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