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.
This argument is the exact same one being used by critics of climate change, saying that, “We just aren’t 100% sure about it, so let’s wait a few decades.” This argument would be fine if no lives were at stake. But they are! Lives are at stake with climate change and they are at stake in the classroom. As long as we have no downside risk, it is prudent to do the best that currently know how to do.
2) Critics quote other critics who also claim that brain-based education isn’t valid (ergo, so they must be right).
This is the argument that says, “Other people agree with me, so I must be right.” That is not “proof.” The bottom line is that one, two or three thousand others having an opinion are not scientific proof. Having a 10,000 people to agree the earth is flat does not make it flat.
3) Other critics love to question the credentials of anyone making the claims. We can all understand that approach, but there are some problems.
People who thought outside the box and were outside their alleged specialty made many of the important discoveries in history. 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.
4) Who is Eric Jensen anyways? What are his credentials and why should we believe him?
Eric Jensen has been a classroom teacher. He has a BA in English, MA in Organizational Development and Ph.D. in Human Development. He spent over 20 years making connections between brain research and the classroom. It’s no wonder that those who have spent 20 hours 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 it, 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.
Jensen: Correct, it is an idea book. Teachers are smart enough to read ideas critically and sort them out for themselves. It never was presented as a science book—that’s a different type of book.
Killion’s problem is that he is reviewing the 1st edition, written in 1995. He would do well to read the revised edition, published in 2005. All of his comments are a moot issue. I read his critiques 10 years ago and every complaint has been addressed. Kevin appears to be a thoughtful, though “live in the past” teacher. After Killion has read the revised edition, we’ll read his next critique, provided he reads the rest of my rebuttal to his critique.
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.
Jensen: Different publishers have different styles that they require of an author. The book I edited in the ASCD style. If you want a different written style, go to another publisher.
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.”
Jensen: The revised 2005 edition of this book should be approached with both skepticism and a practical nature, both of which teachers are capable of. Read the new edition.
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?
Jensen: I stand behind the science of every single principle and strategy that is encouraged. Not every teacher has the same skill level in implementation, nor do they have the resources or support to pull them off. School based action research is notoriously under funded and often lacks blind or crossover experimental design. It lacks large, randomized sample populations with quality longitudinal data. The majority of so-called “practical school-based research studies” are based on flawed research and those who understand how experimental studies are put together know this.
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!
Jensen: Actually 1) SuperCamp has been independently evaluated and found to be profoundly successful. The longitudinal study was not ready at the book’s publication time.
Benn, W. (2003) “New Evaluation Study of Quantum Learning’s Impact on Achievement in Multiple Settings.” An independent assessment by William Benn and Associates, Laguna Hills, CA <email@example.com>. July, 2003
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”.
Jensen: Yes, I know that Jaime Escalante was a real person and yes, I know of his results. The point I am making is that temporary high test scores ought not to be the primary criteria for calling a teacher a success. Nobody has followed up on Escalante’s students 5 or 10 years later to find out if they are statistically any better off than a control group. This is NOT to be construed as a criticism of Escalante. It should remind teachers that one way to measure success is within the existing parameters and that’s not the only way to measure success. Escalante would be the first to agree with state tests as being too limited a measure.
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.
Jensen: “I agree with Killion, the sources in the original edition are weak. He would do well to read the revised edition, with over 400, high quality, peer-reviewed sources from journals, and over 90% are from the year 2000 or newer.
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.
Jensen: I am quite aware of a wide range of brain research that applies to education. I have made over 45 hands-on visits to real neuroscience laboratories across the United States. I have met with dozens of top-tier neuroscientists and read the journals constantly. I have frequent email contact with many neuroscientsts. Here is some recent news:
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”.
Jensen: Unfortunately, after multiple searching of high-end databases, I am unable to find the article Killion mentions. Apparently McCrea and Mueller are sports psychologists specializing in head injury. There are many good references out there, but most of the books written for psych classes are “old school” and merely updating the older research. There’s little breakthrough science. Much of the research in my new edition is so cutting edge, it does not appear in the standard neuropsych texts. In other words, many of the current available references are not very cutting edge. The people he mentions do not appear to be neuroscientists (which would qualify, by the way, as a brain researcher). Here are some examples (just a few) of those who support taking neuroscience into the classroom, something Killion says cannot happen! Here are just some of the supporters of taking neuroscience into the classroom:
- 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.”
Jensen: The so-called “researcher” mentioned above is a professor in comparative literature. Others that you mentioned (John Bruer, is President of the James S. McDonnell Foundation. Regnier is dead wrong: Here are two specific, concrete examples of neuroscience providing findings that have improved instruction:
Three neuroscientists, Dr. Steven Miller (Rutgers University, Dr. Michael Merzenich (UCSF) and Dr. Paula Tallal (Rutgers) have created a powerful reading improvement program. More than 700 publications have described the research behind Fast ForWord, and over 85 research studies have confirmed students’ academic gains; clinical trials funded by the National Institutes of Health have confirmed the products’ efficacy. Perhaps the biggest success is that over 655,000 students to date have benefited.
Temple, E., Deutsch, G. K., Poldrack, R. A., Miller, S.L., Tallal, P., Merzenich, M. M., & Gabrieli, J. D. E. (2003). Neural deficits in children with dyslexia ameliorated by behavioral remediation: Evidence from functional MRI. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 100(5), 2860-2865.
A Yale Team works in close collaboration with Professor Jim Tanaka and his research group. They have used research straight from neuroscience blended with computer programming to create the Lets Face It! Computer games. These are face recognition software games for kids with autistic spectrum disorders. They have finished beta testing and are moving to the next level.
Tanaka, J., Klaiman, C., Koenig, K., & Schultz, R. T. (May, 2005). Plasticity of the neural mechanisms underlying face processing in children with ASD: Behavioral improvements following perceptual training on faces. Poster presented at the International Meeting for Autism Research, Boston, MA.
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.
Jensen: This is an outdated quote from a very reputable person. Today, Dr. Fischer heads up Harvard’s masters and doctoral program in brain-based education (I love the irony) and says, “… the program’s broadest mission is to create a new field of mind, brain, and education, with educators and researchers who expertly join biology, cognitive science, and education.” Does that sound like he’s a critic? He’s seen the light, he’s on board and part of the movement. See the upcoming article for more. Go to: http://www.blackwellpublishing.com/journal.asp?ref=1751-2271&site=1
There are reputable, scientific, peer-reviewed studies that show it, too. An overwhelming body of evidence shows student’s brain are altered by how we teach reading (Temple, et al. 2003), how we are learning vocabulary (Lee, et al., 2007), by studying for tests (Draganski, et al, 2006), or by learning to play a musical instrument (Gaser and Schlaug, 2003).
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
Jensen: Of course the brain is complex. So should we all quit teaching and go home? Yet in spite the brain’s complexity, we all take aspirin, some of us have had brain surgery and 100’s of other medications are taken to help our brain work better. Just because something’s complex, that doesn’t mean we should ignore it. As a leader in the brain-based movement, I have reminded educators that they should never say, “Brain research proves….” because it does not prove anything. It may however suggest or strengthen the value of a particular pathway.” These studies suggest that XYZ may be true about the brain. What educators should say is the following… “Given that insight, it may makes sense for us, under these conditions, to use the following strategies in schools.” This approach, which is cautionary and not causal, sticks with the truth. When one is careful, the connections are there for those with an open mind.
