education philosopher

Brain-Based Learning, Stone Soup, and the Rhetorical Eric Jensen

Posted in Brain-based learning, Mind, Teaching by KevinCK on July 4, 2009

I recently came across this article by brain-based education guru Eric Jensen titled “A Fresh Look at Brain-Based Education.”. In it, he reflects back on the twenty year history of brain-based education to let us know that,  as a result of years of work by brain-based educators, educators are a far more informed profession.” Despite twenty years of criticism, Jensen suggests, brain-based education has proven itself useful and worthy.

synapseThose who’ve read my posts before know that I am critical of brain-based education; I am not critical of its conclusions as much as its methodology. I am skeptical, in other words, of whether knowing about neurscience studies can help a teacher anywhere near as powerfully as studying children’s minds. Knowing about neurons, synapse connections, myelin, and other brain equipment and functions does not seem anywhere close to as helpful as knowing how children learn and experience (in mental, rather than neurological, terms).

And here I want to point to a subtle rhetorical strategy that Jensen (and other brain-based learning advocates) use that I like to compare to the “stone soup” fable. Repeatedly, Jensen suggests in the article (and his books) that brain research must be paired with other disciplines – like psychology and educational theory – to contribute anything of value to education.

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.

This is certainly understandable. After all, no one should suggest that a varied field like education only rely on one line of research to inform their practice. But it also seems rife for an analogy to the “stone soup” fable, where a stone is placed in a bowl of soup (that also contains chicken, carrots, bullion, celery, basil, etc) only to argue that the stone was what made the soup so flavorful. In other words, I am not sure that Jensen can argue that brain-based research was the preeminent vehicle in refining teaching techniques when he also advocates drawing from research in psychology and…education. Perhaps, as I suspect, the fields of education and psychology do the majority of the work, and brain science – at best – comes in as a second fiddle supporting role.

Why do I suspect this? I suspect it because minds are primed to understand minds, not brains. I could tell you a story of why I fell in love with my wife, or I could go into the brain science involved and what my synapses and neurons were doing that made me fall in love with her. Which would be the better explanation? Unless you are a neuroscientist, you will probably understand why I love my wife more if I explain why my mind, rather than my brain, fell in love with her. Per Daniel Dennett’s idea of the intentional stance – which says that human minds are very equipped to relate to and understand other human minds – it is the mind that counts for an understanding of how kids learn; the synaptic explanations may be interesting, but they don’t do teachers much good.

The best brain science can do, I think, is to confirm a piece of research that teachers found out via other means. In the article, Jensen makes a big deal that neuroscience confirms the value of exercise to education, the role of repetition in education, and the value of proper nutrition to education, amongst other things. But how much a role did brain science do of demonstrating to teachers the value of  nutrition, exercise, and the like? Without the brain research, would we be at all all likely to think that nutrition, exercise, and repetition do notplay a role in education? No; because educators have long known the value of these things, and they knew them from experience with kids. The best neuroscience did – all neuroscience can do for education – is to validate things we already know or lead us in intriguing directions that need to be validated by other areas of research. But brain science by itself cannot do much for education.

So, it is a smooth move for Jensen to talk up brain research only to continuously remind his audience that “[t]hese issues are multidisciplinary.” Just as the stone, to work its magic on the soup, needs the carrots, basil, etc., brain research is only good for education when paired with disciplines like psychology. But does that really give us any reason to believe that the stone, or the neurology, is a primary ingredient?

The other rhetorical strategy Jensen and others like to employ is to suggest that as the brain is used in every bit of learning that we do, brain research must be valuable to education.

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.

But this is like saying that since our cells  are  always involved when we play football, the study of cell biology is essential to the study of football. Of course this is silly, and so is Jensen’s syllogism. Yes our brain is the vehicle of learning, but we experience learning through the mind. Just because we know that recalling vocabulary and sounding out new words utilize different areas of the brain does not give us any clue as to methods for better teaching phonetics. Child Psychology does that; not neurology.

In any regard, Jensen is a very good rhetorician, arguing that brain research is “it’s a significant educational paradigm of the 21st century” but not mentioning that, unlike the meaning of the word “paradigm,” it is not even close to laying new generally accepted foundations through which to view the field of education (of course, Jensen has been trying to make it so via his seminars.) Jensen also argues that some “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.” This paints a very, very false dichotomy suggesting that if you are not with Jensen, you are traipsing blithely down the “yellow brick road” of NCLB. Not a very unbiased appraisal, is it?

I am sorry, but I cannot hide my suspicions about Eric Jensen that he is more a rhetorician than a serious vehicle for tying science to education. His essay is simply too rhetorical  for me (as are his books, which sound more like a person selling a product than a scholar explaining a reasoned argument). Unfortunately, I may be in the minority on this in the field of education.

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9 Responses

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  1. Lynn said, on September 1, 2009 at 11:57 pm

    I had the unfortunate pleasure of attending one of Eric Jensen’s workshops in which my school distict invited him to present. I honestly am not sure what to make of him. I am an educator and well I guess a skeptic who is really looking for the truth. I really find it difficult to believe someone who does not have the credentials of a neuroscientist telling me how to best reach kids in the classroom by knowing the science of how their brain works. Alot of what Jensen presented in the conference was not mind shattering (sorry for the pun). I left the conference with a feeling like is this guy for real? Sure there was alot of different strategies of how I might be able to reach kids and get their attention but nothing to support if these strategies actually change the brain. I am wary of Jensen’s idealistic views. I guess my intuition about all this is that if it seems too good to be true, it probably is!

