education philosopher

Can “Brain-Based Theories” Actually Be Relevant to Education?

Posted in Brain-based learning, Education, Philosophy of by KevinCK on June 16, 2009

As a teacher, one of the education fads (some might say “areas of research”) I was bombarded with was “brain based ways of learning.”  College classes, professional developments, and staff meetings brought up the “latest research” to demonstrate the insights from neuroscience can be used to inform educational best practice. “Educational consultants” like Eric Jensen have made fortunes writing books and giving talks purporting to do just this – apply the latest neuroscience findings to educational practice.

brainAs one can probably tell already, I am a bit skeptical of many of these goings on. The initial reason I was skeptical when I heard of the “brain based education” enterprise is that, to be honest, most of the “findings” …ahem…coincidentally concluded all of the most recent fads already going around in education circles (authentic project-based assessment, constructivist approach, multiple intelligences, etc.). Was the research driving the conclusions, or were the conclusions driving the cherry-picking of the research, I wondered.

But after further reflection, there existed another reason to be skeptical of “brain-based resarch,”  and that we are nowhere close to being able to translate “brain” and “mind,” and even if we were, knowing how the brain works is not really all that important to knowing how the mind works. As to the first part of that statement, we are nowhere close to being able to have James think of something, looking at a brain scan, and being able to tell what he is thinking about. And as to the second part, even if we could do this, having James simply tell us what he is thinking about makes  the ability for us to interpret his thought from an MRI interesting, but not at all necessary.

To best explain why brain research is a long ways away from being able to translate data about the brain into data about the mind, we can look at philosopher Colin McGinn’s 1989 essay, “Can We Solve the Mind-Body Problem?” McGinn is a philosopher who believes that there is a good reason to suggest that, while the brian and the mind are in a sense one in the same, we may never be able to grasp how the former becomes the latter. If this is true then taking research on how neurons operate in the brain and applying it to educational practice becomes a bit like taking research on how body cells work and applying it to how to hit a golf stroke (as golfers are made of cells).

McGinn’s idea, in a nutshell, is this: we can introspect to feel how the mind works and we can observe how the brain works. But in order to understand how the brain’s mechanics becomes the mind’s feelings, we would have to access a third view somewhere between observation and introspection. This, it seems, we don’t have. In McGinnn’s words:




Conscious states are simply not potential objects of perception: they depend upon the brain but they cannot be observed by directing the senses onto the brain. In other words, consciousness is noumenal with respect to perception of the brain. (p. 10)

Knowing James’s brain state gives us absolutely no indication of James’s mental state. And quite frankly, neuroscience is a long way off from that. It is just now only discovering what area of the brain may be responsible for what type of thought. So, to say that x result in neuroscience can be interpreted as suggesting y educational practice is quite premature.

But wait, one might say! Just because we can’t make that type of statement now doesn’t mean we will never be able to do it. We may at some point reach a stage where we can correctly say that x brain state means that James is thinking about a chocolate bar, or y brain state means that James is reading a difficult passage invoking academic vocabulary. so, maybe even though brain-based learning theories are quite premature, they may someday become relevant to educational practice, right?

I don’t think so, and here is why. Daniel Willingham, a cognitive psychologist who focuses on educational issues, has some interesting things to say about this. He brings up an excellent point that even if brain research lends support to certain educational ideas (which is still a tenuous claim), this fact should be wholly irrelevant to whether that educational practice is used or not. Why? Because if x educational strategy is effective in the classroom, the fact that brain research validates it is simply an after-the-fact validation of what works in practice. And if brain-based research suggests to avoid that an educational strategy that works well in practice, what teacher would give up the tried-and-true strategy because brain-research tells her to do so? The best brain research can do is play a minor second fiddle to discipilnes like educational psychology and folk wisdom of the classroom.

Why? Brain research and neuroscience is simply nowhere near as solid and reliable as folk experience and the human disciplines that focus on the mind rather than the brian. When I tell you that flashcards are an effective memorization strategy because it uses repetition to get kids connecting words to definitions, that is a whole lot more clear than if I were to show you an MRI scan of a student undergoing flaschard learning and ask you to draw conclusions from it (even if you were knowledged on brain research). The former idea is much more vivid to us. The latter is not because, once again, we are nowhere near the point where we can take research on the brain and, without huge difficulty, apply it to the mind.

These are two reasons I am quite skeptical about clailms of Jensen and the like that “brain-based learning” can really affect educational practice. I have a difficult time believing that were there no such thing as “brain-based learning,” that education practice would be any better, worse, or different, than it is with “brain=based learning.” Further, I strongly suspect that, because applying brain research to human behavior involves a huge amount of interpretation, “brain-based learning” has a tendency to cherry-pick data and interpretation so that it picks the conclusions it wants first (what practices do we want to validate?) and finds the research that will make it happen later.





2 Responses

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  1. David said, on June 18, 2009 at 12:16 am

    1) Yes, we’re nowhere near the stage of drawing practical applications from neurology towards psychology, or especially education. We know less about the brain than someone who eats Thai food once knows about Thailand.

    2) I’m not so sure the mind-brain problem has much bearing, because learning is a direct brain function and doesn’t seem to have much to do with “the mind”.

    For example, a study on effective learning only needs to skim the surface, checking for correct answers and maybe asking some simple cookie-cutter questions like degree of confidence, while widely varying the conditions (an almost behaviorist approach); any study trying to probe “the mind” in all its intricacy would instead need to ask deep, subtle questions (an introspective approach). There’s a lot of room for overlap, but I think this particular domain is pretty clearly “brain”, if we ever make any progress. Until then, education and psychology are pretty distinct from philosophy (mind) and neurology (brain).

  2. KevinCK said, on June 18, 2009 at 9:41 pm


    I think our disagreement stems from what we view as the domain of “mind.” I think knowing about the mind has everything to do with education. For instance, I have recently read Philip Johnson-Lairds book “How We Reason,” which is firmly a book of psychology. In it, he gives a detailed account of the various ways of reasoning that we humans use. His book, as he says, is about how the mind works towards reasoning.

    To me, that book has eveything to do with education (and is much more useful than books like Jensen’s which try and apply neuroscience to education).

    And to know about the mind does not entail knowing about the mind “in all its intracacy” any more than knowing about Thailand means knowing about it “in all its intricacy.” All I am suggesting is that studying the mind is much more value toward education than is studying the brian. It doesn’t matter whether we know everything about either one.

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