Cognitive neuroscientists and educators observe our brain differently, and this can cause problems.
Scientists tend to focus on our brain’s awesome complexity. Many focus principally on a single brain system—how it’s organized, what it does, how it differs from other systems. The scientists who typically study such a system appreciate its inherent complexity, and so value careful research and conservative interpretation. Their peers will criticize any interpretive forays beyond credible data. They believe that a solid understanding of a brain system and its relationship to other systems should precede proposed medical and educational interventions. They are thus concerned about any unwarranted proposed educational applications of their discoveries. In The Myth of the First Three Years (1999), John Bruer articulately expresses this concern of the scientific community.
But the issue isn’t that straightforward. Educators tend to focus more on our brain’s elegant simplicity than on its complexity. Since teachers must work with a group of brains, they’re more interested in functional similarities and differences than in specific details about a brain’s hundreds of collaborating subsystems. Their assignment: teach a classroom collection of brains—whether or not you understand the underlying biology. Knowing a neuron’s function doesn’t directly help a teacher to teach the multiplication tables.
The Search for the Magic Bullet
“Part of our lack of professional power came from the realization that we lacked an encompassing teaching/learning theory to support our experience and beliefs.”
The appropriate focus of the brain sciences on basic rather than applied knowledge led educators to the social and behavioral sciences for advice. These fields didn’t know how a brain worked either, but they knew how to herd a couple dozen of them in an enclosed setting. The social and behavioral sciences thus provided teachers with a provisional functional folklore knowledge of what works while the biologists were otherwise occupied with discovering why a brain behaves as it does.
Educators have long been at the mercy of lay boards who could make educational decisions for political reasons unrelated to what’s best for students. We were required to follow policies we felt were wrong, to cut programs we felt shouldn’t be cut, and to spend money on things (such as selected boys sports) that were important to powerful board members, but not all that important in the total scheme of what we felt the school should do. Part of our lack of professional power came from the realization that we lacked an encompassing teaching/learning theory to support our experience and beliefs. We weren’t absolutely certain that students learned because of or despite our efforts. We were thus a folklore profession, much as medicine was a folklore profession during most of its history—and we don’t have to apologize for it.
The beginnings of modern brain science some 30 years ago thus seemed a godsend to many educators. Perhaps we were at the beginning of a new era that would eventually provide our profession with something akin to the diagnostic and treatment capabilities that transformed the medical profession from its folklore level of understanding of illness to something far better.
We drew our optimism from media reports that speculated about the educational applications of new brain discoveries. But alas, we tended to escalate things: the making the connection between split-brain research to the learning styles movement is one unfortunate notable example. We’ve continued our enthusiasm for each succeeding development in the cognitive sciences, seeking the “magic bullet” that will completely explain teaching/learning and so solve our problems.
It’s somewhat analogous to the elusive search for a cure to cancer. Buoyed sometimes by the enthusiasm of the researchers, the media have reported one possible cancer cure after another. We’re disappointed when each such magic bullet later proves to be less magical, but we realize that each failure moves the process along, and so our hopes continue. And we do understand that the potential for a solution to an important social problem enhances potential funding for continued research. So when scientists push their practical applications envelope, we try to keep it all in perspective. In that spirit, we hope that cognitive neuroscience research will eventually help to move us from a politically driven to a scientifically driven profession.
“We must seriously begin the long process of redesigning teacher education programs… so that educators will initially add a functional understanding of the cognitive neurosciences to their understanding of the social sciences.”
Connecting the Brain to Education
So we’re a profession (1) charged with enhancing brain processes, (2) long grounded in the social/behavioral sciences, (3) limited in our understanding of cell biology, and (4) patiently waiting for neuroscience to get to our problems. When new educationally significant brain discoveries are announced, folks shouldn’t be surprised that we tend to turn to the explanations provided by mass media, rather than to the more conservative technical reports of the investigators. We do wonder why scientists who are so concerned about misinterpretation don’t submit a less technical article on their discovery to an educational journal, correctly explaining the discovery and its possible applications. After all, educators will be the principal eventual users of the discovery.
Most educators tracking the developments in the brain sciences see a current major problem to be that of simply getting educators to realize that the eventual solutions to many of our difficult problems will come out of the brain sciences. We can see the beginnings of this in programs, such as Fast ForWord, which combines neuroscience, cognitive science, and computer technology to solve an auditory learning problem that the best teachers in the world haven’t ever been able to solve with existing instructional procedures.
We must thus seriously begin the long process of redesigning teacher education programs, and retraining our vast existing profession so that educators will initially add, at least, a functional understanding of the cognitive neurosciences to their understanding of the social sciences and psychology (that will always also be important to us). Educational change is glacial, and so things begun today may take decades to reach a comprehensive level.
“We do teach your children, so it’s in your self interest to help us biologically understand them as you do.”
How to Make Sense of It
Metaphor has always been an important starting point in understanding complex phenomena because it connects the unknown to something that is known. Unfortunately, metaphors, explanations, models, and maps carry a level of distortion. With them, one gives up scientific details so those with a limited background in the field can begin the journey from functional to scientific understanding. Thus, when respected neuroanatomist Marian Diamond describes a neuron as looking like a finger/hand/arm system, or says that myelin is like the insulation on an electric wire, she is not using the language normally spoken by scientists. But descriptions like these help educators imagine what an invisible neuron looks like. Metaphor becomes a problem though when the metaphor becomes the reality, and a person can’t get beyond it. The incorrect notion that our brain is like a computer is an example of a bad metaphor that just won’t go away.
So educators would say to scientists: Give us a little slack as we gradually move a huge profession from metaphoric to biological understanding. Explain your discoveries in terms that non-scientists can understand. Guide us when we push a metaphor too far or propose an inappropriate application. We’re doing our best to catch up. We do teach your children, so it’s in your self-interest to help us biologically understand them as you do.