarded at the 19th meeting of the Learning & the Brain Conference, a Needham, MA-based organization promoting the most innovative and distinguished thinking on the subject, and co-sponsored by the International Mind, Brain and Education Society, the prize is expected to be awarded annually. It was established to honor an individual who represents excellence in bridging neuroscience and education, that is, applying the findings of hard science, such as fMRIs, to the improvement of classroom teaching and learning.

"Mary Helen represents the next generation of educator, someone who is as facile talking about neuroscience as she is about education," said Charles Nelson III, a pediatrician and neuroscientist at Children's Hospital in Boston, who was on the selection committee. A Harvard Medical School professor, Nelson is known for his headline-making work last year studying Romanian orphans and intelligence.

"This marriage between neuroscience and education is pretty new," said Kenneth Kosik, an eminent California neuroscientist and neurologist, who is Co-director of the Neuroscience Research Institute at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and also on the selection committee. "But people now see it as a discipline in its own right. It's a groundbreaking area for persons who could have had distinguished careers in one or the other but went out of the box. Mary Helen fits that perfectly.

"Mary Helen looked at the feedback from brain activity on how emotion [i.e., mad, sad, glad, etc.] actually related to memory and learning. Before that, it was guesswork."

Immordino-Yang, 36, was once a 7th-grade teacher. "We traditionally think of emotions as interfering with students' performance," she said. "But children should be taught to use their emotions and to be aware of them, rather than control them."

"What's so impressive about Mary Helen," adds Dr. Giedd of NIMH, "is she brings so much credibility and a pragmatic tone -- not like how scientists often talk about what we know and then walk away, leaving it up to someone else to make it happen. Teachers are eager to learn about what she says and apply it."

Indeed, the Neuro-Ed Transformation prize co-sponsor, Learning & the Brain, prides itself on the fact that at a time when so many school districts throughout the country must beg for funding of everything from bathrooms to textbooks, the invaluable teaching recommendations disclosed at its sessions can be applied in any classroom for free.

In addition to Dr. Immordino-Yang's discoveries, discussions at the Brain Conference also focused on the brand new results of MIT's esteemed John Gabrieli on how his study of 1000 children from Allegheny (PA) County showed significant ways to improve large numbers of student's reading scores in a short time -- previously the domain of private schools. And the latest from Dimitri Christakis, the intrepid University of Washington pediatrician whom Disney threatened with a lawsuit for saying "Baby Einstein" did no good. Now, says Dr. Gabrieli, these videos may indeed be harmful.

Killion: “It's quite revealing to compare what serious brain researchers are saying about education, and to compare that to Jensen's references. For example, Simon McCrea of the University of Alberta and John Mueller of the Department of Educational Psychology at the University of Calgary authored a paper, "Implications of Neuropsychology For Educators".

  • Terry Jernigan, UCSD, neuroscientist
  • Sam Goldstein, PhD, Faculty Member, University of Utah Medical School and George Mason University;
  • Neuropsychologist, Neurology, Learning and Behavior Center in Salt Lake City
  • Paula Tallal, Rutgers University, neuroscientist.
  • Bruce S. McEwen, PhD, Professor; Head of the Harold & Milliken Hatch Laboratory of Neuroendocrinology, Rockefeller University; author of The End of Stress as We Know It (2002); co-author, “Social disadvantage and adolescent stress” (2005, Journal of Adolescent Health); editor, Cerebrum 2007: Emerging Ideas in Brain Science (2007)
  • Terry Sejnowski, Salk Intitute, neuroscientist
  • Alvaro Pascual-Leone, MD, PhD, Associate Professor in Neurology, Harvard Medical School; Director, Laboratory for Magnetic Brain Stimulation; Adjunct Associate Professor in Psychiatry, Boston University; Associate at the Cognitive Neuroscience Section, Faculty of Arts and Science, Harvard University
  • Michael Merzenich, UCSF, neuroscientist
  • Charles A. Nelson III, Ph.D., Richard David Scott Chair in Pediatric Developmental Medicine Research; Harvard Medical School; Director, Laboratory of Cognitive Neuroscience; Boston Children's Hospital
  • Norman Doidge, MD, Psychiatrist; Psychoanalyst; Research Faculty, Center for Psychoanalytic Training and Research, Columbia University; Assistant Professor of Psychiatry, Department of Psychiatry, University of Toronto;
    How the Brain Learns: The Changing Human Brain and Education
  • Manfred Spitzer, MD, PhD, Neuroscientist; Professor, Medical Director, Dept. Chairman, Psychiatric Hospital, University of Ulm, Germany; Director, Transfer Center for Neuroscience and Learning; author, Learning: The Human Brain and School Life (2006), and The Mind Within the Net: Models of Learning, Thinking and Acting (2000)
  • Frances E. Jensen, MD, Professor of Neurology, Harvard Medical School; Senior Associate in Medicine; Director of Epilepsy Research
  • AND THERE ARE MANY, MANY MORE!

