Brains, Scientism and Universal Design for Learning

If you’ve been following me for a while, you’ll know that I am troubled by appeals to brains and brain science in educational discourse. In short, while it is undeniable that brains are important for learning, it is also clear that the current state of brain science has nothing to offer the practical educator. The reason is simple: we know tons about brains, but we don’t know enough to look at a brain and decide what education it needs, or what the effects of recent learning have been done. We have far better access to these through performance tasks, including written and spoken language. Indeed, written prose (I will argue at a later date) is unparalleled as a technology for putting forward a coherent argument in most fields of human study.

The main reason for appeals to brain science is the modern tendency to “scientism”. The idea is that if you make a claim and dress it up in sciency-looking pictures, graphs, equations and discuss it with scientifically respectable words, it’s more convincing to most people—including many experts. So if you want to claim that young students benefit from semi-structured play (it’s a fact, Jack), then you’ll get more attention by claiming that it helps to support efficient brain architecture than you will by saying that it helps the kids to learn. We have plenty of evidence for learning, and precious little for architecture; but that misses the rhetorical point. Policy makers and funders love to hear science words. The irony is that our scientific understanding of the building of brain architecture is based mainly on correlations with the results of learning tests. Sigh.

Another thread that I’ve spend some time with is the principle of Universal Design for Learning. This is a principle of efficiency: if you take all learners of all abilities and needs into account before you start planning (i.e. building schools, designing classrooms, purchasing materials, planning lessons, planning assessment, etc.) they you can more efficiently and effectively teach more students. It’s like ramps at doorways: build them with the building, rather than waiting for someone to be unable to enter the building before you take action.

Now let’s pull these ideas together. I went to the CAST website and found the following graphic.

CAST Brains


I don’t know about you, but I cannot see any informational function for those brain pictures. What does the colour indicate? Presumably, each colour indicates the area the brain that is typically used for gathering and categorizing facts, planning and performing tasks, and engagement and motivation. This may or may not be accurate. But it is utterly useless information in this context. The point of UDL (and, presumably any teaching worthy of the name) is to help students to gather and categorize facts, to plan and perform tasks, and to be engaged and motivated in doing the previously mentioned things. The brain pictures tell us nothing of value to practical education.

So why are they here? You guessed it: it’s scientism at its trivial worst. Instead of focusing on the important issues—what are students learning and how do we know it?—CAST resorts to pretty science pictures to convince us that their ideas and methods are worthy of our attention.

Are we fools enough to fall for it?


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