What Does Brain Science Offer to Education?

It is hard to spend a few minutes with educational leaders and policy makers without hearing the wonders of modern brain science and its potentially enormous impact on teaching and learning. Some of the bolder will tell you that all their great new materials, programs, etc. take into account the latest in brain research. And if you hang around a bit longer, you’ll likely hear from someone whose Master’s degree research focused on “brain-based learning.”

Brain-based learning? As opposed to what: elbow based learning? What could brain-based learning mean, other than “learning”? I know of no practice, belief or theory in education that suggests that learning could possibly take place in any way, other than through some mediation of the human brain. If education doesn’t involve thinking, memory and creation—all indisputably involving brains—what could it possibly be?

Ok. Let’s give the kids a break. Maybe the name is foolish, but the sentiment must be right. We know that learning occurs (at least mostly) in the brain, and we know that neuroscience has grown by leaps and bounds in the past few decades, perhaps all that is meant by “brain-based learning” is that educators are now able to mobilize the results of diagnostic imaging, neurological function and theories of mental representation and manipulation to produce better learning for students. It’s a tantalizing prospect. But the reality is that we are nowhere near able to do this.

There is no doubt that neuroscience is a rapidly developing and expanding mature science. Modern techniques and sophisticated theories allow researchers to follow the physical activity of the human brain as subjects perform tasks, rest, sleep, think, recall and pretty much anything else you can imagine. Take a moment and see if you can imagine how this knowledge could possibly be of use in education.

Imagine that scientists performed sufficient experiments to determine the mental activities and changes that are necessary for a 6-year-old to read an age-appropriate book. (I have no idea how much of this is currently known, but let’s just imagine that we have a lot, or even all, of what can be known about reading.) How would we do this? Well, the scientists would have to monitor children’s brains while they were given reading instruction and when they were reading. Then the results of reading tests would be compared to the brain results. Ultimately, in this scientifically-perfect scenario, we could find the conditions under which learning to read is most effectively accomplished. Now, think about two things. First, the brain science doesn’t tell us what counts as good reading; the reading test does. Second, teachers have access to reading tests, but brain scanning machines (quite properly) do not belong in school. How does this brain knowledge help teachers? At this level, not at all.

Where the neuroscience is potentially useful in this thought experiment, would be in assessing methods and programs that help children learn to read. Once the scans are perfected, students could be given different reading programs and their effectiveness could be determined by the fancy machines. Or, of course, we could give reading tests for a fraction of the investment. And get the same results. In the long term, I have no doubt that brain science will improve our programs and will very likely allow us to refine our reading tests. But at a practical level, it is hard to see what it offers the daily education of children.

Ultimately, children are educated so that they can do things. They need to be able to read, write and compute. Later they need to mobilize these skills to develop understanding, to perform complex tasks, to create, to analyze, to synthesize. Brains are involved to be sure. But the real action is in what students do. Teaching and learning needs to be framed by the capacities that students develop, not on what we think their brains would show in an fMRI.

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