Killion: “What DOES Brain Research Tell Us About Education? One researcher, Dr. Paul Regnier, writes: "The idea that neuroscience has produced any findings that can help improve instruction is totally bogus.”

Killion: "You can't go from neuroscience to the classroom, because we don't know enough neuroscience."-- Kurt W. Fischer, director of the Mind, Brain and Education program at Harvard University's Graduate School of Education.

Go to: http://www.blackwellpublishing.com/journal.asp?ref=1751-2271&site=1

Killion: "There really is no research that links learning strategies or classroom methods to changes in brain structure ... Educators are making a very big mistake by wasting their time on 'brain-based' curricula."-- John T. Bruer, president of the McDonnell Foundation in St. Louis

Go to: http://www.pdkintl.org/kappan/k_v89/k0802jen.htm

Killion: "There is an enormous body of brain research, but with the brain being easily the most complicated thing we know about in the universe, we really still understand very little about it"-- Bryan D. Fantie, director of the Human Neuropsychology Laboratory and Behavioral Neurosciences Doctoral Program at American University

Killion: In a recent paper published in Educational Researcher (November 1997), Dr. John T. Bruer of the James S. McDonnell Foundation takes to task attempts to link neurology and brain research with educational theory. His paper, "Education and the Brain: A Bridge Too Far",

Killion: "Dr. Bruer has authored a truly breakthrough article on brain research and education, published in the May 1999 issue of Phi Delta Kappa's Kappan, "In Search Of ... Brain-Based Education". An article "Resisting Education's Fads" in the Christian Science Monitor (August 25, 1998.

Killion: We just don't know enough yet. People seem to feel frustrated when I say that and seem to want me to be able to tell them fun and easy ways to make learning better for kids. When you boil down the advice of the brain-based crowd it all seems to be suggestions that would be considered "good instruction."

Killion: “The Story Within the Omissions: Jensen's Odd Gaps…Killion: This is not a medical, neurological or psychological textbook:

Killion: “There is no mention of E. D. Hirsch, Jeanne Chall, Chester Finn, Diane Ravitch, Charles Sykes, Elaine McEwan or William Bennett

Killion: “Startling Omission and Why These Omissions? Why all of these omissions? Because this is not a survey book of the topic, and it is not a book of science curriculum or neuroscience. In fact, the book does not even claim to be an academically rigorous, exhaustive, or even a balanced treatment.

Killion: “So, who Is Eric Jensen? The bio given in the book for Eric Jensen is Spartan at best. For education credentials, Jensen claims to have taught "at all levels", but no specifics are provided. But Jensen does not appear to be an educational administrator, or a doctor, or a Ph.D., or a neuroscientist, or a scientist, or a psychologist. Jensen offers no credentials for science, psychology, medicine or other related areas.

James J. OKeeffe "English Teacher" (El Paso, TX)

There are good reasons aplenty to react with skepticism, if not outright indignation, to the claims of Eric Jensen and the legion of smarmy educrats who are pressuring teachers to abandon "traditional teaching styles" (and traditional standards) and become a cuddly hybrid of pop psychologists, emotional counselors, learning "facilitators" and now, if Jensen et al get their way, neurophysiologists practicing without a license.