  2. KevinCK said, on September 2, 2009 at 1:10 am

    Lynn,

    Thanks for the comment. I have never been to one of Jensen’s conferences, but I am hoping to go to one. I am quite interested in Jensen the rhetorician, and it sounds as if you saw all of that in person.

    While I have never seen him speak, his books are really high on the rhetoric and, as you say, most of the things he says are things that many others have said but he tries to make sound original.

    Folks like Jensen are even more suspicious to me because, like televangelists, they rely on the rhetoric and glitzy effect of seminars to sell their product. They do not try to convince with evidence so much as feel-good rhetoric.

    And yes: if it seems to good to be true, it is probably no better than a motivational speaker.

  3. Amy Couts said, on November 10, 2009 at 7:02 pm

    It was so good to find your criticism of Jensen. I am taking a graduate course at the moment called “Language, Learning and the Brain”. Our textbook is Jensen’s “Brain-Based Learning”. I seem to be the only one in the class who is skeptical of this man. And I like Lynn’s point:
    “I really find it difficult to believe someone who does not have the credentials of a neuroscientist telling me how to best reach kids in the classroom by knowing the science of how their brain works.”
    Jensen doesn’t even have a doctorate yet, he’s a PhD student at an online university.
    Check out his website:

    http://www.jensenlearning.com/

    I particularly like the “100% guaranteed” gold seal.

  4. KevinCK said, on November 10, 2009 at 7:29 pm

    Amy,

    Good for you for being the lone skeptic! It is sad that graduate courses have taken the bait. I had a similar experience when I noticed that one elective course at my Masters institution, McDaniel College, was “Brain-based Ways of Learning” with a copyright symbol after it! When I did some research, I found out that the curriculum-company that developed this curriculum was associated was in cahoots with no other than…guess who…Eric Jensen!

    I just find that the brain-science craze is just that… a fad. It is education’s way of making itself feel scientific and Jensen’s way of profiting. I simply don’t need Jensen to tell me truisms about the value of nutrition for learning and the power of maintaining a student’s interest to learning.

    And, for the record, I recently reread “Brain-based Ways of Learning,” and, to your point, find Jensen to be a rhetorical zealot in the book. It makes me all the more angry when other teachers don’t see how salesmanlike he is.

  5. Jim said, on July 6, 2010 at 10:02 am

    Right on target with this. Its all about the rhetoric with just enough “brain science” to make it sound sexy. We are always looking for the new “breakthrough” in education. Unfortunately, our non-skeptical response weakens the profession of education. Extraordinary claims should have extraordinary evidence!

    • emil said, on November 2, 2010 at 6:16 am

      In my place, Indonesia, we try to maximize student potential through parents involvement. we give trainings to parents about how to give support to their kids. Such as: Introduction to children psychology: Multiple Intelligence: effective communication etc.
      i think it is more applicable to this area. as our problem nowadays is the lack of emotion means love and care in this business. please enlighten me why we have to adopt a new theory.
      my subject is children highschool age.

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  7. Anonymous said, on August 11, 2013 at 10:07 pm

    Interesting comments. My question is whether you’ve tried any of Jensen’s ideas? Any great teacher will tell you focusing on the student learning is the key and student centered classrooms have a higher rate of success than teacher centered classrooms. Jensen’s ideas are all focused on engaging the learner to maximize learning. I’ve attended one of his 2 day workshops and find his ideas right on the mark. Jensen’s tie into brain research provides an avenue for making more informed choices in the classroom. Knowing that shifting my students states to one more receptive to learning is smart teaching. Whether you called in brain-based or just great teaching it doesn’t matter as long as students are learning and maximizing their potential.

  8. Anonymous said, on March 15, 2014 at 8:26 pm

    Here are some questions for Eric Jensen:

    What does neuroscience tell us about why people fall for charlatans like you?

    What is the best way to teach our children critical thinking and skepticism so they don’t spend taxpayer dollars to hire people like you and purchase your materials?

    Do you realize the claims you make fall into the category of pseudoscience?

    Should teachers hire a psychic to predict how our students will perform on tests? Why not have students wear mood rings, take herbal supplements, or maybe read their astrological signs to determine what and how to teach them?

    Why aren’t you getting a rigorous Ph.D. instead of an online degree from a little-known college? Why not an interdisciplinary Ph.D. in Education and Educational Psychology? If you are truly passionate about brain science, why didn’t you go to med school and become a neurologist and make actual contributions to the collective knowledge?

    [I think the answer to this question is telling, regardless of what it is. He doesn't believe in REAL EDUCATION. If he has valid insights, he should be willing to have them scrutinized by scientists. Have you seen the link on his web site where he goes to great lengths to explain why he shouldn't need credentials? (e.g., Albert Einstein didn't need them, right?) This shouldn't be an issue for him. He should have credentials to do what he does.]

    Why do you do what you do? You have clearly made a lot money, and are very popular. But your methods that teachers actually implement have been around since Socrates. The only thing new is your “spin” on them and, unlike Socrates, your packaging them in a shiny ribbon of misguided claims.

    Why?


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