The Pragmatism of Education: A Disagreement With Eric Jensen About Knowing Which “Why” Question to Ask
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). (more…)
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. (more…)
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. (more…)
Here is a great videoby cognitive psychologist Daniel Willingham discussing why we might be skeptical of brain-based learning and claims that brain research can or should inform education.
His primary focus is on showing that brain-based learning is premised on the faulty assumption that knowing how the brain works (and knowing how specific parts of the brain works) is in any way equivalent to knowing how the mind works. As he says, educators are best to study how the child’s mind works (what interests children, how to create engaging learning experiences, how to increase focus) rather than studying how the brain works.
I especially like Willingham’s thought that teachers who use practices that have proven effective in their classroom would not likely be moved by brain studies offering suport or refutation by brain studies. Unless one is a neurology professor or neurophilosopher, one probably will care more about whether x practice works on the mind, rather than the brain (even if one recognizes that the two are one in the same, the former is understandable via folk psychology).
As a teacher, one of the education fads (some might say “areas of research”) I was bombarded with was “brain based ways of learning.” College classes, professional developments, and staff meetings brought up the “latest research” to demonstrate the insights from neuroscience can be used to inform educational best practice. “Educational consultants” like Eric Jensen have made fortunes writing books and giving talks purporting to do just this – apply the latest neuroscience findings to educational practice.
As one can probably tell already, I am a bit skeptical of many of these goings on. The initial reason I was skeptical when I heard of the “brain based education” enterprise is that, to be honest, most of the “findings” …ahem…coincidentally concluded all of the most recent fads already going around in education circles (authentic project-based assessment, constructivist approach, multiple intelligences, etc.). Was the research driving the conclusions, or were the conclusions driving the cherry-picking of the research, I wondered.
But after further reflection, there existed another reason to be skeptical of “brain-based resarch,” and that we are nowhere close to being able to translate “brain” and “mind,” and even if we were, knowing how the brain works is not really all that important to knowing how the mind works. As to the first part of that statement, we are nowhere close to being able to have James think of something, looking at a brain scan, and being able to tell what he is thinking about. And as to the second part, even if we could do this, having James simply tell us what he is thinking about makes the ability for us to interpret his thought from an MRI interesting, but not at all necessary. (more…)