But the first reason to object is itself a no-brainer: the author has no medical pedigree, no MD, Ph.D., or even DDS after his name, which would confer on him at least a modicum of authority from which to lecture the rest of us about brain functions. The snippet about his career on the back of the book is hardly reassuring in this regard: the author "speaks at conferences and offers trainings internationally" (at a hefty price, no doubt), has "taught at all levels" (Does that mean he ever held the same position for more than a few months?), and, naturally, has a cluster of best-selling books and a web site. One is reminded of the résumé of Stuart Smalley, the Saturday Night Live character played by Al Franken: "Stuart Smalley is a caring nurturer, a member of several twelve-step programs, but is not a licensed therapist."

OKeeffe: The fact is that among the "brain-based learning" gang there are very few prominent scientists or physicians (Can you name any of them?),

“The past decade has seen a few efforts on the part of research, education and policy communities to create a dialogue about the potential relationship between cognitive neuroscience and both the science and practice of education. Notable examples include the publications from the Centre for Educational Research and Innovation (CERI) of the OECD.

Their 2002 report on learning sciences and the brain was recently followed by a report entitled ‘Understanding the brain: The birth of a learning science’ (2007). This book evaluated state of the art knowledge and insights from the cognitive sciences and neurosciences which are pertinent to education. It gives an agenda for the future development of this field and encourages collaboration between the learning sciences, brain research, and policy organizations (p. 3).

Likewise, the report ‘Brain Lessons’ (Jolles et al., 2006) and its earlier version ‘Learning to know the Brain (Jolles et al., 2005) published under auspices of the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research stated that “the time is ripe for an active exchange between scientists from neuroscience, cognitive science, educational science and the practice of education.” Berninger and Richard’s (Berninger & Richards, 2002) book on Brain Literacy reaches out to educators and psychologists about what we know of the brain and how it might be relevant to teaching and learning.

Another example is a recent report of the German Ministry of Education that after reviewing relevant neuroscientific research concluded with ten research questions that link neuroscience and educational science (Stern, Grabner, & Schumacher, 2006). In the Netherlands, the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research in collaboration with the Ministry of Education, Culture and Science installed the ‘Brain & Learning committee’ in 2003, which organized an invitation conference on the multi-dimensional research domain in 2004, which led to the above mentioned report.

A further Dutch initiative is currently being undertaken by the “Study Centre for Technology Trends” (Rispens, in preparation). Review articles such as Byrnes and Fox (1998), Goswami (2004), Posner and Rothbard (2005), and Katzir and Paré-Blagoev (2006) furthered this dialogue by asking critical questions about the educational implications of cognitive neuroscience research. New initiatives are bibliometric analyses to explore whether there already are overlaps between the fields in the research literature (Merkx & van Koten, in preparation).

For full text, go to: http://learningandthebrain.gw.utwente.nl/Explorations%20in%20Learning%20and%20the%20Brain%20QS%20final.pdf

OKeeffe: “However, if we are going to rightly call ourselves educators, then I believe it is incumbent on all of us to employ--to borrow another popular educrat term--some "higher-order thinking skills" in examining Jensen and his reckless claims.

OKeeffe: What follows, then, is not a summary but a critique. If you prefer to have your opinions spoon-fed to you, or want to be emotionally manipulated (a practice the brain-based bunch recommends), go no further. If you are capable of reasoned, analytical thought and have any respect for empirical truth, then sally forth.

Chapter 6: "How Threats and Stress Affect Learning" … He writes…
OKeeffe: We begin by citing the Hippocratic Oath, "Do no harm"--a peculiar ploy for an author who has no medical background.

OKeeffe: The ostensible purpose of this chapter on threats is to browbeat teachers for creating threatening and stressful environments in their classrooms: "Excess stress and threat in the school environment may be the single greatest contributor to impaired academic learning" (page 52). Fair enough. The trouble starts when the author gets specific, in the next section, as to the kinds of "threats" he has in mind: not violence or peer pressure, but the customary and altogether sensible--in my brain, anyway--promise of detention that many teachers make known from the first day of school to students who are apt to misbehave. From this moment on, Jensen effectively discredits himself as a purveyor of pedagogical wisdom: he knows perfectly well that teachers already have a limited range of consequences available to them in dealing with problem students (yes, problem students do exist, and we have every right to label them as such), yet he rushes to close one of the last remaining avenues of leverage left to us,

OKeeffe: We are then subjected to a scattering of brain-facts and a matronly lecture on what a frightful thing stress is. Jensen needlessly repeats the word "chronic" or "chronically" on page 53 and elsewhere with obvious intent, which is to use pretentious clinical language to elevate the common human experience of stress to hyperbolic disease-like proportions, and to let us know that we teachers are all conspirators, however unwitting, in the medieval horror that he seems to believe today's youngsters experience in school.

