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Brain-Based Learning

    The "experts" who decide what's hot in education have been positively gushing about the latest craze: "brain-based learning." The idea is that modern understanding of the brain helps us to find better ways for kids to learn.

    Sounds great, but ...

    The problem is that few if any reputable neuroscientists agree with that premise, and that the main evangelists for this cult are professional lecturers and new-age philosophers who have little or no formal background in the subject.


A Critique of "Brain-Based Learning"

    Let's start the discussion of "brain-based learning" with an in-depth review of one of the more widely distributed books on this, Teaching With The Brain In Mind, by Eric Jensen. It's attractive designed, sure enough, but the content is so grossly flawed it's funny. This book (and others like it) are used at many progressivist schools to justify dubious and dangerous curriculum changes.

    That page also includes a number of quotes, comments and web links for further information about the "brain-based" fad in education in general.

"Brain-Based Learning" Not Based on Science

  • 'Brain-Based' Learning: More Fiction than Fact by Daniel T. Willingham, American Educator, American Federation of Teachers, Fall 2006. "Neuroscientists are making great leaps forward in understanding how the brain works. Unfortunately, when neuroscientific claims jump to the classroom, the facts often get lost and the science misapplied. Our cognitive scientist explores a few such misapplications and explains why neuroscience is not likely to provide answers to teachers in the near future."

  • The Brain/Education Barrier (requires free registration) by Kathryn Hirsh-Pasek and John T. Bruer, Science, September 7, 2007. "How did the myth of brain-based pedagogy become so pervasive in educational discussions? How did policy-makers, educators, and the public become so misinformed? ... brain science, which is still refining methods to analyze early brain development, is not ready to relate neuronal processes to classroom outcomes."
  • "Actual testing of brain-based theories in classrooms is almost non-existent"
    Buyer Beware: Too Early To Use Brain-Based Strategies by Kathleen Madigan, Basic Education (Council on Basic Education), April 2001. (Note: Kathleen Madigan, Ed.D., Executive Director of the National Council for Teacher Quality, is the former assistant dean for the College of Education at the University of Oregon, and has been a regular and special education teacher.) Excerpts:
    "Why is this a symbol of what's wrong with education? What is not wrong is wanting to help all students learn and trying to find methods to do so that are supported by research. What is wrong is that, once again, educators have taken a leap of faith rather than use good science, impeding the development of a professional knowledge base.
          "The trouble is that some educators are extrapolating piecemeal from certain findings and creating curriculum specifications without actual research to back up their claims. They are hitting the streets with 'brain-based' learning kits and workshops. ... Using the term 'brain-based' has become fashionable, but unfortunately, it is only that -- a fashionable fad that may actually undermine serious research in a very complex field.
          "In fact, actual testing of brain-based theories in classrooms is almost non-existent."

  • Brain Research Oversold, Experts Say by Valerie Strauss, Washington Post, March 13, 2001. "D.C. School Superintendent Paul L. Vance often says he plans to revamp early childhood education with the 'latest brain research.' The only problem: Top brain researchers say it can't be done. 'You can't go from neuroscience to the classroom, because we don't know enough neuroscience,' said Kurt W. Fischer, director of the Mind, Brain and Education program at Harvard University's Graduate School of Education. ... 'There really is no research that links learning strategies or classroom methods to changes in brain structure,' said John T. Bruer, president of the McDonnell Foundation in St. Louis. ... 'Educators are making a very big mistake by wasting their time on 'brain-based' curricula.' That hasn't stopped a growing number of educators from believing that the world of education can be reborn via neuroscience and by buying what Sam Wineburg, professor at the College of Education at the University of Washington in Seattle, calls 'snake oil.' Companies sell learning kits 'based on the latest brain research,' and professional development consultants peddle the concept to teachers."

  • Education and the Brain: A Bridge Too Far by Dr. John T. Bruer, James S. McDonnell Foundation. Excerpt:

    "Brain science fascinates teachers and educators, just like it fascinates all of us. When I speak to teachers there is always a question or two about the educational promise of brain-based curricula. I answer that these ideas have been around for a decade, are often based on misconceptions and overgeneralizations of what we know about the brain, and have little to offer to educators. Educational applications of brain science may come eventually, but as of now neuroscience has little to offer teachers in terms of informing classroom practice.

