education philosopher

Does the Brain Really Matter? Not to Education.

Posted in Brain-based learning, Education, Philosophy of, Mind by KevinCK on July 5, 2009

For a while now, I have been arguing against brain-based learning by writing that, no matter how much brain research brainwe have, it will always play second fiddle to research from the fields of education and educational psychology. How the brain works is quite unimportant; how the mind works is what we are after. (Just in case the distinction is unclear, the brain is the physical equipment, replete with synapses and neurons; the mind is the experience, replete with thoughts and experiential phenomena like colors and sounds).

I just ran across a 10 year old article by neurophilosopher Jerry Fodor that interestingly helps to articulate this idea. Fodor is bemused at why so much attention is being focused on brain research, and particularly, to finding out where different thoughts are physically represented in the brain.

I’ll give you some suggestions, not all frivolous, that I’ve heard about why it’s a good thing that science is spending so much time, money and computer power on brain localisation research. I’ll also tell you why none of these suggestions moves me much. Maybe, if I have indeed got it all wrong, someone will correct me by return of post.

Fodor takes issue with those trying to prove that different thought activities – learning vocab, playing chess, learning guitar – are phenomenologically different by showing that they have different loci in the brain. Fodor’s argument against this is that we already know that they are different. Proving that they have different brain loci does little more than prove what we already knew via psychology, introspection, and experience.

childAll of that reminds Fodor, he says, of a “funny didactic fable of Bernard Shaw’s” where Pavlov is drilling holes into dog’s mouths to prove that “expecting food makes them salivate.” When an objector tells Pavlov  that we already knew this fact, he responds that know we know it scientifically. In other words, much like brain research into where various thoughts reside in the brain, it may be interesting to do the experiments, but they only prove things we already knew.

Granted that we always sort of knew that there’s a difference between nouns and verbs, or between thinking about teapots and taking a nap, we didn’t really know it till somebody found them at different places in the brain. Now that somebody has, we know it scientifically.

As a teacher, I remember having this frustration several times when reading books that went on at some length on the neurology of the autistic or ADHD sufferer. Yes, it is interesting, and yes, it may help us figure out how to medicate these disorders, but it doesn’t help teachers a lick in understanding what the condition is like in the mind, or how to teach to that mind. As a teacher, I care much more about figuring out minds than brains, and I dislike the fact that so many teachers are being duped into thinking that learning about brains will help them, when they could be learning about minds and reading fields like educational psychology. As Fodor tells it, knowing that nouns and verbs have different brain loci, or knowing that sounding out new words works differently in the brain than recognizing known words does nothing to help us teach. (Knowing what mental processes are different between the two, however, would give us a bit of insight into what teaching techniques to use.

I want to quote Fodor at length here:

To put the same point the other way around: what if, as it turns out, nobody ever does find a brain region that’s specific to thinking about teapots or to taking a nap? Would that seriously be a reason to doubt that there are such mental states? Or that they are mental states of different kinds? Or that the brain must be somehow essentially involved in both? As far as I can see, it’s reasonable to hold that brain studies are methodologically privileged with respect to other ways of finding out about the mind only if you are likewise prepared to hold that facts about the brain are metaphysically privileged with respect to facts about the mind; and you can hold that only if you think the brain and the mind are essentially different kinds of thing.

Thus, unless one is prepared to go against everything we know and say that the mind and brain are not in 1:1 relationship (that thoughts and brain states are two sides of the same coin), then why in the world do we need brain research to tell us what we can already glean from educational psychology research? If brain and mind are really the same thing, and educators already think in terms of the mind and psychology, then what brain research says becomes quite irrelevant.

To reverse Fodor’s above example a bit, let’s say that brain research showed that repitition does not in any way lead to strengthening memory of the thing learned. Would educators start telling kids not to use flash cards, study, stop giving pre-tests, play drill games, etc? No, because brain research plays second fiddle to psychology. (And this may account in some way for the success of brain-based learning programs, because they only validate techniques teachers were already using; if they had gone against time-tested practices, maybe brain-based programs wouldn’t have caught on!)

I hate to belabor the point, and don’t want to sound repetitive, but I firmly believe that time spent in professional developments, college education courses, etc., and money spent on brain-based seminars, could all be better spent studying more helpful fields like educational psychology, and hearing from teachers rather than brain-researchers (or those who pretend to be them, like Eric Jensen). Fodor makes a good point when he writes that:

If you put your money (which is to say: our money) into the elaborate technology required to establish neural localisations of mental functions by imaging techniques, you almost certainly take it out of other kinds of psychological research.

Time and money with which to research is finite, and spending either in unfruitful areas means less to spend in areas that could actually help. This is what I feel is being done in regards to brain-based learning.