OKeeffe: What ensues is a pattern that Jensen repeats throughout the whole book: six-plus pages devoted to spelling out all the insidious things teachers have done to their students in the past, and what this, in turn, has done to the students' poor precious brains, almost equating the way that American classrooms have been run for the last two hundred years with emotional abuse...followed by a scant page and a half of patronizing suggestions as to how we can reduce the threats and stress (What does "Role model appropriate emotional intelligence" mean?

OKeeffe: Does the author really believe that questions like "`How many of you think the one week due date is realistic?'" will elicit anything but the most predictable responses? Is there no circumstance in which the imaginary "Kenny" on page 60 might earn himself a harsh rebuke from the author?).

OKeeffe: The flow-charts and diagrams are ubiquitous, but the practicality is sparse. It is not necessary to describe the impact of social stress on the neurons in order to make us understand that stress has negative physiological consequences, when all of us know from common personal experience that this is so.

OKeeffe: For a book called Teaching with the Brain in Mind, we are given far more information about the brain than we are about teaching--and pointless information at that.

OKeeffe: Non-sequiturs and irrelevancies abound. For example, in the section on "Stress and Learning," the author digresses on the effects of lighting on the "soft eyeballs" of adolescents for three paragraphs, but nothing is said about how to deal with it.

OKeeffe: What can concerned teachers possibly do about the fluorescent lights in their classrooms, or the flicker of computer screens? The amygdala is mentioned on page 55 and then immediately dropped. The author is really talking about gland secretions in response to various external stimuli, but his ad hoc approach often obscures the information he's trying to convey, and creates the lurking impression that he "creatively" inserts such factual tidbits

OKeeffe: (He uses facts)… in order to seem authoritative...and, of course, to ensure that his facts line up with the opinions he wants to advance, which in this case are rather obvious: stress is bad, it makes us feel bad, and it gets in the way of learning and other productive endeavors. This does not strike me as a "cutting-edge" discovery--perhaps my amygdala is under-reacting.

Why does Jensen assume that classrooms are hostile places? Probably because he and other educrats around the country were once subjected to stressful school situations in their own childhoods, and are now determined to correct the past at the expense of the present.

OKeeffe: Yet most of the factors Jensen cites as contributing to student stress levels are beyond the control of teachers: whose fault is it that schools are overcrowded, that conditions aren't ideal and that some students come from violent or unhappy homes? Moreover, why does the author mention, but so obviously fail to deal with, the fact that public school is mandated by law, and thus will always feel like a forced situation for many kids? School causes stress because school is stressful, period. Good teachers can mitigate that truth if they wish, but they cannot eradicate it.

OKeeffe: There are also blatant instances of intellectual dishonesty. For example, Jensen employs the term "Learned Helplessness" to describe students who've given up on themselves (Note for aspiring pontificators: When writing a book, be sure to invent your own vapid and clinical-sounding language; not only will it make you look like an expert, but every time someone else wants to use your words they'll have to cite you by name forever, leading to more book sales, more speaking engagements, and maybe a guest shot on Good Morning America). Jensen acknowledges that learned helplessness is "fairly rare in most classrooms"

OKeeffe: (Which raises the obvious question: Then why spend half a chapter dwelling on it? Because its effects are "discouraging," says our author momentously) and occurs as the result of trauma; the trauma is characterized by a person's lack of control over the traumatic event and subsequent decision to explain the event to him/herself, often by assuming guilt for it.

OKeeffe: The concept of trauma is a legitimate one in clinical psychology, but the author misrepresents its effects on children by equating a school shooting with verbal broadsides by an "insensitive teacher" (page 57). When children and adults are traumatized by an event, and exhibit subsequent disabling behavior such as perpetual silence, nightmares and lack of concentration, they are suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and require help from a trained psychologist or counselor, not from a teacher.

