In Scientific American, the distinguished neuroscientist Antonio Damasio reflected on the current state of his field and looked into the future. He suggested that “more may have been learned about the brain and the mind in the 1990’s—the so-called decade of the brain—than during the entire previous history of psychology and neuroscience.”
Those of us who have spent the past several decades tracking and reporting on the brain sciences note a recent tremendous upsurge of interest in our brains within the education profession. If our brains’ maturing systems define our profession, why did it take educators so long to get interested in it?
The education profession oriented itself towards the social and behavioral sciences because biology, as Damasio implies, historically had few answers for the practical teaching and learning problems that educators confront. The social and behavioral sciences didn’t know much about student brains, but they did know how to herd thirty of them into an enclosed setting. The social and behavioral sciences thus became a practical resource to a profession that must constantly negotiate with groups of students and their patrons. Not surprisingly, social science values, such as efficiency, economy, and meas-urable accountability came to dominate educational thought and practice—and most aspiring elementary teachers major in the social sciences (secondary teachers tend to major in their instructional field).
The recent emergence of the brain sciences as a potential means for validating instructional strategies, and for diagnosing and correcting learning and behavior problems has inserted biology into the educative process—whether educators are ready for it or not. Media reports of new brain discoveries encourage the optimistic belief that educators might soon have useful answers to many problems that have long mystified them—problems that the social and behavioral sciences couldn’t solve.
Unfortunately, most educators have a very limited understanding of biological processes and systems, and/or of what scientific research can and can’t discover. Year-long sequences of courses in chemistry, biology, and the cognitive sciences that would provide a basic foundation for a biologically literate profession can’t be easily squeezed into an already packed pre-service curriculum heavily oriented towards social and behavioral sciences. It’s a dilemma. The biologically informed profession we will need does not yet exist, and current teacher education programs are not being rapidly revised to address that need.
And as if one huge looming problem isn’t enough, the education profession is confronting a second equally serious problem in the recent explosion in computer technology. Think of the computer as the rapid information-processing crown jewel of technology—the machinery our brain developed to process tasks that we can’t do at all or can’t do well.
The computer chip was developed but a generation ago, and computer technology has evolved through three distinct periods within the last 30+ years—from main frame computer to personal computer to the Internet. In 1990 I had an Apple IIe and thought that this was about as good as it will get. No developmental plateau with computers is in sight, and at a practical level, most of my grandchildren are already more computer-literate than I am. I sense that the situation is similar in many educator-student comparisons.
We began the 20th century with Albert Einstein’s revolutionary relativity theories. They sparked developments in the physical sciences (such as electronics) that have dominated much of this century. Following the discovery of DNA at mid-century, biology’s maturation escalated, and we’re poised at the beginning of a new century not knowing where these twin revolutions will take us. We know that they will change formal education, and we’re nervous about our profession’s limited understanding of what’s happening, and of what to do about it.
We do realize that an ignorant profession will lose control of its destiny, and that our current naivete already makes us vulnerable, for example, to claims about the scientific validation of programs that use computerized technology to alter brain processes. So if computerized training programs can in fact improve auditory skills in Language Learning Delayed children, can a daily CD dose of Mozart improve spatial skills in normal children? How do we differentiate between the evidence used to support such disparate interventions? We are further professionally confused by the indiscriminate application of such buzz words as Brain-Based Education and Brain-Compatible Programs, when it’s not clear what either term means (was education formerly Liver-Based?).
John Bruer’s recent widely-discussed and thought provoking book, The Myth of the First Three Years: A New Understanding of Early Brain Development and Lifelong Learning (1999, Free Press) argues that educators’ general lack of understanding of brain research and its interpretation has led them to make policy and practice decisions that are misapplications of cognitive neuroscience discoveries.
And Antonio Damasio (who’s comment began this discussion) has just published his instantly acclaimed The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness (1999, Harcourt Brace). In it, Damasio lays out his beliefs about the neurobiology of consciousness, long the Holy Grail of the neurosciences. So we’ve ended the century with giant leaps forward in our pursuit of a key human brain property, and of the machines a conscious brain can devise—but with a profession lagging far behind in knowing how to respond to both developments. How can we rapidly increase our professional understanding of the important biological and technological developments that will increasingly affect us?
These are the kinds of issues that this column will explore in the months ahead. It will identify educationally significant developments in science and technology, provide non-technical explanations of complex concepts, and suggest how personal thought and collegial discussions of such issues might proceed.