    "Neuroscientists often they are puzzled by the neuroscientific results educators choose to cite, by the interpretations educators give those results, and by the conclusions educators draw from them.

    "This article examines a set of claims that I will call the neuroscience and education argument. The negative conclusion is that the argument fails. The argument fails because its advocates are trying to build a bridge too far. Currently, we do not know enough about brain development and neural function to link that understanding directly, in any meaningful, defensible way, to instruction and educational practice."

  • Put Brain Science on the Back Burner by Dr. John T. Bruer, James S. McDonnell Foundation. Excerpt:

    "There has always been a simmering interest in brain research among educators. Recently, however, that interest has gone from simmer to full boil. In the past 18 months, for example, we have seen special issues of "The American School Board Journal" (February 1997), "Educational Leadership" (March 1997), "The School Administrator" (January 1998), and now "The NASSP Bulletin" (May 1998) address the implications of the new brain research for educators.

    "These issues contain a variety of articles -- articles by advocates of brain-based curricula, articles by educational futurists, articles by cognitive (not brain) scientists. In fact, it is rare to find an article written by a neuroscientist in the educational literature. Of these articles, those citing cognitive research ... provide the most useful advice to educators. Educators should be aware that cognitive science - the behavioral science of the mind - is not the same as neuroscience - the biological science of the brain. ... Most other claims found in the emerging brain and education literatures are vague, outdate, metaphorical, or based on misconceptions."

    "...Despite all the interest and media attention, we currently do not know enough about brain development amd neural function to link that understanding, in any meaningful way, to educational practice."

    "...We should be wary of claims that neuroscience has much to tell us about educational practice."

    "...Neuroscience has discovered a great deal about neurons and synapses, but not nearly enough to guide educational practice in any meaningful way."

  • In Search Of ... Brain-Based Education by Dr. John T. Bruer, Kappan (Phi Delta Kappa), May 1999.

    Within the literature on the brain and education one finds, for example, that brain science supports Bloom's Taxonomy, Madeline Hunter's effective teaching, whole-language instruction, Vygotsky's theory of social learning, thematic instruction, portfolio assessment, and cooperative learning.

    The difficulty is that the brain-based education literature is very much like a docudrama or an episode of "In Search of . . ." in which an interesting segment on Egyptology suddenly takes a bizarre turn that links Tutankhamen with the alien landing in Roswell, New Mexico.

  • A Cautionary Note on Brain Research by Catherine Paglin, Northwest Regional Education Laboratory, Northwest Education Magazine, Fall 2000. "Some have asserted that brain research supports playing Mozart to babies, increasing funding for early childhood programs, using particular teaching strategies or curricula, or timing certain learning experiences around 'windows of opportunity' when the brain is most receptive to them. ... But there's disagreement over what the research implies about teaching, learning, and public policy. ... 'I see a lot of dramatic kinds of marketing because of brain research' says Carl Gabbard, Professor of Motor Development at Texas A & M University and past President of the National Association of Sport and Physical Education, who is skeptical of such extreme claims."

  • Brain-based Education: Fad or Breakthrough, video by Daniel T. Willingham, professor, Department of Psychology, University of Virginia. Dr. Willingham, a frequent writer on education and science, illustrates the gaps and problems of BBL: "That's what makes this so hard: This is why brain-based education is a very, very difficult proposition, it's a tough scientific problem to work on. [Most] of what you read that calls itself 'brain-based education' ... is really not worth paying attention to." His concluding sound advice: "Most of what you see in these books is not fact ... So, if you're thinking about spending your money on a book, or if you're thinking about inviting a speaker to your district to talk about neuroscience and education -- if the conclusion of that book or of that speaker is that we know all this new stuff about neoroscience and you don't want to be left behind and it's going to revolutionize teaching -- I would say, save your money."

REAL Science, Learning and the Brain

  • See "What DOES Brain Research Tell Us About Education?" in our review of Teaching With the Brain In Mind.

  • See "The Story Within the Omissions" in our review of Teaching With the Brain In Mind. In that essay, we look at several areas that suggest tantalizing implications for brain function and how we teach, but which are ignored by the leading "brain-based learning" proponents. These include 1) neural networks, 2) the role of repetition and practice, 3) the impact of distractions, and 4) the importance of curiosity in surviving a progressivist education.

