Does the Brain Really Matter? Not to Education.
For a while now, I have been arguing against brain-based learning by writing that, no matter how much brain research we 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.
All 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.