Brains and Education—Part 2

As I previously noted, brains are trivially implicated in education, but it’s not clear what purpose is served with banal formulations such as “brain-based learning”. It’s not as though there’s an alternative. Today, I offer a speculation about why unnecessary brain-talk has come to dominate so much current educational discourse.

It’s a rhetorical trick, nothing more or less than an attempt to bolster weak evidence with scientific-appearing credentials.

Ok, this will require some explanation.

I ran across this yesterday:

The basic architecture of the brain is constructed through an ongoing process that begins before birth and continues into adulthood. Early experiences affect the quality of that architecture by establishing either a sturdy or a fragile foundation for all of the learning, health and behavior that follow. (In Brief: The Science of Early Childhood Development, Center on the Developing Child Harvard University.)

The document uses claims about brain architecture to argue that “early childhood development…is a foundation for a prosperous and sustainable society.” (I’ll deal with the ethics of these social engineering arguments another day.)

The implied bit of reasoning seems to be something like this. Children grow up to be adults. The “right kind” of adults are important for society to be prosperous and sustainable. To become the “right kind” of adult, children need to develop their brains. Brain science tells us that… You get the idea. But what’s the science all about here?

If we buy in to the INBRIEF argument for social engineering, it appears that the real issue is not the brains of these children, but the purposes to which these brains can be put. Children need to be nourished, rested, emotionally stable and engaged in healthy relationships that help them to learn. Does anyone doubt any of this? So how does talk of neural plasticity or toxic stress get us anywhere? Well, there is a nice graph.

But again, how does this make the case for caring for children any stronger? How does it make the case for training children in the interests of productivity and sustainability any stronger? Of course it doesn’t. But it’s oddly compelling nonetheless.

What we’re seeing here is the mobilization of scientism. The word’s been around for a while, and it is used in a few different contexts, so I’ll try to be careful here. Scientism, as I intend the word, is the uncritical acceptance of claims, based on their scientific words, or structures. (For some good, approachable work in this area, look up Susan Haack. For the academically minded, she has also written peer-reviewed philosophical analysis of modern scientism.)

The issue here is that the scientistic attitude has become prevalent in our society. Science is good stuff, for the most part. Good science brings great benefits in terms of practical results (technology, medicine, engineering, etc.) and in terms of knowledge gain (we have learned a ton about brains in the past couple of decades). If I argue that we need public policy that ensures that children are fed, cared for and educated, people will readily agree, because I’ve said something obvious and accepted. But it’s hard to mobilize change on the issue, because there’s not challenge to it. But if I argue that our current practices are damaging to brain architecture, now I’ve got your attention. It sounds impressive, but it means very little to the average person. But it’s scientific, and that gives it credibility.

So, what’s the big deal? Why should a certain rhetorical flourish with science-ey sounding words bother anybody? I think it’s a vice for a number of reasons.

First, it discourages further thought. The trappings of science appear to put certain questions beyond lay reasoning. Who am I, you are encouraged to ask, to doubt science, since I am not a scientist? This is a problem for all claims for which one is not qualified; it should not form a barrier when the questions are not scientific in nature.

Second, it shifts the focus of the question. Neurology alone is not enough to justify the strong claims made about investment in education. There is no logical connection between brain architecture and the justified ends of public expenditure. Why should we want prosperity and sustainability? And why should we shift that burden to children? Is early childhood education really the right place to look for future prosperity?

Third, it encourages us to look for answers in the wrong places. If we want children to read, the mark of reading is reading itself. We don’t need to look into brains, and we don’t need to appeal to neuroscience.

As I read through this post, it feels even more undisciplined than usual. My apologies for that. I will definitely be returning to these issues in the not-to-distant future.

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