  • Learning May Unify Distant Brain Regions by B. Bower, Science News, March 6, 1999. A tantalizing bit of evidence in favor of repetition and practice: "In studies of many animal species, the brain shows signs of exerting less effort as individuals learn to perform simple tasks or to recognize relationships between repeatedly presented items. ... Neural activity slackened in both pathways on later trials, as individuals demonstrated better knowledge ... pathways increasingly pool their efforts during learning trials." (Emphasis added)

Pet Psych Theories

    Besides the itinerant preachers of "brain-based learning" theories, there are also a host of book-sellers talking up their own pet theories of cognitive psychology and kids.

    Howard Gardner and "Multiple Intelligences"

    Mel Levine

      Running well behind Gardner, but still impacting millions of kids, are the theories of Mel Levine, author of such books as A Mind at a Time and The Myth of Laziness.

    • Humor: Mel Levine Meets the Fadbusters

    • From an NPR story about Mel Levine: "But Mel Levine's ideas have also attracted some criticism. Although many parents and teachers swear by his methods, the stories are anecdotal -- unconfirmed by peer review. Critics also fault Levine's books for not having footnotes or appendices where serious research could be discussed."

    • For more on Levine, read this review: Mind Over Matter: A Popular Pediatrician Stretches a Synapse or Two, by Daniel T. Willingham, Education Next, Spring 2005. Excerpts: "How did Levine come to his particular theory of the mind? Since A Mind at a Time contains few references to the scientific literature, I telephoned All Kinds of Minds and asked the Associate Director of Research if there was a more research-oriented publication that I might read. She directed me to the website of Schools Attuned, the teacher training program Levine established to promote his prescriptions for handling learning disabled students, which lists the 'research base' for the program (All Kinds of Minds, 2004). This research base consists of eight works, all by Levine and co-authors, none of which appeared in a peer-reviewed journal. ... It is worth pausing to dwell on this fact: there are virtually no data with which to evaluate the efficacy of this program, yet it has been embraced by two states and by the largest city in the U.S."

    • Daniel Willingham's undertakes a more thorough dissection of Mel Levine's theories in this review:
      Reading & Writing Quarterly, Volume 21, Number 2, April-June 2005. Excerpt: "The devil is in the details, however, and beyond the big picture view, Levine's theory has numerous oddities that would make people knowledgeable about the mind or about learning disabilities uncomfortable. Although he claims to read the research literature avidly ... these oddities seem to stem from a neglect of the literature. ... It is surprising indeed that government officials are investing money in [Levine's program] Schools Attuned, given the lack of data on its effectiveness, its weak theoretical basis, and its open conflict with what is known about the mind and how children learn."

    Daniel Goleman and "Emotional Intelligence"

    Eric Jensen

      Jensen is one of the most successful merchants of books, tapes and in-person workshops promoting "brain-based learning" theories. Read more about him in our review of his book, Teaching With The Brain In Mind.

    Left Brain vs. Right Brain

    • Left Brain, Right Brain: Science or the New Phrenology?
      "And now the mod metaphor is right brain versus left brain. Except that it is the worst of mixed metaphors, the kind that mixes up metaphor with reality. Being a neurophysiologist, I suppose I ought to feel that progress has been made: in no other age could it have taken a mere twenty years to shift from a predominantly religious metaphor to a semi-scientific one. But the neurophysiologists and neuropsychologists who specialize in the human cerebral cortex are starting to view the left-righters with something of the wariness which the astronomers reserve for astrology."

    • Brain Mythology: A person's personality displays a right-brain or left-brain dominance. "Brain scan technology has revealed that the hemispheres' roles are not quite so cut-and-dried as once thought. The two hemispheres are in fact highly complementary."

    • Ten myths about the brain, David Dufty, Ph.D., Institute for Intelligent Systems, University of Memphis.June 14, 2007. "Research continues into the subtle differences between the two halves of the brain. However, it is not true that there are people who use their 'left' side predominantly or their right side. Sure, some people are rational, details oriented types, while others are creative and intuitive. These differences between people have nothing to do with what side of the brain they use. We use it all."

    • The Left Brain, Right Brain Myth

    • Left Brain Right Brain: A Myth by Donald Clark

Why the Fad?