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”,
Jensen: This is an older paper and I have already shown a response to Bruer’s publication. Google: PDK, February 2008, “A Fresh Look at Brain-Based Education,” for the article.
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.”
Jensen: Even if everything I suggest is known by some teacher, somewhere, that’s no reason to dismiss it. But many don’t know the new research. Educators, unfortunately, are full of truisms that they “already know.” For example, the old saw “the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree” is trotted out thousands of times a year by educators who “already know” the impact of genes on a kid’s academic and behavioral profile. But that supposed truism (and countless others) is dead wrong.
The new field of epigenetics (“outside of the gene” influences) tells us that there are dozens of environmental experiences that can and do alter gene expression, including the expression of genes that affect the brain and our behavior. Altering gene expression allows for a biological responsiveness to environmental input that cannot be accounted for by heredity.
This, in turn, opens up a whole new set of potential options for seeking behavioral and academic change in students. The triggers for gene expression include simple everyday strategies that teachers can use. Student I.Q., parental intelligence, and traditional gene profiles are seen today to mean far less than they used to. All school administrators ought to be reading Bruce Lipton’s Biology of Belief or Enriching the Brain (Eric Jensen) before they make any outdated comments about genes and the predictive powers of their observations based on meeting the parents. What some educators claim, “they already know” scares me.
I meet with neuroscientists from all over the world. Some feel we can’t yet say what to do, and others feel that we do have enough to say. Anybody can pick his or her supporter. That’s not a scientific argument. There’s a lot of turf protecting going on and we might as well say it. A well-respected neuroscientists and outspoken critic, Dr. Pasko Rakic was very outwardly critical and condescending of other neuroscientists (Altman, Gage and Gould) who were claiming the brain could grow new neurons. He turned out to be dead wrong. If top-ranking scientists are criticizing their colleagues and are wrong about it, what does that say about science in general? Of course there are gaps, ignorances and jealousies. It’s the human race!
Killion: “The Story Within the Omissions: Jensen’s Odd Gaps…Killion: This is not a medical, neurological or psychological textbook:
Jensen: The book was not intended to be that. Read the current version. You would be, I would hope, hesitant to review a copy of the Encyclopedia Britannica 1970 version. Well, in neuroscience, 10 years is equal to about 50 years. Time to get updated.
Killion: “There is no mention of E. D. Hirsch, Jeanne Chall, Chester Finn, Diane Ravitch, Charles Sykes, Elaine McEwan or William Bennett.
Jensen: I am not sorry I didn’t mention Killion’s favorite theorists. They are not mentioned in every book and not appropriate for every educational book. 1) the book is not about all the other theorists in education and 2) some of those mentioned above may have (or not) contributed to problems that schools have now. There isn’t enough data to show either way. E.D. Hirsch, as an example, is quite brilliant academically, but I don’t believe his ideas fit for the 21st century.
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.
Jensen: You are correct—it is not a science book. That’s a different theme and different topic.
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.
Jensen: Yes, I have a PhD. in Human Development. I have 10 published articles. You are correct, I am not a neuroscientist. Why? Because they rarely teach and most could not have written a book teachers could either understand or use.
I have taught at USD, UCSD and National University as adjunct faculty. I taught reading and study skills to adolescents. Taught communication skills to adults. Worked in summer camps for five years and I have worked in schools in 9 countries for over 20 years. I’m in the invitation-only Society For Neuroscience, and it is not a “free-pass” club. It requires nomination by two neuroscientists to get in and membership does not come easy.
I have written over 28 books and every one of them involves dedication and research. Writing helps me stay a lifelong learner, which I espouse for all teachers. I have met with over 50 neuroscientists in the last 15 years, and visited over 45 neuroscience labs across the country.
I think you should know that our government now prefers neuroscience that applies to the consumer. This is what I was promoting ten years ago and I can take some credit for the national progress via my national conferences, which bring an interface for educators and neuroscientists.
Every critic can find someone, somewhere to agree with him or her. Every critic can find a research article to support his or her cause. But Killion needs to get updated.
If any of you want to go criticize someone, go to Harvard and criticize their brain based degree programs run by Dr. Kurt Fischer. Go write a critical article in the International Mind, Brain and Education journal and see if YOU can get it past the peer review.
Today, ten years after the mudslinging criticism of brain-based education, by critics, it’s appropriate to say, “We were more right than wrong.” In fact, because of the efforts of the brain-based community to inform educators, thousands are currently using this knowledge appropriately to enhance educational policy and practice. There are degree programs in it, scientific journals, conferences and the peer-reviewed brain-related research now supports the discipline. There are countless neuroscientists who support the movement and they demonstrate their support by writing and speaking at educational conferences.
The science may come from a wide range of disciplines. Brain-based education is not a panacea or magic bullet to solve all of education’s problems. Anyone who represents that to others is misleading them. It is not yet a program, a model or package for schools to follow. The discussion of how to improve student learning must widen from axons and dendrites to the big picture. That bigger picture is that our brain is involved with everything we do at school. The brain is the most relevant feature to explore, because it affects every strategy, action, behavior and policy at your school. New journals explore essential topics such as social conditions, exercise, neurogenesis, arts, stress and nutrition. A school cannot remove arts, career education and physical education and at the same time, claim to be doing what’s best for the brain of their students. These are the issues we must be exploring, not whether someone can prove whether a teacher’s strategy was used before or after a neuroscience study provided peer-reviewed support for that strategy.
Today, there is still criticism, but voices are no longer a chorus, they’re a diminishing whine. For the critic, it’s still “my way or the highway.” That’s an old, tired theme among critics; the tactic of dismissing another’s research by narrowing the discussion to irrelevant issues such as whether the research is cognitive science, neurobiology or psychology. They’re all about the mind and brain. The real issues that we should be talking about are what environmental, instructional and social conditions can help us enrich the student’s lives that we have been entrusted with developing. To answer that, it’s obvious that everything that our brain does is relevant and that’s what should now be on the table for discussion.
Yes, I have made mistakes of omission and those of insufficient research. But as I review the older edition, there is nothing that has been shown to be wrong. Yes, we are in the infancy of brain research–there’s so much more to learn that we don’t know. But dismissing it is not only shortsighted but also dead wrong. At this early stage, that would be like calling the Wright Brothers first flight at Kitty Hawk a failure because it only went a few hundred yards. And let’s remember, the Wright brothers had no credibility either; they were actually bicycle mechanics, not aviators. The future belongs not to the turf protectors, but to those with vision who can grasp interdisciplinary trends, as well as the big picture. Nothing is more relevant to educators than your brain or the brains of your students, parents, or staff. Brain-based education is here to stay.
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.”
Jensen: One of the most common strategies of critics is to impugn the credibility of the author. Then when the author has credibility, the critic turns to personal attacks. I prefer to stick with the actual content of the book, but for those who are wondering who I am….
