education philosopher

Brain-Based Learning – Response to Monique

Posted in Uncategorized 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 defense of brain-based learning in reply to one of my critical posts. Her comments were interesting enough, and my reply in detail, enough, that I thought it would be good to make a post out of it. (By way of background, Monique is a special educator who has recently achieved an M.S. in “cognitive science and brain-based teaching strategies.”)

I am not including Monique’s comments on my post, but they are heavily quoted in my reply to her bel0w.



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 understanding 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 brain scan 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 “mind” 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 received a seminar which 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 recommendations, 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 confusion 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 because 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 analyzing what is dealt with – film.)


One Response

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  1. Lucy Barlow said, on September 12, 2009 at 3:23 am

    I enjoyed reading your article! You write with great insight and we share many similar ideas. You can read what I wrote about nutrition and learning at : Thanks and take care, Lucy Barlow

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