Furthermore, Jensen leaves readers with the impression that all traumatic events are scarring when they are not--factors such as age, temperament, and source and duration of the trauma all play a part, and some children are able to bounce back and recover from traumatic events ("Coping With Trauma," Child Magazine, November 1999). The author would clearly have us believe that any stern display of authority by a teacher is potentially scarring and to be avoided at all costs...such is the distorted thinking commonly engaged in by today's education reformers. Pity the trampled young soul subjected to so much as a reprimand or a scolding, no matter how much he/she/it might need it, and off with the heads of any beastly teachers with the impertinence to correct their own students.

Chapter 7: "Motivation and Rewards"

OKeeffe: In this chapter we uncover the pièce de résistance in the propaganda of the brain-based learning movement; the jewel in their crown of nonsense. The key to learning is "intrinsic motivation," say these latter-day sophists, and the only way to get intrinsic motivation is to make the curriculum "relevant" and "student-centered." Students should be taught how to think through "hands-on activities" that engage "critical thinking skills," are "outcome-based" and "developmentally appropriate," and are not graded objectively but evaluated through "authentic assessment." Teachers themselves are steeped in "best practices" that are "researched-based" [i.e. of uncertain value and prone to gimmickry]. Therefore all traditional forms of teaching are suspect and should be thrown out the window--no more book-learning, no more merciless "drill and kill," no more stressful tests, and above all, no more reliance on knowledge, because knowledge is "constructed" by the learners themselves and objective knowledge doesn't exist anyway. What hooey.

OKeeffe: The fallacy of intrinsic motivation has become so rampant in educrat circles that it is nothing short of stupefying--how can so many people who have allegedly devoted their lives to the pursuit and transmission of knowledge subscribe to ideas that are so patently illogical and contradictory? Webster's Collegiate Dictionary defines the word intrinsic in the following terms: "belonging to the real nature of a thing; not dependent on external circumstances; essential; inherent." Compare this to the following absurd statement by our author on page 67: "Most students are already intrinsically motivated; it's just that the motivation is very context-dependent." Jensen is willing to pore over hundreds of psychiatric and medical texts to justify his views, but it seems he has never bothered to pick up a dictionary.

Not that "intrinsic motivation" is the only offensive malapropism on display; here's another one, introduced on page 63 (drum-roll, please): "temporary demotivation." When students are not in the throes of chronic "learned helplessness," they are languishing in an emotional purgatory during which time they are merely "temporarily unmotivated." Note that the blame for both conditions is again laid squarely at the feet of insensitive teachers:

"A teacher's voice, tone, or gestures may remind a student of a previous, disliked teacher. Past failures may trigger such feelings, as can memories of consistently failing a subject or having an embarrassing or 'catastrophic' downfall in a class. An original significant threat can be re-triggered by a much smaller incident." (Page 64)

OKeeffe: Presto! Instant verbiage: demotivation. One might expect our author to use a word like "unmotivation" because of the existing adjective "unmotivated," but that is clearly not surreptitious enough for our purposes--the prefix un-, when used with a noun, simply means "not," but we want to include the message that something has been done to our poor "demotivated" student to cause his condition, something that occurred to him and was not in any way associated with his own prior behavior, and so the prefix de- is added instead. A little euphemistic brainwashing before dinner, anyone?

OKeeffe: Could we not substitute the phrase "temporary laziness" for "temporary demotivation" without any loss of meaning? Isn't a lack of motivation the very essence of laziness? Of course it is, but don't leave it to our astute author to point that out. He is going to elaborate lengths in choosing his words purely to bully us into accepting his philosophy about education.

OKeeffe: Even if we grant Jensen and his kind their wish to "do no harm," as per the Hippocratic Oath, and allow that he may not be lying or falsifying his facts outright, there is still the problem of his numerous and substantial omissions: the fact that a preponderance of students do, somehow, learn and succeed in school despite the admittedly bad conditions so many of them have to deal with, a reality which Jensen makes no effort to explain; the fact that most teachers do not make it a priority to make their students feel threatened; and most important, the fact that much of today's brain "research" is downright flaky.