I am a staff developer by profession with a PhD. program in Human Development. You are correct, I am not a neuroscientist. I am a passionate and thorough lifelong learner. I have taught at three major universities (USD, UCSD and National University) as adjunct faculty. I taught reading and study skills at the middle and high school level in San Diego schools. I worked in an academic enrichment summer camp for five years and I have worked in schools globally (in 9 countries including Hong Kong, Denmark, Johannesburg, Singapore, New Zealand and U.K.) for over 20 years. My membership in the Society For Neuroscience is not a “free-pass” club. It requires nomination by two neuroscientists to get in.
I have written over 28 books and every one of them involves substantial research. Writing helps me stay a lifelong learner, which I espouse for all teachers. I have met with over 50 neuroscientists in the last 10 years, and visited over 45 neuroscience labs across the country. I have spent nearly 20 years researching the brain, probably much more than any of the critics who love to hear themselves talk or love to see their work in print.
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?)
Jensen: Yes I can name them. Critics love to criticize, but doing homework is what counts. Among those who work with the “brain-based” field are Dr. Kurt Fischer (Harvard), Dr. Edwin Barea-Rodriguez (UT San Antonio), Dr. Silvia Bunge (US Davis), Dr. Michael Merzenich (UCSF), Dr. Paula Tallal (Rutgers), Dr. Daniel Amen (Newport, CA). By the way, how many was I supposed to name?
“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.
Jensen: I am still awaiting in your critique for a “reckless claim” in which 1) my science is wrong 2) the brain principle is wrong 3) the suggested strategy does not work or 4) what I suggest would not work in a classroom or could cause damage. The fact is, there is not proof behind this his statement. Zero.
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.
Jensen: Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but not to their own facts. O’Keefe has his facts wrong. Here’s an illustration of that…
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.
Jensen: So, I’m guessing only people with an M.D. are allowed to use statements like this?
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,
Jensen: It’s good to know your studies. The number one, strongest, contributing factor to kids graduating from high school is…attendance. Everyday at school that’s a positive one increases attendance likelihood. Every day suspended contributes to kids disliking school. I never have and never will say kids should NEVER be suspended. There’s a difference between having a nuclear option and constant saber rattling to prove how macho one is. Sometimes suspension is the best option. Most of the time is comes from poor classroom management skills.
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.
Jensen: I am sorry is the word “chronic” is matronly, complicated or medical. Most teachers understand that what the word means and they get that it’s an economical and accurate word for the condition described. Unfortunately, the critic doesn’t know the statistics. One in five kids in America have a stress or anxiety disorder (depression, learned helplessness, generalized anxiety disorder, PTSD or reactive attachment disorder). This data is from the U.S. Surgeon General (2005). For the critic to treat this as some freaky or rare disorder is very uninformed and insensitive.
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?
Jensen: Most teachers understand that it’s their role to show empathy when a student is hurt, excitement when a student succeeds and sadness when there is loss. But there are teachers who don’t know this (we’ve all had a few of those). This book reminds teachers of the power of mirror neurons and how they translate into emotional/social intelligence.
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.
Jensen: Actually, it’s not common personal experiences to know that chronic or acute stress damages neurons. Neuroscientists did not know this until just a few years ago.
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.
Jensen: The book not a general book on everything we know about teaching. That’s a different category.
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
Jensen: If I don’t add research, I am criticized, if I do, they are called factual tidbits. Actually I am using the three largest studies on classroom lighting ever done in the last 20 years.
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.
Jensen: So I’m guessing from this comment that correcting flaws from the past is a bad idea?
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.
Jensen: Wow, this is a clear “victim” mentality. It’s clear that he doesn’t understand that school is NOT stressful. People feel stressed, but buildings and properties are not stressful (unless you’re talking about toxins in the water, or asbestos). Only when educators recognize the everyday stressors can they begin to take control of their lives. The fact is, that great schools do influence their kids to a greater degree than those schools that have lower achievement.
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”
Jensen: “Learned Helplessness” is no invention; it’s been around for over 20 years. I did not invent it. It’s the title of a landmark book, Learned Helplessness by Peterson, Maier and Seligman (1993). If you don’t get out much or read widely, you might not know this term. Our critic shows his ignorance here. A pioneer in psychology and lifetime achievement winner, Dr. Martin Seligman, professor at University of Pennsylvania coined the term during the 1980’s. It’s not common overall (under 10%) in some schools and communities, it may be as high as 20-40%.
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.
Jensen: The reason I dwell on it is that you were clueless—you had never even heard of it. Maybe other teachers found it fresh information, too. No guilt intended (unless your upbringing embeds guilt in everything).
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.
Jensen: That’s not what I implied or said. Children are more vulnerable to trauma than adults and it is the exception that copes with trauma well, not the rule. I have never advocated a “no discipline” policy.
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.
Jensen: I never, ever advocated the things that are said in this paragraph. It’s more ranting from an uninformed reader.
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)
Jensen: The path is becoming quite clear here. The critic has determined that kids have a brain that is to be filled and drilled by authoritarian teachers who are free to make threatening comments to students to “shape them up.” And, on top of that, “It’s never the teacher’s fault!” His class must be a lot of fun. Anyone want to go visit?
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?
Jensen: I guess this critic just can’t relate to either new word.
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.
Jensen: Now we get the drift: kids are lazy. Well, there you have it: (according to this critic): there’s only so much we can do because after all – this critic says they’re lazy. (that’s baloney!)
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.
Jensen: He should look up the 400 peer-reviewed journal articles cited in Teaching with the Brain in Mind and call the scientists and tell them their work is flaky. Those are the resources I use in my work.
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.
Jensen: This practice, called “action research” is actually encouraged by neuroscientists. If you are not systematically learning from your teaching, you’re not keeping up.
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.
Jensen: Is this an ethnic comment about my last name?
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.”
Jensen: This is not the only reference of my original work in action. I post hundreds of schools on my website. Secondly, I sold my half of SuperCamp almost 20 years ago and do not make a penny from it. His continual rants suggest tremendous hostility, jealousy or ignorance. It’s pathetic. I mention these because teachers ought to know that there are programs that put these strategies in practice.
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.”
Jensen: This quote is from John Bruer and his comments above are related to curriculum, not instruction or environment. And, that’s his opinion, and he’s entitled to it.
But show me evidence, not quotes. Quoting someone else who supports your point of view is not evidence. Even today, in primitive cultures, you could find thousands of ignorant people who would say that we live on a flat earth and the sun circles the earth.
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.
“A Fresh Look at Brain-Based Education”
Over ten years ago, John Bruer, President of the James S. McDonnell Foundation initiated a series of articles about brain-based education. They included “Education and the brain: a bridge too far” (1997), “In Search of Brain-Based Education” (1999) and most recently, “On the Implications of Neuroscience Research for Science Teaching and Learning: Are There Any? (2006). Essentially, Bruer argued that educators should ignore neuroscience and focus on what psychologists and cognitive scientists had already discovered about teaching and learning. His message to educators was “hands off the brain research,” and he predicted it would be 25 years before we see practical classroom applications of the new brain research. Bruer linked brain-based education with tabloid mythology by announcing that, (if brain-based education is true)… “The pyramids were built by aliens — to house Elvis” (Bruer, 1999, pg. 655).
