Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Neuroscience is a hype

Recently I attended a seminar on learning and emotion. A major part of the penal presentations were on neuroscience. As, according to Della Sala, the famous scientist, "neuroscience is a hype", no surprise then, that a lot of teachers were present to get an overview on the recent findings in that field. I suspect that anyone attending the conference Sergio probably has his on view on the subject of neuroscience and everyone listening carefully to the presentations found enough justifications for what he/she thinks is the right way to teach. As an example let's take the following statement: "Emotion and cognitive processes students engage in, cannot be dissociated."

For some teachers this means, that if the learner doesn't feel connected to the subjects he is supposed to learn, there will be little outcome of learning, even if efforts have been made by the teacher and hopefully by the student. The conclusion for those acknowledging this point of view would then be to link what should be learned to the personal interests and the personal context of the learner or to embed it in what the student has already identified as interesting. If such a link is not possible, than there is no use to try to force learning, as it will not last beyond the next test.

For others, the statement that emotion and cognition cannot be separated, means, that, whatever you think should be learned, should be wrapped up in a way so that it becomes interesting, and that the learner becomes motivated, no matter the subject and no matter her/his initial motivation. From this perspective, the good teacher has to know how to present a subject in an interesting and a seductive way and she/he has to have some knowledge on the "right" techniques to motivate students. Among those you'll find specific teaching and classroom management techniques as well as reinforcement techniques which could be anything from dissuasion to encouragement, or from punishment to rewards and grades.

And then, there are those who think, that between the first and the second option there is the realistic one. They tend to say that, of course, whenever a link between the learning material and an intrinsic motivation can be established it should be done. But, as most of what teachers are supposed to teach is not very interesting, and as interest cannot be expected to be on time when the subject is on the timetable, there is no way to get around the fact that you have to motivate students by some means if personal motivation is lacking. That's how life is and how it has always been, how could anyone expect schools to work differently? According to this view, self-directed learning is only possible if motivation is present - in the presence of the curriculum. If not, then good teaching skills, classroom leadership and reinforcement of school compliant behavior are inevitable to get the job done. Those teachers like constructivist ideas but rely on Skinnerian principles because human nature cannot be ignored.

So what's my point here? Well, I think we could have the same discussion on any other subjects related to school, like guidance and structure, exposure to challenging questions, etc. Neuroscience alone will not give us the answers that schools need. Anyone, can use oversimplified neurosciencific theories to justify whatever she/he thinks is right in education. Neuroscience alone will not tell us what structure, guidance, learning etc. mean.

There is a risk that popular views on neuroscience serve as arguments to continue the worst of educational practices not necessarily the best ones. I also think, that neuroscientific findings and theories are overgeneralized and in many cases dangerously implanted not only into schools but also into the homes. For those who haven't noticed it yet, we are witnessing a major shift from "pop-behaviorism" as Alfie Kohn calls it, to pop-neuroscience built on an a strong Skinnerian heritage.

But then, should educators forget about neuroscience altogether, if it is not that as relevant to education as some may think? No, not at all. It is important and necessary that teachers and parents are capable of identifying, and arguing, and acting against the so called "neuromyhts" among which you'll find theories like “There is no time to lose as everything important about the brain is decided by the age of three” or “There are critical periods when certain matters must be taught and learnt” etc. For more on this you should read "Dispelling the Neuromyths" in "Understanding the Brain: The Birth of a Learning Science." (,3343,en_2649_35845581_38811388_1_1_1_1,00.html )

It is also important to follow the discoveries of neuroscience so that we can respond critically to an oversimplification of neuroscientific conclusions and their translation into the educational setting. Teachers and parents alike need to have enough background information on the subject so that they may resist those trying to sell them brain feeding technique trainings and tools and brain fixing recipes and remedies.

If you want to know more about the subject consider having a look at the "Views from leading thinkers" on the website "Learning about Learning"

Among others I like a lot Sergio Della Sala's (the editor of Mind Myths: Exploring Popular Assumptions About the Mind and Brain) contributions on understanding, neuroscience, mind myths, and intelligence. Follow this link to watch the movies with Della Sala:

Teachers should take his advice seriously when he says: "So just by taking a model over simplified may produce disasters in education." or "Teachers should not use neuroscience as a theoretical basis to justify what they do."

Now, does this post mean, that I think that no positive conclusions can be drawn form neuroscience in order to justify innovative school practices? No, this is not my point of view. But if I am critical about brain train tools I must also be careful not to take neuroscience as shortcut to justify what I think are valuable educational concepts.