5 Responses

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  1. David said, on July 6, 2009 at 1:41 am

    I’m never sure how to respond to posts like this because, on the one hand, I’m no authority on education and know very little about the specific Eric Jensen and the other particulars you’re discussing; and on the other hand, I take exception to the side points you make along the way. I can’t speak for how brain research is being used, but I think you misrepresent the brain-related fields of science and don’t give them the credit they deserve.

    Brain research is in an extremely early stage of development… we know next to nothing about how the machinery works. No doubt there’s research funding being put to poor use in the brain research field, but that’s true of any field. As little as we understand about the brain so far, it’s critical that brain research itself gets some funding, or we’ll be stuck using our stone-age home remedies on sophisticated mental disorders. We agree that brain research should, for now, stay out of the education business, but I’m not convinced it will be that way for long, and I think there’s great value in studying the brain outside of the field of education.

    You keep saying “second fiddle” and that brain research can only tell us what we already know. That’s true in the field of education, and for the present time, but it seems like you’re digging into neuroscience at large now. The neuroscience you’re talking about is practically a straw-man: besides Jensen and “brain-based education” people specifically, I don’t think any brain researchers are trying to localize brain functions just to tell us they’re distinct. It’s just a very big challenge to learn about the brain, and they’re taking a divide-and-conquer approach. We’re talking about much more than neurons and myelin here… Neurology is a very diverse field, and believe it or not there are important breakthroughs being made all the time, but at this stage they’re only really exciting to other neurologists. Education psychology is a very important field, but by preaching to cut neurology funding you’re trying to cash in our long-term investments for short-term gain. And as far as I know, education psychology isn’t moving mountains right now, either…

  2. KevinCK said, on July 6, 2009 at 12:12 pm


    I did not mean to sound like I was digging at neuroscience at large. I am only referring right now to the education system’s obsession with brain-based learning, which simply doesn’t do anything for us, as we don’t deal with brains. So I am not referring (in my final paragraph) to cutting neurology funding, but cutting education funding from being spent learning “brain-based learning” and instead use it for “mind-based learning.”

    Yes, I do think neuroscience is important for psychiatry, surgery, and professions like it. I don’t think, though, that it is very important for any understanding of how the mind works (as, while I am not a dualist, I do believe that one can only understand the brain – not the mind – through neuroscience.

  3. Monique said, on August 23, 2009 at 5:22 pm

    I am a special education teacher that just received a M.S. in education with a focus on cognitive science and BrainSMART teaching and learning strategies. It seems that the term brain-based learning may be a misnomer and is confusing you about what teachers are learning in these courses, and expected to do with the information. Stating that neuroscience is unimportant for teachers to understand is to misunderstand the relationship between neuroscience and cognitive science, and the role of teachers. Teachers are applied cognitive scientists – we deal with how people learn and understand daily. We are charged with the difficult task of developing and presenting lessons optimized for student learning. Furthermore, if there is a flaw in the brain’s design or functioning, then we must understand what is going on in order to address the issues this malfunction is causing in the classroom. For example, if we have students with ADHD it helps to know that this is a pre-frontal cortex issue that causes problems with impulsivity and attention. Understanding that ADHD is a medical condition of the brain that requires a different approach to teaching in the classroom, helps both the teacher and the student. When students with ADHD are not properly engaged in their learning, they may begin to self stimulate (often unconsciously) and create drama in the classroom. If teachers understand this, they will not expect the student to automatically stop this behavior and respond with punishment. They will proactively plan to prevent this from happening in the first place. Teachers who understand the link between the brain and the role it plays in how students learn will also understand why students with emotional behavior disorders often are not learning in the classroom. One of the characteristics of students with EBD in the classroom is “an inability to learn that cannot be explained by other factors”. Understanding the role that emotion plays in learning is information that has been supplied to educators by neuroscientists. With this information we can change our behavior. For example, teachers with an understanding of cognitive science now understand that a student in crisis needs to process the crisis first, prior to returning to the classroom lesson. Learning can be inhibited by an intense emotional state. These teachers also know that yelling at students causes more problems than it solves, especially for students with EBD. As a special education teacher and educational therapist, I see neuroscience as inseparable from cognitive science. For this reason I spent my own money earning a M.S. in cognitive science and brain-based teaching strategies. I wanted to stop beating my head up against the wall trying to reach difficult students. I wanted to be a teacher leader. What I learned in my brain-based program was how to teach. I have never been paid by a school system to learn these things. It also appears to me that many teachers are not being taught how to truly teach in many education programs.