Because of Bruer’s (and others) critiques, many educators decided they’re simply not capable of understanding the how our brain works. Other educators may have decided that neuroscience has nothing to offer and the prudent path would be simply ignore the brain research for now and follow the yellow brick road to NCLB. Maybe some went so far as to say, “What’s the brain got to do with learning?” But this article will argue that the decision by forward-thinking educators to persist in the brain-based education movement was absolutely correct. Brain-based education has withstood the test of time and an accumulating body of empirical and experiential evidence confirms the validity of the new paradigm.
Many educationally significant, even profound, brain-based discoveries have occurred in recent years such as neurogenesis, the production of brain new neurons in the human brain. It is highly likely that these discoveries would have been ignored if the education profession hadn’t been primed, alerted and actively monitoring cognitive neuroscience research and contemplating its implications and applications. I will discuss how understanding the brain and the complementary research can have practical educational applications.
I will make a case that the narrowing of the discussion to only neurobiology (and excluding other brain-related sciences) diminishes the opportunity for all of us to learn about how we learn and batter ways to teach. In addition, I will show how the synergy of biology, cognitive science and education can support better education with direct application to schools. Traditionally, critics have played a role every major shift in paradigm shift. Sometimes the critic’s role is that of a watchdog, other times it is that of a naysayer. The role of critics will also be explored.
In 1983, a new paradigm was introduced, one which established connections between brain function and educational practice. In a groundbreaking book, Human Brain, Human Learning, Leslie Hart argued, among other things, that cognitive processes were significantly impaired by classroom threat (Hart, 1983). While not an earthshaking conclusion, the gauntlet was thrown down as if to say, “If we ignore how our student brain works, we will risk student success.” Many have tied brain function to either new models of thinking Gardner, (1983) or classroom pedagogy Caine and Caine (1991), Sousa (2005) and Jensen (2005). A field has emerged known as “brain-based” education and it has now been well over twenty years since this “connect the dots” approach has begun. In a nutshell, brain based education says, “Everything we do uses our brain; let’s learn more about it and apply that knowledge.”
While a discussion on this topic could fill books, not articles, the focus here will be on two key issues. First, how can we define the terms, scope and role of brain research in education? What in fact, are the disciplines and relevant issues that educators should be concerned about and made aware of? I will suggest that the issues that educators should care should be multidisciplinary. Evidence will show that “brain-based” is not a loner’s fantasy or narrow-field paradigm; it’s a significant educational paradigm of the 21st century. Second, what is the evidence (if any) that brain research can actually help educators do our job better? Is there now credibility to this burgeoning field? What issues have critics raised? Can the brain-based advocates respond to the critics in an empirical way?
Defining Brain-Based Education
Let’s start this discussion with a simple, but essential premise: the brain is intimately involved in and connected with, everything educators and students do at school. Any disconnect is a recipe for frustration and potentially, disaster. Brain-based education is best understood in three words: engagement, strategies and principles. Brain-based education is the “engagement of strategies based on principles derived from an understanding of the brain.” Notice it does not say, “Based on strategies given to us from neuroscientists.” That’s not appropriate. Notice it does not say, “Based on strategies exclusively from neuroscience and no other discipline.” The question is, “Are the approaches and strategies based on solid research from brain-related disciplines or are they based on myths, a well-meaning mentor teacher or from “junk science?” We would expect an educator to be able to support the use of a particular classroom strategy with a scientific reasoning or studies.
Each educator ought to be professional enough to say, “Here’s why I do what I do.” I would ask: Is the person actually engaged in using what they know, or simply having knowledge about it, but not actually using it? Are they using strategies based on the science of how our brain works? Brain-based education is about the professionalism of knowing why one strategy is used over another. The science is based on what we know about how our brain works. It’s the professionalism to be research-based in one’s practices. Keep in mind that if you don’t know why you do what you do, it’s less purposeful and less professional. It’s probably your collected, refined wisdom. Nothing wrong with that, but some of the “collected, refined wisdom” has led to some bad teaching, too. While I have, for years, advocated “brain-based” education, I never have promoted it as the “exclusive” or only discipline for schools to consider. That’s narrow-minded. But, on the other hand, the brain in involved in everything we do at school. To ignore it, is irresponsible. Now, an appropriate question is, “Where exactly is this research coming from?”
The New Broader Scope of Brain Based Education
Brain-based education has evolved over the years. Initially, it seemed focused on establishing a vocabulary with which to understand the new knowledge. As a result, many of us heard about (for the first time) axons, dendrites serotonin, dopamine, the hippocampus and the amygdala. That was the “first generation” of brain basics, the generation that introduced a working platform for today’s generation. There was no harm in doing that, but knowing a few words from a neuroscience textbook certainly doesn’t make anyone a better teacher. Times have changed. The brain-based movement has moved from its infancy of new words and pretty brain scans. What was needed then was a stronger scientific vocabulary with which we can digest a new knowledge base.
Today’s knowledge base comes from a rapidly emerging set of brain-related disciplines. It wasn’t just highly regarded journals such as Nature, Science and the Journal of Neuroscience. Every people-related discipline involves the brain. As an example, psychiatry is now guided by the journal Biological Psychiatry and nutrition is better understood by educators in Nutritional Neuroscience. Sociology is guided by the journal of Social Neuroscience. Some critics assert that sociology, physical fitness, psychiatry, nutrition, psychology, cognitive science are not “brain-based.” That’s absurd because if you removed the brain’s role from any of those disciplines, there is no discipline. There is no separation of brain, mind, body, feelings, social contacts or their respective environments. That assertion is all old school “turf-based” and outdated. If the research involves the brain in any way, it is “brain-based.” The brain is involved in everything we do.
The current model of brain-based education is highly interdisciplinary. Antonio Damasio is the Van Allen Distinguished Professor and head of the department of neurology at the University of Iowa Medical Center and is an adjunct professor at the Salk Institute in La Jolla, California. He’s the recipient of numerous awards and has been inducted into the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences. Damasio says, “…the relation between brain systems and complex cognition and behavior, can only be explained satisfactorily by a comprehensive blend of theories and facts related to all the levels of organization (italics added) of the nervous system, from molecules, and cells and circuits, to large-scale systems and physical and social environments…we must beware of explanations that rely on data from one single level, whatever the level may be” (Damasio, 2001, pg.2). Any single discipline, even cognitive neuroscience, should be buttressed by other disciplines. While earlier writings did not reflect it, today we know that brain-based learning is cannot be founded on neuroscience; we have learned that it requires a multidisciplinary approach. The brain is involved in everything we do and it takes many approaches to understand it better.
