education philosopher

The Pragmatism of Education: A Disagreement With Eric Jensen About Knowing Which “Why” Question to Ask

Posted in Brain-based learning by KevinCK on September 20, 2009

In his article “A Fresh Look at Brain-Based Education,” (Phi Delta Kappan, Feb 2008, 89(6)) Eric Jensen moves to justify the idea of brain-based education from several critiques it has encountered over the last decade. One of Jensen’s favorite things to say in defense of brain-based learning is that “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.” As teachers teach kids and kids employ their brains in order to learn, teachers would do better to understand how the brain works rather than not.

I think this connection is fallacious and we can see this with one of many possible analogies: if I am a jazz critic, and jazz is only audible to me via soundwaves, then would I be able to critique jazz better if I understood the mechanics of soundwaves? If I am a driver, and driving can only take place when the engine works in such-and-such a way, will I be a better driver if I understand the mechanics of how engines work?

Related to this idea is Jensen’s idea that teachers will be better at what they do when they do not simply employ strategies, but understand why particular strategies are being employed:

Each educator ought to, “Here’s why I do what I do.” I would ask: Is the person actually engaged in using what he or she knows, or does he or she simply have knowledge about it without actually using it? Are teachers using strategies based on the science of how our brain works? Brain-based education is about the professionalism of knowing why one strategy is used instead of another.

I take much issue with this idea that teachers “ought to be professional enough” to be able to recount the neurological principles behind why they use certain strategies, let alone the idea that being able to do so will make them better at the craft of teaching. It is an odd assertion to say the least and, I think based on  a conflation of practitioners (who generally use sheer pragmatism as a measure of practices’ effectiveness) and researchers (who use causal explanations as explainers of theories’ truth content).

Teachers teach concrete kids in concrete situations. When they are presented with strategies, they might try them out but always with an eye towards whether the strategies employed are having their desired effect. Does strategy x help students learn this mathematical procedure, vocabulary, or historical theme? If not, does strategy y? The way teachers answer this question is to employ each in practice and see which has the best result.

But what if Eric Jensen were to come into the school and tell the teacher that neuroscience research only validates strategy x rather than strategy y? What if Jensen explains the technical neuroscientific reason this is so? Would this be either necessary or sufficient explanation for the teacher? Likely not. Jensen’s neuroscientific explanation would certainly not be sufficient for the teacher to adopt that policy, because she would likely still want to try the principle in her classroom. And while it may be interesting to the teacher to hear the neurological explanation for why principle y works, it would probably not be seen by the teacher as a necessary condition of her adopting principle x in class. This is because she could have tried and verified principle x in class, not heard any neurological explanation for why it works, and still have continued to use it. The neurological explanation is wholly outside of why the teacher uses it: she uses it (or not) because it works in her class.

And let’s go further. Let’s say that Jensen explains to the teacher that principle x is neurologically sound and offers a stellar neurological argument for it. The excited teacher tries it, and it does not work as well as principle y (which Jensen urged against on neurological grounds.) Would the teacher choose to use principle x because of the stellar neurological explanations or principle y because of its success in her classroom? Contra Jensen’s above assertions, I hope our teacher would “be professional enough to say” that she chooses y for no other reason than that it worked in her class. Further, I hope that if Jensen were to ask what neurological principles she uses to justify her use of y rather than the much-more-sound x, she would shake her head in annoyance and reaffirm her allegiance to pragmatism over theory.

I have been in this position several times, where a well-meaning mentor teacher tells me of a “evidence-based best practice” only for me to try it several times without success in my classroom. In response, I adopted a differing strategy of whose neurological soundness I was wholly unsure, with good success. In every instance, I preferred the practice-confirmed strategy rather than the one whose neurological soundness I (or my mentor) teacher would have been able to defend to Eric Jensen.

In summary, Jensen seeks to partially justify brain-based learning by suggesting that teachers would be better at teaching were they familiar with the neurological explanations behind certain strategies. I argue that this ignores the fact that teaching is a very pragmatic profession where individuals do what they do largely or solely based on results. Knowing how to justify a strategy on neurological grounds may be interesting and rhetorically satisfying, but it is wholly irrelevant to the act of teaching.


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