We’ve been hearing plenty about brain-based learning, but much of what we hear can be confusing. Not only are there arguments about how well brain-based learning works, there are arguments about whether such a thing such as brain-based learning exists at all.
Like so much other recent brain-related news, discussions about brain-based learning have been sparked by the boom in brain science over the past 15 years. With so much new information about the brain filtering into the mainstream, educators have been understandably eager to put to use in the classroom whatever they can.
The rush to use this information in the classroom, however, can be a problem and do more harm to education than good, says Dr. John Bruer, author of The Myth of the First Three Years and president of the James S. McDonnell Foundation, which supports research and education related to the brain. Brain science, says Bruer, can tell us very little about how the brain learns and it is far too early to take what we know at this point and plug it into our curriculum.
"Most of the brain research is very far from what goes on in the classroom," says Dr. Kurt Fischer, the Charles Bigelow Professor of Education and director of the mind, brain, and education concentration at the Harvard School of Education.
"You can’t even measure brain activity in most of the things kids do in classrooms because they’re moving around, doing things. You have to be sitting still,” he says. “Most of the situations where we want to study kids’ brains, we can’t even do it. We frame [discussions about learing] in terms of the brain, though, because it makes sounds more scientific that way."
"There’s a lot of general implications from the research and very few direct applications," says Dr. Pat Wolfe, director of Mind Matters, Inc., an educational consulting firm in northern California that specializes in the application of brain research to the classroom. "It’s important that you understand the fundamental workings of the mind, but there are few quick and easy solutions."
In her workshops and presentations, Wolfe discusses the shortsightedness of one of those "quick and easy solutions": the practice of giving students peppermint candies because of recent news stories that reported on researching showing that glucose aids recall and memory.
“Is it any wonder," asks Wolfe, "that some neuroscientists are beginning to accuse educators of engaging in pseudoscience or worse, becoming ‘snake-oil salesmen’ for products and programs that have no real scientific foundation?"
Even some people who work in the field of applying brain research to the classroom are skeptical of overly simplistic applications of the research. One of these critics is Dr. Paul Grobstein, the Eleanor A. Bliss Professor of Biology at Bryn Mawr College.
Every summer, Grobstein runs a program called the Summer Institutes for Philadelphia Teachers, a sort of summer camp for educators interested in learning about various pedagogical approaches and ideas. One of the courses offered at the workshop is called "Brain and Behavior."
"My concern is that people tend to jump on particular research findings," he says, "and create great edifices of ‘new educational programs’ on them whose weight they really can’t bear."
Echoing Bruer, Grobstein says that there is much more cognitive and developmental psychology research that is relevant to education than neuroscience research.
"I do think that knowing something about the brain is helpful in an educational context," says Grobstein. "Any changes in behavior correspond to changes in the brain. It follows from this that ‘education’ is aimed at changing the brain, and education is therefore, in an important sense ‘applied neurobiology’."
Yet educators are still thirsty for something they can use in their classrooms. A doctor may understand the limits of his or her abilities to cure a patient’s illness, but the patient is still in need of treatment. One might argue a similar line about children. Even if our knowledge is not complete, shouldn’t we work with what tools we have?
"The reality is that classrooms are getting more and more diverse," says Dr. Mary Cameron, professor of education at Findlay College in Ohio. "And some of the teachers that have been out there for 20 or 30 years are teaching in the same old way, where all kids must learn everything the same in lockstep formation. They make students fit the mold, and you can’t do that anymore."
Cameron teaches two classes at Findlay on the brain and learning aimed to help prepare the college’s education majors to manage this diverse group of students.
"The more we know about the brain and cognitive processing, the more we understand how unique each child is," she says. "In the past, we would just teach to an age group and expect that everyone at that age needed to learn at that particular level. Having insight into how the mind works gives us a better understanding of how we need to diversify the curriculum."
Nearly everyone who talks about brain-based education talks about the University of California at Berkeley’s Dr. Marion Diamond. Diamond’s work on enriched environments has produced waves of optimism about the ability to positively affect a child’s education. Her book, Magic Trees of the Mind, explains in lay terms the impact of environment on forming a child’s brain.
Diamond’s work with animals showed that those raised in "enriched environments" —receiving lots of handling and touch by care providers and living in cages with plenty of toys and things to do—had denser cortexes than rats raised in empty cages, not handled, and only given food and water. The same, she argues, must be true about children.
Harvard’s Fischer points out that another science-based idea that holds up to scrutiny in the classroom is that children generally learn more effectively when they can act on something and build knowledge on what they’re doing.
"You can look at what kinds of experiences change the anatomy of the brain in studies," he says. "If the animal is in control of the experience, then there is a much more powerful effect on brain structure than if the animal has no control and the experience just sort of happened to the animal. So there are connections like that you can draw by funneling things through the behavioral science."
When asked how educators can learn more about using brain research in the classroom, nearly everyone says the same thing: Read as much as possible; be analytical; be skeptical; take action.
"You have to gravitate toward things that are actually research based," says Cameron "There’s a lot of hype out there."
"Where to start?" muses Pat Wolfe. "Not the media. The reporting of brain research is often very simplified there. Over simplified. And almost none of what you’ll find will say anything about teaching."
"If you’re a teacher and you want to have a brain scientist tell you how to teach in the classroom, probably I would say you’re thinking about it incorrectly," says Fischer. "I think back to the ’70s when we had some biologists going around telling us that we had to educate boys and girls differently because their brain growth patterns were different. A lot of teachers took it very seriously because it was scientists who were saying it, even though the data on the learning showed nothing to prove it."