The Brain is Our Common Denominator
Today, many of the school and learning-related disciplines are now looking to the brain for answers. There’s no separating the role of the brain and the influence of classroom groupings, the lunchroom foods, school architecture, mandated curriculum and state assessments. Each of them affects the brain and our brain affects each of them. Schools, assessment, environments and instruction are not bound by one discipline such as cognitive science, but multiple disciplines. In short, schools work to the degree that the brains in the schools are working well. When there’s a mismatch between the brain and the environment, something at a school will suffer.
The fact is, schools present countless opportunities to affect student’s brains. Issues such as stress, exercise, nutrition and social conditions are all relevant, brain-based issues that impact cognition, attention, classroom discipline, attendance and memory. Our new understanding is that every school day changes the student’s brains in some way. Once we make those connections, we can make choices in how we prioritize policies and strategies. Here are some of the powerful connections for educators to make in our new understanding of the new brain-based paradigm.
1. Highly relevant is the recent discovery that the human brain can and does grow new neurons. Many survive and become functional. Now we now know that new neurons are highly correlated with memory, mood and learning. Of interest to educators is that this process can be regulated by our everyday behaviors, which include exercise, lower stress, and nutrition. Schools can and should influence these variables. This discovery came straight from neuroscientists Gerd Kempermann and Fred Gage.
2. Social conditions influence our brain in ways we never knew before. The discovery of mirror neurons by Iaccomo Rizzolati (and colleagues) at the University of Parma in Italy suggests a vehicle for an imitative reciprocity in our brain. School behaviors are highly social experiences, which become encoded through our sense of reward, acceptance, pain, pleasure, coherence, affinity and stress. This emerging discipline is explored in Social Neuroscience – a new academic journal exploring how social conditions affect the brain. This understanding suggests we be more proactive in managing the social environment of students, since they are more affected by it than we earlier thought. It may unlock clues to those with autism, since their mirror neurons are inactive. This discovery suggests that schools NOT allow random social grouping and work to strengthen prosocial conditions.
3. The ability of the brain to rewire and remap itself via neuroplasticity is profound. The new Journal of Neuroplasticity explores these and related issues. Schools can influence this process through skill building, reading, meditation, arts, career and technical education and thinking skills that build student success. The evidence is compelling that when the correct skill-building protocol, verified by the work of neuroscientists Michael Merzenich and Paula Tallal is used, we educators can make positive and significant changes in our brain in a short time. Without understanding the “rules for how our brain changes” educators can waste time, money and students will fall through the cracks.
4. Chronic stress is a very real issue at schools for both staff and students. Homeostasis is no longer a guaranteed “set point.” The discovery championed by neuroscientist Bruce McEwen is of a revised metabolic state called “allostasis” …an adjusted new baseline for stress in the brain evident in brains of those with anxiety and stress disorders. These pathogenic allostatic stress loads are becoming increasingly common and have serious health, learning and behavior risks. This issue affects attendance, memory, social skills and cognition. Acute and chronic stress is explored in the Journal Stress, the International Journal of Stress Management, the Journal of Anxiety, Stress and The Journal of Traumatic Stress.
5. Old school was “environment versus genes” in deciding the outcome of a student. We now know that there’s a third option for change: gene expression. This is the capacity of our genes to respond to chronic or acute environmental input. This new understanding highlights a new vehicle for change in our students. Neuroscientist Bruce Lipton and Ernest Rossi have written for the laypersons how our everyday behaviors can influence gene expression (Lipton, 2005 and Rossi, 2002). New journals called Gene Expression, Gene Expression Patterns and Nature Genetics explore the mechanisms for epigenetic (outside of genes) changes. Evidence suggests that gene expression can be regulated by what we do at schools and that these can enhance or harm long-term change prospects.
6. Good nutrition is about far more than avoiding obesity. The journal of Nutritional Neuroscience and the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition explore the effects of what we eat on our brain. The effects on cognition, memory, attention, stress and even intelligence are now emerging. Schools that pay attention to nutrition and cognition (not just obesity) will likely support better student achievement.
7. The role of the arts in schools continues to be under great scrutiny. Five neuroscience departments and universities (University of Oregon, Harvard, Univ. of Michigan, Dartmouth, and Stanford currently have projects studying the impact of arts on the brain. Arts and Neuroscience is a new journal that tracks the connections being made by researchers. This is a serious topic for neuroscience and it should be for educators also. Issues being explored are whether arts have transfer value and the possibility of developmentally sensitive periods for arts.
8. The current high stakes testing environment means some educators are eliminating recess, play or physical education from the daily agendas. The value of exercise to the brain was highlighted in a recent cover story in Newsweek. More importantly, there are continual studies in The Journal of Exercise or Pediatric Exercise Science or Journal of Exercise Physiology Online. The discovery is that exercise is strongly correlated with increased brain mass, better cognition, mood regulation and new cell production. This information was unknown a generation ago.
9. Stunning strides in rehabilitation of brain-based disorders including fetal alcohol, autism, retardation, strokes and spinal cord injury. The discovery that aggressive behavioral therapies, new drugs and revolutionary stem cell implantation can be used to influence, regulate and repair brain-based disorders. Now we have the Journal of Rehabilitation and The International Journal of Rehabilitation Research. These journals showcase innovations suggesting special education students may be able to improve far more than we earlier thought.
10. The discovery that environments alter our brains is profound. This research goes back decades to the early work of the first trailblazing biological psychologists Mark Rosenzweig at UC Berkeley and Bill Greenough at the University of Illinois, Champagne-Urbana. In fact, a new collaboration has emerged between neuroscientists and those who design environments (architects). Their website reads… “The mission of the Academy of Neuroscience for Architecture is to promote and advance knowledge that links neuroscience research to a growing understanding of human responses to the built environment.” This is highly relevant for administrators and policymakers who are responsible for school building designs.
Since our brain is involved in everything we do, then the next question is, “Is our brain fixed, or is it malleable? Is our brain shaped by experience?” An overwhelming body of evidence shows our brain is altered by everyday experiences, such as how we teach reading (Temple, et al. 2003), learning vocabulary (Lee, et al., 2007) by studying for tests (Draganski, et al, 2006) or by learning to play a musical instrument (Gaser and Schlaug, 2003). Studies confirm the success of software programs using the rules of brain plasticity to retrain the visual and auditory systems to improve attention, hearing and reading (Simos, et al., 2002). Therefore, it stands to reason that altering our experiences will alter our brain. This is a simple, but profound syllogism: our brain is involved in all we do, our brain changes from experience therefore our experiences at school will change our brain in some way. Instead of narrowing the discussion about brain research in education to dendrites and axons, a contemporary discussion would include a wider impact of the new paradigm. Brain-based education says that we use evidence from all disciplines to enhance the brains of our students. The brain is involved with everything we do at school and educators who understand this take this into consideration in the decision-making process.
Understanding Brain-Based Education in Action
An essential understanding about brain-based education is that most neuroscientists don’t teach and most teachers don’t do research. It’s unrealistic to expect neuroscientists to reveal which classroom strategies will work best. That’s not appropriate for neuroscientists and most don’t do that. Many critics could cite this as a weakness, but it’s not. Neuroscience and many related disciplines (e.g. genetics, chemistry, endocrinology) are what we refer to as basic science. The work is done in labs and the science is more likely to provide general guidelines or suggest future directions for research. Of the all the neuroscience studies published each month, only a small fraction of them have potential educational relevance.