  • "Teachers are lapping this up like you would not believe"
    "Resisting Education's Fads", by Gail Russell Chaddock, Christian Science Monitor, August 25, 1998. "Teachers call it the 'reform du jour,' and for many, it's the biggest challenge at the start of any school year. That's when the latest idea for how to improve student performance kicks in. ... Now, brain research is fueling a new generation of textbooks, curriculum kits, and visiting consultants. It's one of the most popular areas for in-service teacher training, experts say. 'Teachers are lapping this up like you would not believe,' says Napa, Calif.-based consultant Pat Wolf, who works with schools in the United States and 35 other countries. 'Brain research isn't just another fad that will pass. It gives us a scientific foundation for human learning.' But critics warn that there is very little quality control for the academic projects that many consultants are spinning out of it. 'We just don't know enough about how the brain works to make claims about brain-based curricula,' says Mr. Bruer. 'Teachers and principals are interested in doing a better job for their kids, and brain research is a very seductive way to do this. But teachers and principals aren't given the training to read a research article critically,' he adds. Some practices that claim to derive from brain research are already under siege. For example, parents in California and Utah recently won lawsuits against local school districts for practicing 'cranial manipulations' on children to improve reading, says Mr. Carnine. 'This practice has no basis in brain research, and can actually harm children,' he notes.

  • Sidebar: How To Fad-Proof Your School by Gail Russell Chaddock, Christian Science Monitor, August 25, 1998. "The key to fad-proofing your school is to look for things that work and avoid those that don't. Here are suggestions from some top superintendents and teachers:
      [Excerpt: first three points]
    • Remember that the most entertaining consultant does not always have the best ideas.
    • Textbook publishers or consultants rarely provide data or evidence that their materials or in-service programs are effective. Insist on it.
    • Take a hard look at the research base behind a proposal: What's the evidence that students will learn more under the new program than under the program it is replacing? What is the experimental design of the study and how strong is the evidence?

But What Harm Does It Do?

    Perhaps you're at the point of thinking, "OK, so this brain-based stuff isn't what it's cracked up to be. But it's kind of a good exercise, I guess, and what harm does it do?"

    The harm is that fuzzy, feel-good trends like these are a sink for your time, and a waste of your school's limited funds. Worst of all, attempts to operationalize the vague recommendations from the brain-based theorists are likely to consume precious classroom learning time, but without any learning benefit.

    Education historian Diane Ravitch spoke about this in an interview with Atlantic Monthly magazine:

    "Another troubling trend, which seems to be emergent, is a great fascination with what's called "brain-based" learning. This is apparently a distortion of what cognitive scientists have learned about how children learn. There are scores of workshops being offered now to teachers and administrators on brain-based assesment, brain-based learning, and brain-based supervision. But the most advanced cognitive scientists today say that we don't know nearly enough about studies of the brain to be able to draw practical implications for the classroom. I think that this is yet another trend that may seem to offer easy answers to learning, instead of getting down to the business of preparing excellent teachers of mathematics and science and history and literature and foreign languages and the arts who can teach students what they need to learn during the time they're in school."

    In an article in Principal magazine, Jerry Jesness also warned against the waste in the time and money spent on what he called "The Worthless Workshop":

    "Imagine that you have to choose an in-service training session for your bus mechanics. One consultant offers to ... show them how to convert your buses from diesel fuel to cold fusion. Of course, [choosing this consultant] would make you a laughing stock. Pedagogical consultants who make equally absurd claims, however, do quite well. There is no shortage of gimmicks offered to improve discipline, cure learning disabilities, motivate students, and raise test scores. ... To describe all of the in-service snake oil products would require an encyclopedia. ...

    "There isn't that much new under the sun, even in this modern era of great technological advances. The odds of a newly-minted EdD coming up with a pedagogical method that is superior to all that has been done in the past five millennia are slim. The odds that such a revolutionary method could be explained to teachers in two or three hours are virtually none."

    Jesness' bottom line is, "If it sounds too good to be true, it almost certainly is." In other words, when it comes to workshops and books on "brain-based learning", hold on to your wallet and trust your common sense.

  • Same Planet, Different Worlds by Kevin Killion, October 1, 2000. What's the difference between a classroom led by a teacher enamored of brain-based learning and a classroom that uses Core Knowledge? Read this, then either laugh or cry.

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