Thursday, October 7, 2010
A Fresh Look at Brain-Based Education
I have been a big advocate of Brain Based Education since the 1980's when I first read Leslie Harts book on Brain Based Education. It has been more than 20 years since it was first suggested that there could be connections between brain function and educational practice. In the face of all the evidence that has now accumulated to support this notion, Mr. Jensen advocates that educators take full advantage of the relevant knowledge from a variety of scientific disciplines. The full article is here
TEN YEARS ago John Bruer, executive administrator of the James S. McDonnell Foundation, began a series of articles critical of 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).1 Bruer argued that educators should ignore neuroscience and focus on what psychologists and cognitive scientists have 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 would 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, then "the pyramids were built by aliens -- to house Elvis."2
Because of Bruer's and others' critiques, many educators decided that they were simply not capable of understanding how our brain works. Other educators may have decided that neuroscience has nothing to offer and that the prudent path would be simply to ignore the brain research for now and follow the yellow brick road to No Child Left Behind. Maybe some went so far as to say, "What's the brain got to do with learning?" But brain-based education has withstood the test of time, and an accumulating body of empirical and experiential evidence confirms the validity of the new model.
Many educationally significant, even profound, brain-based discoveries have occurred in recent years, such as that of neurogenesis, the production of 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. Here, I wish to discuss how understanding the brain and the complementary research can have practical educational applications. I will make a case that narrowing 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 about better 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.
In 1983 a new model was introduced that 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.3 While not an earthshaking conclusion, the gauntlet was thrown down, as if to say, "If we ignore how the student brain works, we will risk student success." Many have tied brain function to new models either of thinking or of classroom pedagogy.4 A field has emerged known as "brain-based" education, and it has now been well over 20 years since this "connect the dots" approach began. In a nutshell, brain-based education says, "Everything we do uses our brain; let's learn more about it and apply that knowledge."
A discussion of this topic could fill books, but the focus here will be on two key issues. First, how can we define the terms, scope, and role of brain research in education? That is, what are the disciplines and relevant issues that should concern educators? These issues are multidisciplinary. Evidence will show that "brain-based" is not a loner's fantasy or narrow-field model; 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 potential 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 this definition does not say, "based on strategies given to us by 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 "junk science"? We would expect an educator to be able to support the use of a particular classroom strategy with 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 he or she knows, or does he or she simply have knowledge about it without actually using it? Are teachers 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 instead of 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 is probably your collected, refined wisdom. Nothing wrong with that, but some "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" discipline for schools to consider. That's narrow-minded. On the other hand, the brain is involved in everything we do at school. To ignore it would be irresponsible. Thus an appropriate question is, Where exactly is this research coming from?