Clinical and cognitive research are mid-level research domains. In these studies, humans are more likely (but not always) to be subjects in controlled conditions. Finally, applied research is typically done “in context” (such as in a school). Each domain has different advantages and disadvantages. Critics of using neuroscience for educational decision-making assert that the gap is too great from basic science to the classroom. I agree with that assertion; education must be multidisciplinary. I never have and never will propose that schools be run solely based on neuroscience. But to ignore the research is equally irresponsible. Let’s use a typical example that is “pushed” by the brain-based advocates, such as myself.
Is Physical Education as Supported by Brain Research?
While many schools are reducing physical activity because of NCLB time constraints, a large group of studies has linked physical activity with cognition. The researchers have come at the topic from a wide range of disciplines. Some are cognitive scientists or exercise physiologists (Hillman, et al., 2006) and (Kramer, et al. 2006). Other advocates are educational psychologists (Pellegrini and Bohn, 2005, some neurobiologists (Vaynman S, and Gomez-Pinilla F, 2006), or physical educators (Rhodes RE. 2006). The applied research, where academic achievement is compared in schools) where kids do or do not have physical activity) also supports the studies above (Brener, et al., 2003). Like six blind men (or women) at different parts of the elephant, they are all addressing the same issue but from different viewpoints. They’re all correct in revealing how physical experience affects the brain. Each of their viewpoints is valid, yet incomplete by themselves.
Now let’s add the neuroscience perspective. It reveals information, which other disciplines cannot do. For example, we know exercise is highly correlated with neurogenesis (van Praag, et al. 1999) and (Pereira, et al., 2007), the production of new brain cells. We know exercise upregulates a critical compound called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (Griesbach, et al., 2006). We also know neurogenesis is correlated with improved learning (Shors, et al., 2001) and memory (Kitabatake, et al., 2007). In addition, neurogenesis appears to be inversely correlated with depression (Nandam, et al. 2007). While careless policymakers reduce physical activity, many administrators are unaware of the inverse correlations with adolescent depression. It’s scary, but each year, one in six teens had made plans for suicide, and more than one in twelve teens had attempted suicide in the last year with overall high rates of 18% of students with anxiety or depression (Saluja, et al. 2004). Yet, there is considerable evidence that the “serotonin deficit model” is not an accurate portrayal for explaining depression (Duman and Monteggia, 2006) and that running can serve as an antidepressant (Bjornebekk, et al. 2005). These data would suggest educators might want to foster neurogenesis with physical education. But educators can’t see the new brain cells being produced. That’s one reason to know the science; showing everyday, easy-to-influence school factors which regulate neurogenesis and subsequently, cognition, memory and mood. Those are the kinds of connections that should be made. They are not careless, there’s little downside risk and there’s much to gain.
To verify this hypothesis, the one that physical activity is worth my “promotion” as a brain-based consultant in schools, I would then go to the applied research and find out what happens to student achievement in schools where physical activity is either added or strengthened. The research in this arena is mixed because there are no broadly established protocols. For example, there are questions about when and how much physical activity is needed, what kind, and should it be voluntary or not. These are not trivial issues; our brains respond better to meaningful activities, with appropriate duration and intensity over enough time to make changes. Voluntary activity is important, too. If the activity is forced, it’s likely to generate distress, not cognitive or health benefits. But when the studies are well designed, there is support for physical activity in schools (Pellegrini and Bohn 2005) and (Sibley and Etnier, 2002). So the interdisciplinary promotion of physical activity as a “brain-compatible” activity is well founded. Again, we see the brain involved in everything we do at school.
Here a brain-based perspective strengthens the case for maintaining (or even enhancing) physical activities in school. Was all of the research from the realm of neuroscience? No, it was from a wide range of sources. But every source still comes back to our brain. Is our brain enhanced or impaired by the proposed strategy (physical activity)? The answer is clear: brains benefit from physical activity in many ways. The brain is involved in everything we do at school. How you measure it (basic science, cognitive science, psychology, applied research, sports research, neurochemistry, etc.) will still require the brain. While critics are trying to narrow the discussion of brain-based education to a “turf war” over where the science comes from, the bigger picture is simple: the brain is involved in everything we do at school. To ignore it, is irresponsible.
Is there evidence that brain research can help educators?
This question above is highly relevant to all educators. Brain-based teaching is the active engagement of practical strategies based on principles derived from brain-related sciences. All teachers use strategies; the difference here is that you’re using strategies based on real science, not rumor or mythology. But the strategies ought to be generated by verifiable, established principles. An example of a principle would be…”Brains change based on experience.” The science tells us HOW they change in response to experience. For example, we know that behaviorally relevant repetition is a smart strategy for skill learning. We know that intensity and duration matter over time. Did anyone know the optimal protocol for skill-building to maximize brain change twenty years ago? Yes, some knew them, through trial and error. But at issue is not whether any educator has learned a revolutionary new strategy or not from the brain research. Teachers are highly resourceful and creative; literally thousands of strategies have been tried in the classrooms around the world.
The issue is, “Can we make better informed decisions about teaching, based on what we have learned about the brain?” Brain-based education suggests we not wait twenty years until each of these correlations are proven beyond any possible doubt. Many theories might never be proven beyond reasonable doubt. It’s possible that the sheer quantity of school, home and genetic factors will render any generalizable principle impossible to prove as 100% accurate. As educators, we must live in the world of “likely” and “unlikely” versus the world of “certainty.” Yet, in the example from above, the data from neuroscience is highly suggestive that gross motor voluntary exercise enhances neurogenesis and that neurogenesis supports cognition, memory and mood regulation. The neuroscience merely supports other disciplines, but it’s a discipline you can’t see with your naked eyes, so it’s worth reporting. Brain-based advocates should be pointing out how neuroscience parallels, supports or leads the related sciences. But neuroscience is not a replacement science. Schools are too complex for that.
The Healthy Role of Critics
Over 40 years ago, Thomas Kuhn’s seminal work, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions described society’s response to a significant shift in the prevailing paradigm. Kuhn argued that it is typically met with denial and often-vehement opposition (Kuhn 1970). Brain based education has faced all of those forces and, a generation later, the paradigm continues to strengthen, not weaken. Over time, the accumulation of sufficient new facts generates substance to the novel paradigm based on more peer-reviewed research or real-world results. The fact is, there will always be critics, regardless of overwhelming, highest quality evidence. Having critics is a healthy part of society’s checks and balances. All paradigm shifts attract critics.
As an example, Harvard’s highly respected cognitive scientist, Howard Gardner has endured his share of criticism from neuroscientists who were uncomfortable with his brain-based evidence for the theory of multiple intelligences. Yet, while enduring two decades of criticism, Gardner’s work has made, and continues to make a profound and positive difference in education worldwide. His ideas are in thousands of schools and teachers are asking, “How are my students smart?” Some critics were fearful of a new paradigm; others were more territorial, turf-protecting and cried foul at any change in the benchmarks for intelligence. And still others will attack and attack again, offering only negatives. What is unhealthy is when critics resort to sarcasm and sink to linking brain-based education to Elvis, pyramids and aliens (Bruer, 1999). That’s disrespectful to those who work hard to improve education.