    Finally, the brain – the focus of neuroscience- affects the mind. The focus of the brain-based education that I have received focused not on the neuroscience, but on cognitive strategies to use in the classroom, based on the neuroscience. Neuroscience provides evidence to support the use of cognitive strategies, some of which teachers have been using for years, and some new strategies that are being employed to deal with behaviors such as lack of motivation, optimism, and perseverance that were not considered by teachers in the past. Neuroscience based cognitive strategies are more important now than ever. The current push towards standardization and norm referenced testing, the removal of recess and physical education from the curriculum, the use of processed and unhealthy foods in school lunches, and the increasing numbers of students attending school lacking basic cognitive assets needed for school success, all prove the need for scientifically based cognitive practices in the classroom. Teachers that embrace brain-based learning are not saying that all of the information is new. What we are doing is giving the administrators and high level education officials (many who have never taught in a classroom and know nothing about optimizing learning) evidence that the long list of practices that I previously mentioned, are not in the best interest of students. We are also policing the profession and trying to weed out those teachers that do not teach, and are using practices in the classroom that have been proven to be ineffective.

  4. KevinCK said, on August 24, 2009 at 12:46 pm


    Thanks for the comments. I don’t think, though, that I’m confusing neuroscience and cognitive science. In fact, I am saying very directly that cognitive science is what teachers want to focus on, and neuroscience is useless to undestanding how to teach kids. Knowing how a kids brain works, how synapses are formed, etc, does nothng to show how to teach kids because it does not deal with what teachers teach: minds.

    You say that: “Furthermore, if there is a flaw in the brain’s design or functioning, then we must understand what is going on in order to address the issues this malfunction is causing in the classroom”

    No. We must understand what is different about how the child’s MIND is learning, not how his brain is functioning. Showing you a brainscan will not give you any insight on how to teach her. Knowing how she learns differently will (but that is not to do with synapses, but with the “milnd” side of things.)

    Similarly, you say: “Understanding that ADHD is a medical condition of the brain that requires a different approach to teaching in the classroom, helps both the teacher and the student. When students with ADHD are not properly engaged in their learning, they may begin to self stimulate (often unconsciously)…”

    Actually, neuroscience offers absolutely no insight on how to teach ADD. If you recieved a seminar wihiich talked only about the neuroscience of ADD, and did not TRANSLATE it into “mind” language (this is what x bit of neuroscience language means for how the child thinks), then you would know absolutely nothing about how the child thinks (unless you are a neuroscientist already and can translate it yourself).

    Yes, an ADD child may self-stimulate when not given appropriate stimuli, but also notice that that statement had absolutely no neuroscience in it. Brain-based research tells us platitudes like the one just given, and pretends that neuroscience thought it up (or that we once knew it but now know it SCIENTIFICALLY!). Every single one of Jensen’s reccomendations, in fact, is a thing that was already in vogue before he came along, which makes me think that he is only restating what people already did, and cherry-picking neuroscience results that bolster those claims.

    And I am not denying that the mind and the brain are linked. They are one in the same. But that doesn’t mean that teachers speak both languages. The brain, to a large degree, is hidden from our view; we can’t see it but for a CAT scan, and we can’t “feel” it from the inside (we can feel thoughts, not synapses). And teachers certainly cannot see brains. Jensen’s idea that teachers deal with brains every day is a confusiion of vocabulary; we see the effects of students brains – their minds – every day. We never see brains every day, and when we deal with them, they appear as minds.

    Lastly, you say, “Neuroscience based cognitive strategies are more important now than ever. The current push towards standardization and norm referenced testing, the removal of recess and physical education from the curriculum, the use of processed and unhealthy foods in school lunches, and the increasing numbers of students attending school lacking basic cognitive assets needed for school success, all prove the need for scientifically based cognitive practices in the classroom.”

    But teachers did not like standardized testing, were against removing recess, knew that nutrition and learning were linked, etc, long before Eric Jensen told us so via supposed neuroscience research. We knew, or had the same opinions about, all of these things then. (Again, I suspect that Jensen has had fawning results becuase he takes popular conclusions like those above, and cherry-picks neuroscience research that supports them. That way teachers can have their beliefs validated while being “scientific.”)

    And the fact that all of thes things are happening – standardization, elimination of recess – is not becuase we aqre ignorant of neuroscience. It is becuase politicians, not teachers, are the ones making ed policy. Politicians care about efficiency above all, and make decisions based on whether constituencies will be pleased, wanting to be seen as “results oriented.” It has nothing to do with us not knowing neuroscience (didn’t we, as I say, already have opinions on these issues before Jensen came along?)

    To restate, if teaching is our goal, we need to know things like cognitive psych and ed psychology, because those are the things that deal with what we know – the mind. Teachers do not deal with the brain and synapses and learning how synapse connections are formed may be interesting, but does nothing to inform best ed practice. Since teachers deal with kids minds, sciences that focus on those are the ones teachers need. (This is just like saying that to learn film studies, one does not learn the mechanics of how tv and movie screens operate, but learn techniques proper to analyizing what is dealt with – film.)

  5. […] by KevinCK on August 24, 2009 For those who’ve been on my blog, you probably know that I am critical of brain-based learning, which is all the rage in schools across the country. Recently, a poster named Monique has added a […]

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