OKeeffe: He hasn't provided any definitive answers about learning or about classroom practices (see quote by John Bruer below). To his credit, Jensen stops here and there to remind us that the jury is still out on a lot of this stuff...but one has to look hard for such acknowledgements. He urges teachers to use their classes as "guinea pigs" and to let their students in on what they are doing.

OKeeffe: Essentially, he invites us to behave like amateur scientists and to draw conclusions from what we observe, no matter how misinformed those conclusions might be. I believe this is the same as inviting us to commit a form of teacher malpractice. Where does the Hippocratic Oath fit into such logic? Finally, as if we needed any more evidence that something is rotten in Denmark,

OKeeffe: the art of opportunism and the modern culture of self-promotion both rear their ugly heads in the middle of Chapter 7. Jensen pauses to insert an eight-paragraph infomercial promoting his own "SuperCamp," a "10-day academic immersion program" for at-risk students. Regardless of SuperCamp's achievements, which may be real and commendable, the author creates an ethical problem by citing as his only major example of the validity of his ideas a commercial entity in which he, as co-founder, has an obvious personal stake. (A quick check of SuperCamp's web site reveals that tuition for a single student costs upwards of $700; the web site boasts the usual "ecstatic satisfied customer" vignettes one would expect to see in an aggressive marketing campaign, and offers free brochures and a CD to entice visitors.) This is clearly inappropriate in a book that purports to represent objective science. One does not see Stephen Hawking pausing in the middle of A Brief History of Time to solicit people to register for his university courses, or Albert Einstein interrupting his famous paper on the theory of relativity to mention the great two-week seminars he gives on the subject. This is the hallmark of latter-day "self-help" gurus like Shirley MacLaine and Tony Robbins. If Jensen wants to be a shill, he should utilize late-night television and refrain from imposing himself on teachers via the pretext of "professional development."

Conclusion

OKeeffe: The snake-oil and lightning-rod salesmen of old at least had the sense to get out of town before their faulty products backfired on their customers, and the truth behind their phony sales pitches was discovered. What makes today's fad-peddlers in education like Jensen and Howard Gardner (of "multiple intelligences" fame) so insidious is that their claims, by their very design, are not subject to immediate empirical scrutiny, and so they are allowed to go on perpetuating them without answering to anyone. Corner them with facts and criticism, and they equivocate with defensive reductio ad absurdum statements, like, "I do not suggest teachers throw caution to the wind and apply 50 things expecting miracles" (as Jensen said in an interview with a UCLA quarterly), or cite anecdotal and often biased evidence for their silly claims--e.g., Jensen's own "SuperCamp"--something we should all hope a neuroscientist would never do.

Another reason is that, like religious fundamentalists who misuse the Bible, the brain-based bunch have gathered just enough persuasive scientific truth to induce us all into following them off the proverbial cliff--again, this is selective perception at work. Seeking to remake public education in their own image, to build their careers and establish the appearance of credibility, they are willing to inflate a few modestly insightful discoveries about the brain's physiology into the basis for reform, even while those doing the actual research are still scratching their heads, as illustrated in a quote from the Christian Science Monitor article mentioned earlier: "The gap between the research community and the practitioner community is much wider than what you'd find between practicing engineers and physicists," says John Bruer, president of the St. Louis-based James S. McDonnell Foundation, which supports educational and biomedical research...."We just don't know enough about how the brain works to make claims about brain-based curricula."

OKeeffe: To send the entire teaching profession bolting pell-mell into such dubious territory, with the intellectual future of the next generation at stake, is not the behavior of educated people--it is the behavior of swindlers and opportunists. To challenge their claims is not simply "reactionary" or "negative," it is responsible and wholly appropriate, particularly when they are attempting to alter the means of education itself, to inspire mindless "group-think" (i.e., professional peer-pressure) and to intimidate us with selective half-truths. “

JENSEN REPLIES WITH THE FOLLOWING, REPRINTED FROM PDK INTERNATIONAL Journal of Education (Feb 2007) pgs. 408-417..

Jensen Learning