Critics often do have valid criticisms. For example, they mock policies (as they have every right to), which claim that a district is “brain-based” if every kid has a water bottle on his or her desk. No responsible advocate for the brain-based education would argue that making water available is based on cutting-edge brain revelations. Bruer had argued that, “We can only be thankful that members of the medical profession are more careful in applying biological research to their professional practice than some educators are in applying brain research to theirs.” (Bruer, 1999).
This would be humorous except for the fact that the third leading cause of deaths in the United States (over 100,000 per year) is by medical incompetency and malpractice, says a research study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (Zhan, C. and Miller, M., 2003). This is the equivalent of 390 jumbo jets full of people are dying each year due to likely preventable, in-hospital medical errors, making this one of the leading killers in the U.S.
The nonprofit Healthgrades Study found almost double (195,000) medical error deaths in U.S. (http://www.ahqa.org/pub). Is this the model of research and application that educators should be following? I think not. Give educators some credit. Much better to err on the side of enthusiasm and interdisciplinary research than to be part of the “head in the sand club.”
Critics also commonly attempt to marginalize the discussion about brain-based education using highly selective research (versus that from the prevailing majority of neuroscientists) to dispute scientific points. Examples of artificially “controversial” issues include such as whether “sensitive developmental periods”, “gender differences” or “left-right brain differences” exist, can be verified, or can guide instructional practices (Bruer, 1999).
There is little prevailing controversy on whether sensitive periods, gender differences or hemispheric specificity exist. There is no prevailing controversy over the value of developmentally appropriate instruction or removing gender biases from curriculum and instruction. There is no reputable debate over the significance of hemisphericity, either. Neuroscience giants like Michael Gazzaniga have invested careers exploring this field. Any critic who asserts that there is no significant difference in the instructional implications of our left or right hemisphere should answer the question, “If each hemisphere has little functional differences, would you voluntarily undergo a hemispherectomy?” That’s a ridiculous question and of course their answer would be “No!”
Commenting on himself, John Bruer says he is “notorious for my skepticism about what neuroscience can currently offer to education” (Bruer, 2006, page 104). He argues that cognitive psychology, not neuroscience, is the strongest current candidate for a basic science of teaching. I happen to agree with that statement. I do believe that cognitive neuroscience has and will continue to provide a great deal for educators. The field has generated countless relevant insights. But even the term psychology is morphing into cognitive neuroscience since psychology implies a behaviorist orientation, and cognitive neuroscience suggests a biological underpinning. For me, it’s all about the interdisciplinary nature of understanding the brain, the mind and education.
Bruer (2006) buttresses his position by asserting that two books How Students Learn (2005) and How People Learn (2001) make little mention of current or future implications of neuroscience for educational practice. What he does not mention is (his conflict of interest) that his foundation provided grant money for publication and that the authors, advisors and board members were handpicked with predominately a psychology background and the neuroscientists used were not interdisciplinary. In addition, these supposedly credible textbooks on learning expose their lack of scholarship by offering virtually nothing new and nothing on implicit learning (which constitutes over 95% of all human learning). These are far from being insightful or forward-thinking texts.
How students really learn is through a wide array of inputs including temporal, episodic, procedural, associative, emotional inputs that are simply “picked up” from environmental cues, social conditions, building design, instructional methodologies and relationships. Even a first year teacher can tell you that most of what kids learn at school is not in the lesson plan. How our brains really learn has more to do with behavioral relevance, intensity, frequency, duration, context, social conditions, neurogenesis and nutrition. Those issues were ignored. If our collective goal as researchers is to enrich the lives of the students we are entrusted with, we must deal with the brain in all its complexity. A book on learning that dismisses the brain research is missing the boat. Everything we do at school affects the brain. To ignore it is irresponsible.
Readers should also know that with Bruer’s direction, the James S. McDonnell Foundation has generously funded many research programs that explicitly address cross-disciplinary research. Specifically, the foundation has supported multilevel analyses from neurobiology, cognitive science and behavioral psychology. The investigators receiving funding appreciate efforts for bridging mind, brain and behavior. The funding for “Let’s Face It” is a clear example cross-disciplinary research. While not limited to brain research, it includes and embraces it. This makes his criticism of the scores of neuroscientists and consultants who embrace the interdisciplinary “science to the classroom” paradigm all the more puzzling. This is NOT a Bruer-bashing article. When you can garner 20-50 interdisciplinary neuroscientists to tell me that what goes on in our student’s brains has little or no relevance to the classroom, I’ll listen. But one critic using another critic to support his or her case is, weak.
Having said that, the critics do have it right; brain-based education must move from being a “field” to become more of a “domain.” An academic field is merely an aggregate or collection of forces within that territory. Brain-based education is merely a “field” right now. It is composed of scholars, consultants, publishers, staff developers, neuroscientists, conferences and school programs. That’s far from concise and replicable, yet it is typical for the start of a new movement. For brain-based education to mature, it must become a “domain.” Domains have all of the same “players” as a “field” but there’s an important distinction. Domains have accumulated a clear set of values, qualities and even criteria for acceptance and veracity. As brain-based education matures, it will become a “domain.”
From that more credible perspective, it will be easier to say if an instructional or assessment principle is “brain-based” because right now, we can’t say that. Brain-based education has grown past the “terrible twos” and the tween years. The bottom line is that before it can become accepted as a mature adult, it must forge its way out of the tumultuous teens and emerge with a mutually accepted body of core structures that define its identity with more than a pretty picture of a brain scan. That maturing process is well under way.
Validation of Brain-Based Education
Today, as a result of years of exposure by brain-based educators, educators are a far more informed profession. They are more professional, they look more for research, and they are increasingly more capable of understanding and incorporating new cognitive neuroscience discoveries than they were ten years ago. More schools of education are incorporating knowledge from the brain sciences than we would have if we followed the critic’s advice and crawled into an intellectual cave for the next 25 years. Many forward-thinkers have stayed tuned to sources like Dr. Bob Sylwester’s monthly column in Brain Connection, Scientific Learning’s Internet journal (http://www.brainconnection.com/) that’s regularly read by many thousands of educators and parents. Sylwester, a former biology professor, and highly published authority, has been “connecting the dots” for educators for a decade.
One of the better-publicized examples of “science to the classroom” is the phonological processing software program Fast ForWord based on the work of many neuroscientists including Paula Tallal and Michael Merzenich (Temple et al., 2003). Both Merzenich and Tallal are solid, if not eminent researchers who have done groundbreaking work on neuroplasticity. Again, the critics assert that a long history of psychological research on reading and an even longer one in clinical neurology on dyslexia trumps the fact that the resulting product was produced by neuroscientists for educators. They don’t get it; it’s all about being interdisciplinary. Another breakthrough is the new face recognition software for learning social skills called “Let’s Face it.” It developed by Jim Tanaka and his research team interested in autism solutions. It’s likely critics will say that the product comes from a long history of human face recognition, ergo, it’s not really a breakthrough. Other neuroscientists have recently penned “translational” books showing a “science to the classroom” connection. They include the luminary Michael Posner (2006) on attention and Sally Shaywitz on Dyslexia (2004) and Helen Nevills with Pat Wolfe on reading (2005).
