Education Letter to the Editor

Debating the Definition of ‘Brain Research’

November 29, 2005 1 min read

To the Editor:

In his Nov. 2, 2005, letter to the editor concerning my Commentary, (“‘Brain Research’— A Call for Skepticism,” Oct. 12, 2005), Ronald Fitzgerald terms my argument “superficial,” “unfair,” and “destructively reactionary.” Yet he fails to engage the argument I have made.

In my Commentary, I question the way physiological studies of brain activity are translated into school practice—for example, the ways they have been used to argue for single-sex classrooms. I try to point out that these applications are highly speculative, and that they rarely engage the actual research, which is dauntingly complex. I therefore urge skepticism.

Mr. Fitzgerald’s criticism comes down to a question of definition. He claims that I use a far too narrow definition of “brain research,” ignoring work in cognition and learning theory that deals “even if indirectly” with the brain.

I was using a stricter definition than he seems to. Neuroscience is, after all, the scientific field that examines the functioning of the brain. If we extend the definition of “brain research” to every activity “indirectly” connected to the brain, where would it stop? It would encompass all aspects of motor and cognitive activity, voluntary and involuntary. What form of human study wouldn’t be “brain research” by his definition?

I have no question that the pedagogical innovations he advocates—such as visual mapping and expanding learning options—can enrich the classroom. But I think it muddies the water to claim, as Mr. Fitzgerald does, that “brain research” includes any study of learning, even “observation of the impact of learning options by individual teachers, schools, and trainers.”

I am all for such observation, but I’m not sure that makes me a brain researcher.

Thomas Newkirk

Durham, N.H.