Title image source:

Some Reading Milestones

  • Towards reflexive method in archaeology : the example at Çatalhöyük (edited by Ian Hodder) 2000

  • The Book of Learning and Forgetting (Frank Smith) 1998

  • Points of Viewing Children's Thinking: A Digital Ethnographer's Journey (Ricki Goldman-Segall) 1997

  • Verstehen lehren (Martin Wagenschein) 1997

  • Computer im Schreibatelier (Gérard Gretsch) 1992

  • The Boy Who Would Be a Helicopter. Uses of Storytelling in the Classroom (Vivian Gussin Paley) 1991

  • La cause des adolescents (Françoise Dolto) 1988

  • Scuola di Barbiana. Die Schülerschule. Brief an eine Lehrerin. (Edition of 1980) / read in German 1982
    Letter to Teacher by the Schoolboys of Barbiana (1970)
    Lettre à une maîtresse de'école, par les enfants de Barbiana (1968)
    Lettera à una professoressa (Original Edition) 1967

  • Vers une pédagogie institutionnelle (Aïda Vasquez, Fernand Oury) 1967

Documentary Films on Education

  • Eine Schule, die gelingt (by Reinhard Kahl) 2008

  • Les temps des enfants (Jacques Duez) 2007

  • Klassenleben (by Bernd Friedmann und Hubertus Siegert) 2006

  • Lernen - Die Entdeckung des Selbstverständlichen
    (Ein Vortrag von Manfred Spitzer) 2006

  • Die Entdeckung der frühen Jahre
    Die Initiative "McKinsey bildet" zur frühkindlichen Bildung (by Reinhard Kahl) 2006

  • Treibhäuser der Zukunft - Wie in Deutschland Schulen gelingen (by Reinhard Kahl) 2004

  • Treibhäuser der Zukunft / Incubators of the future / Les serres de l'avenir; International Edition (by Reinhard Kahl) 2004

  • Journal de classe, 1ères audaces (1), Les échappés (2), Sexe, amour et vidéo (3), L'enfant nomade (4), Remue-méninges (5) (by Wilbur Leguebe, Jacques Duez, Agnès Lejeune) 2004

  • Spitze - Schulen am Wendekreis der Pädagogik (by Reinhard Kahl) 2003

  • Journal de classe, (by Wilbur Leguebe and Agnès Lejeune; Jacques Duez) 2002

  • Etre et Avoir (by Nicolas Philibert) 2002

  • The Stolen Eye (by Jane Elliott) 2002

  • The Angry Eye (by Jane Elliott) 2001

  • A l'école de la providence (by Gérard Preszow) 2000

  • Blue-Eyed (by Jane Elliott) 1996

  • A Class Divided (by Jane Elliott) 1984

  • Eye of The Storm (with Jane Elliott) 1970

Past quotes of the day

For every problem, there is one solution which is simple, neat and wrong. Henry Louis Mencken

Traveler, there is no path. Paths are made by walking.
Antonio Machado

The best way to predict the future is to invent it. Immanuel Kant

The significant problems we face cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them. Albert Einstein

To paraphrase a famous quotation, all that is necessary for the triumph of damaging educational policies is that good educators keep silent. Alfie Kohn

We used to have lots of questions to which there were no answers. Now, with the computer, there are lots of answers to which we haven't thought up the questions. Peter Ustinov

I had a terrible education. I attended a school for emotionally disturbed teachers. Woody Allen

A professor is someone who talks in someone else's sleep. W. H. Auden

When I was an inspector of schools I visited one classroom and looked at a boys book. He'd written, 'Yesterday, Yesterday, Yesterday, Sorrow, Sorrow, Sorrow, Tomorrow, Tomorrow, Tomorrow, Love, Love, Love.' I said, 'That's a lovely poem.' He said, 'Those are my spelling corrections.' Gervase Phinn

Real thinking never starts until the learner fails. Roger Schank

If what is wanted is a reexamination of schooling in terms of purpose, structure and process, then testing programmes are the wrong vehicle (...) Caroline V. Gipps

Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts. Albert Einstein

Act always so as to increase the number of choices. Heinz von Foerster

Another way of avoiding teaching is by relying exclusively on a textbook, workbooks, and other commercially packaged learning materials. Teaching is reduced to administering a set curriculum without giving any thought to the substance of what the students area learning or to their particular needs. H. Kohl

The right to ignore anything that doesn't make sense is a crucial element of any child's learning - and the first right children are likely to lose when they get to the controlled learning environment of school. F. Smith

Learning is the human activity which least needs manipulation by others. Most learning is not the result of instruction. It is rather the result of unhampered participation in a meaningful activity. - Ivan Illich

Too often we give our children answers to remember rather than problems to solve. - Roger Lewin

I have never let my schooling interfere with my education. - Mark Twain