Some studies have been done. While far from perfect, they do show good results. Here’s just one example.
ERIC FILE #ED453553
Title: “Brain-Based Accelerated Learning Longitudinal Study Reveals Subsequent High Academic Achievement Gain for Low Achieving, Low Cognitive Skill Fourth Grade Students.”
Authors: Erland, Jan Kuyper
ABSTRACT: Three earlier published reports (Erland, 1999c, 1999d, 1998) of a two school (Schools 1 & 2), 14 classroom, grades 4-8 study, reported large gains evidenced by the Brain-Based-Accelerated Learning (AL) application of The Bridge To Achievement (BTA). Eleven BTA/AL experimental groups were compared with two control groups from School 2 having an Alternate Media Activity (AMA), and a no-treatment comparison/control group from School 1. This report is a follow-up investigation of two of the original three fourth grade treatment classes of School 2. A majority of these students had low auditory memory. The report investigates the effect the subset of 17 low achieving cognitive deficit students had on the score performance of the entire class as an aggregate group. Further intra-analyses looked at these 17 low students and factored out the lowest from each group, classifying them as “outliers.” These outliers greatly skewed the national ITBS scores by as much as 50%. These two classrooms were in the top five classes that had followed the executive criteria policy successfully, 68%-54%. The experimental classes hovered at, or were just above, norm level proficiency for three consecutive years pre- and posttest to the BTA/AL intervention. When these two classrooms were pooled posttest with the “star” high performing class against national norm expectations, 10 of the 13 ITBS subtests for one class, and 9 of the 13 primary ITBS subtests for the other, were statistically significant showing positive trending. Furthermore, removing the nine “outliers,” revealed both classrooms were now above the norms, having made gains posttest. (Contains 43 quality references and 23 tables.) (RS)
In addition, two major conference organizations, PIRI and the Learning Brain EXPO (the author’s company) have produced “science to the classroom” events for ten years. These four times a year events (two by each company) have engaged over 100 highly reputable, often award-winning, neuroscientists to speak in translational terms to educators. The list of conference neuroscientists has been a veritable “who’s who” in cutting edge interdisciplinary neuroscientists from Harvard, Yale, UCLA, UC Irvine, UC Berkeley, UCSF, University of Texas at San Antonio, University of Chicago, UCSD, Rutgers, Georgetown and the Salk Institute. This has only come about as a result of the collaboration of educators and scientists linking the research directly to those in the schools. Whether the presenter was a biological psychologist, neuroscientist or cognitive scientist is irrelevant; they’ve all been science to the classroom speakers.
How reputable is brain-based education? Harvard University now has both a master’s and doctoral degrees in it known as the Mind, Brain, and Education (MBE) program. Every year, it produces about 40 graduates with masters and two to four doctors of education, who go on to interdisciplinary positions in research and practice. “Our mission is to build a movement in which cognitive science and neuroscience are integrated with education so that we train people to make that integration both in research and in practice,” says Professor Kurt Fischer, director of the program. This intersection of biology and cognitive science with pedagogy has become a new focus in education. Interest in the program is enthusiastic in Canada, Japan, Australia, South Korea, England, South Africa, New Zealand, Argentina, and other countries. There’s also a peer-reviewed scientific journal on brain-based education. The journal, which is published quarterly by the reputable Blackwell Publishers and the International Mind, Brain, and Education Society (IMBES), features research reports, conceptual papers, reviews, debates, and dialogue.
Today, ten years after the mudslinging criticism of brain-based education, it’s appropriate to say, “We were right.” In fact, because of the efforts of the brain-based community to inform educators, thousands are currently using this knowledge appropriately to enhance educational policy and practice. There are degree programs in it, scientific journals, conferences and the peer-reviewed brain-related research now supports the discipline. There are countless neuroscientists who support the movement and they demonstrate their support by writing and speaking at educational conferences.
As an author in the brain-based movement, I have reminded educators that they should never say, “Brain research proves….” because it does not prove anything. It may however suggest or strengthen the value of a particular pathway.” These studies suggest that XYZ may be true about the brain. What educators should say is the following… Given that insight, it may makes sense for us, under these conditions, to use the following strategies in schools.” This approach, which is cautionary and not causal, sticks with the truth. When one is careful, the connections are there for those with an open mind.
The science may come from a wide range of disciplines. Brain-based education is not a panacea or magic bullet to solve all of education’s problems. Anyone who represents that to others is misleading them. It is not yet a program, a model or package for schools to follow. The discussion of how to improve student learning must widen from axons and dendrites to the big picture. That bigger picture is that our brain is involved with everything we do at school. The brain is the most relevant feature to explore, because it affects every strategy, action, behavior and policy at your school. New journals explore essential topics such as social conditions, exercise, neurogenesis, arts, stress and nutrition. A school cannot remove arts, career education and physical education and at the same time, claim to be doing what’s best for the brain of their students. These are the issues we must be exploring, not whether someone can prove whether a teacher’s strategy was used before or after a neuroscience study provided peer-reviewed support for that strategy.
Today, there is still criticism, but voices are no longer a chorus, they’re a diminishing whine. For the critic, it’s still “my way or the highway.” That’s an old, tired theme among critics; the tactic of dismissing another’s research by narrowing the discussion to irrelevant issues such, as whether the research is cognitive science, neurobiology or psychology. They’re all about the mind and brain. The real issues that we should be talking about are what environmental, instructional and social conditions can help us enrich the student’s lives that we have been entrusted with developing. To answer that, it’s obvious that everything that our brain does is relevant and that’s what should now be on the table for discussion. Yes, we are in the infancy of brain research–there’s so much more to learn that we don’t know. But dismissing it is not only shortsighted but also dead wrong. At this early stage, that would be like calling the Wright Brothers first flight at Kitty Hawk a failure because it only went a few hundred yards. And let’s remember, the Wright brothers had no credibility either; they were actually bicycle mechanics, not aviators. The future belongs not to the turf protectors, but to those with vision who can grasp interdisciplinary trends, as well as the big picture. Nothing is more relevant to educators than your brain or the brains of your students, parents, or staff. Brain-based education is here to stay.
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Author: Eric Jensen is a leader in brain-based education. He’s the author of over 28 books on the brain in learning including most recently, Engaging Students with Poverty in Mind. He has taught as adjunct faculty for three California universities and co-founded the first brain-based residential enrichment program for youth (www.supercamp.com) with over 65,000 graduates. He co-founded the first neuroscience to education conference (www.brainexpo.com) and has made over 45 visits to neuroscience laboratories. He is a former classroom teacher with a Ph.D. in Human Development. Jensen is also member of the invitation-only Society for Neuroscience, the President’s Club at Salk Institute of Biological Studies and the New York Academy of Sciences.