Education Letter to the Editor

‘Brain Research’

November 01, 2005 3 min read
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To the Editor:

Thomas Newkirk’s Commentary on the use of “brain research” in education (“‘Brain Research’— A Call for Skepticism,”Commentary, Oct. 12, 2005) follows a long line of such articles in education publications. Their authors’ skepticism seems to be based on two false assumptions.

The first is that the brain research used in education consists primarily of information or implications from neuroscience, the study of the brain itself. The reality is that most of us who promote and practice the use of brain research are using information from several areas:

. Neuroscience (for example, brain scans that show physical processing differences in a student before and after treatment for symptoms of attention deficit disorder);

· Cognitive research (for example, the fine summaries of Robert J. Marzano, in What Works in Schools, that use hundreds of research studies to show how specific techniques such as the use of graphic organizers or visual representations promote better learning); and

· Observation of the impact of learning options by individual teachers, schools, and trainers (a source based on experience, not simply theory or opinion).

We group all of these resources under the heading of “brain research” because they all deal—even if indirectly—with the operations of the basic learning tool: the human brain. Critics who pretend that we are simply stretching implications from neuroscience alone are being both superficial and unfair.

It is not unfair to question an opinion someone offers on a possible, but unproven, relationship between physical information on the brain and learning behavior. But it is unfair—as well as inaccurate and destructively reactionary—to extend such questions into an implication that the (comprehensive) use of brain research should be treated with skepticism. So many teachers are helping students achieve measurably higher levels of learning results with brain-friendly teaching and learning techniques that our profession should aggressively reject broad, superficial criticism of such techniques.

The second false assumption is that all proponents of brain-based instruction are suggesting specific teaching techniques for specific groups (boys vs. girls, for example). There are brain-focused and non-brain-focused teachers using such generalities. Sometimes there are statistics to suggest their validity. Sometimes theories, rather than facts, are offered as a possible explanation of the generalities. Sometimes a person or company might exaggerate the justification for something they are promoting. But this happened long before debates on brain research became common. (An example would be phonics proponents vs. look-say proponents, instead of “What works with Johnny?”)

The reality is that serious students of the comprehensive approach to the use of brain research are aware that (1) brain differences between individuals in any one group are usually greater than differences between groups; and (2) the successful use of brain research is based on the presentation of learning options, not on use of the exact same techniques with every student in any group.

Acceptance of the second point does not preclude a few generalities that do apply to all students, such as the desirability of first addressing motivation in the teaching and learning process.

Frankly, there is no justification for skepticism on the use of brain research in education today. All teachers need to be helped to:

· Address motivation first in any course and unit;

· Provide learning-style options to students;

· Provide talent options to students;

· Use the power of celebrating learning success to generate more success; and

· Work with students to use data on learning results to promote mastery by adjusting techniques.

Our common goal should be using this researched, brain-friendly framework, rather than wasting energy on superficial debate.

Ronald Fitzgerald

Acton, Mass.

The writer, an educational consultant, is the author of Smart Teaching: Using Brain Research and Data to Continuously Improve Learning (ASQ Quality Press, 2005).

A version of this article appeared in the November 02, 2005 edition of Education Week as ‘Brain Research’


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