With so many claims about education products and practices, what does it mean to be “research-based”? Join us as we dive into the debate.

Matt gripped his pencil in a clenched fist, armed to wage war against his math homework. Four months of tutoring had yielded little progress, and he had once again hit a brick wall. Matt clearly wanted to learn, but the difference between what he knew and what he needed to know was a tangible presence in the room, slapping his hand each time he faced another equation. Sweat broke out on Matt’s forehead, the start of a familiar cycle: frustration becomes desperation, then dejection, then resignation.

Despite a good education, there were gaps in Matt’s knowledge of basic principles. A string of teachers in his past had struggled to identify why Matt didn’t “get it,” settling for helping him to get by instead. It was an indecipherable puzzle: why did students like Matt, who were intelligent, motivated and in the right environment, still have so much difficulty learning? What new strategies might be used to turn on the mental light bulb?

In desperation, many educators turn to neuroscience to answer questions about teaching. Radical scientific progress in the last few decades offers the tantalizing possibility that an understanding of brain function could inspire specific educational policies. Some scientists argue that the fledgling results of neuroscience are not ready to be applied, and that brain researchers actually have very little to say about the complex problems that educators face. Nevertheless, the need for new teaching strategies means that educators across America are increasingly influenced by neuroscientific data. In this marriage of science and school, teachers, parents, and policymakers need tools to evaluate new research and its potential relationship to education.

Folk Science
Science is an historical discipline, a progression of ideas building upon each other with new findings interpreted in the context of established theories. When media reports on science spare the humdrum contextual details, they tend to exaggerate, misconstrue, and occasionally wholly fabricate results. In light of these potential abuses, it is understandable that scientists shy away from discussing the applications of their work. But outside the scientific wall of silence a public both curious about the natural world and in need of solutions to daily problems is left to fend for itself. The result is the creation of folk science, or, as Carl Sagan called it, “pseudoscience.”

One common example of folk neuroscience is the exaggeration of left and right brain dominance, the theory of profound hemispheric asymmetry. The mythology tells us that certain individuals are “left-brained” while others are “right-brained.” Left-brain thinkers are supposed to be analytical, logical, and highly verbal, while right-brain thinkers are intuitive, emotional, and auditory. The scientific perspective is both more complicated and less ambitious.

Left Brain, Right Brain
Hemispheric asymmetry theory has its origins in work that Roger Sperry performed in the 1960s. Sperry studied patients whose corpus callosum had been surgically cut, so that the two hemispheres of the brain were completely separated. After the surgery each hemisphere acted like an independent brain, but some functions were performed best by only one of the two hemispheres. Spoken language, for instance, is a left hemisphere task, while the right hemisphere is better at tasks like visualization. Sperry’s work shaped the scientific understanding of how brain areas specialize, and both scientists and educators jumped on the bandwagon to apply that understanding to the classroom.

Despite the lack of scientific evidence connecting Sperry’s research to educational practice, the theory of hemispheric asymmetry doggedly made its way into mainstream culture. Mathematics and physics became “left-brain” subjects, while art, music, and literature were “right-brained.” Educators developed strategies to help “right-brained” children learn “left-brained” tasks, and vice versa. Inevitably, categorization resulted in exclusion as well as inclusion, and “left-brained” people were characterized as somber, critical, and serious, while “right-brainers” were supposed to be free-spirited, emotive, and creative. The folk theory of hemispheric asymmetry bears little resemblance to Sperry’s original conclusions or to any subsequent research on cortical specialization. But if it makes us rethink the way that we are teaching our children, can it do any harm?

A Bridge Too Far?
John Bruer, president of the James McDonnell foundation, thinks that prematurely connecting the classroom and the laboratory hinders attempts at educational reform. In an article titled “Education and Neuroscience: A Bridge Too Far?,” Bruer argues that despite astonishing progress in brain research, neuroscientists remain concerned with relatively mechanical aspects of the mind, like vision, hearing, and speech. When it comes to more undefined mental attributes, like creativity, intelligence, and emotion, much of brain research remains theoretical and primitive. Bruer argues that attempts to extrapolate educational policy from mechanistic descriptions of basic brain functions are both uninformative and misleading to educators, and claims that “as of now neuroscience has little to offer teachers in terms of informing classroom practice.”

But teachers have approached the debate from a different perspective. Actual classroom practice is a form of guerrilla warfare that defies theoretical rules. Good ideas are separated from bad ideas solely on the basis of what works. Within that framework, neuroscience can provide useful strategic insights—rather than drawing lesson plans directly from neuroscience research, teachers might look at brain science as a starting point for thinking in new ways about the classroom.

What Educators Can Learn From Neuroscience
Bruer’s focus on the inappropriate application of basic research to broadly defined educational objectives is justified; taking scientific ideas out of context in this way leads to the creation of damaging pseudoscientific policies, policies like left and right brain education that squander already strained resources. Such policies are unsuccessful because they do little more than redesign broad categories that still leave out too many children. Worse still, children who are categorized according to psuedoscientific theories about brain function are denied certain possibilities. “Left brained” children are not encouraged to be artistic and unstructured, and “right brained” children are not given organizational tasks. Is this any different than telling a female student not to worry about her poor math scores, because she is “just a girl?” We must be extremely careful when using a very limited knowledge of biology to describe a person’s cognitive aptitude; the worst of such predictions are all too often self-fulfilling.

Still, neither Bruer nor other critics of “brain-based education” advocate a complete exodus of brain researchers from the educational landscape. Neuroscience has a significant role in helping children with conditions like schizophrenia, dyslexia, or chronic depression, conditions that are clinically defined and labeled. As scientific understanding of brain function advances, the list of conditions that research can approach will grow as well; progress is already occurring with conditions like attention deficit, anxiety, and aggression. We are beginning to realize that these “disorders” are, in many cases, not dysfunctions, but alternate ways of functioning. A young boy with attention deficit disorder might not be able to sit still in class, but occasionally makes a profound connection between ideas that thrills his teacher. A little girl with mild schizophrenia has trouble reading, but her paintings show an astounding depth of expression.

We are moving from the neuroscience of disorder to a neuroscience of individuality, a science that flatly denies the efficacy of blanket solutions and sound bite strategies.

This, finally, is the message that neuroscience can offer educators. The human brain is a marvelously complex and resilient thing, but one that operates within scientifically understandable parameters. While we cannot turn to the fledging results of brain research to prescribe specific policies, we can use an understanding of the brain to gain an appreciation of individual variance in learning style. We might also gain inspiration for creative solutions to educational dilemmas, with the understanding that any solution must focus on the individual student, and not on broad categories. In short, what science can contribute to education is much the same as what education can contribute science: a continuing dialogue encouraging critical analysis and inspiring innovation.