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"Teaching With The Brain In Mind"

Also see:
Illinois Loop: "Brain-Based Learning" (for more BBL articles)

    "Teaching With The Brain In Mind"
    by Eric Jensen
    Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD), 1998

A review by Kevin Killion
January 25, 1999

Why Is It Important To Review This Book?

    This book is a casual, pleasant read. But the goal of the author, and the goal of persons who encourage use of this book, runs much, much deeper than that. The real intent is to invoke the authority and respect of the serious medical and research community in order to imply credibility for contemporary theories about education. In short, the book is used as justification for hot educational trends that are very politically correct in educational circles, but which are very lacking in direct evidence for success.

    Teaching With The Brain In Mind (which we'll call "TWBIM" for short) is published by Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, a group of educational bureaucrats dedicated to reworking schools into the constructivist, progressivist mold.

    At our local public school -- and at many other schools around the nation -- copies of this book have been purchased and distributed to every member of the teaching staff, and workshops have been held to inculcate teachers with its premises. Permeating every discussion of the book is the notion that its topics, carefully constructed and constrained in scope to be in sync with current educational theories, somehow carry the weight of science behind them.

About the book

    The author's premise is stated on the back cover: "...Parents trust that the professionals who teach their children know something about the brain ... but most schools of education offer psychology, not neurology, courses ... [this book] fills this gap."

    But this is not a science book as that premise suggests, rather, it is an idea book.

    It's jam-packed with compelling ideas and observations about how the brain may be functioning, and the implications for teaching. The author is a professional workshop and seminar presenter, and this is immediately seen in the book's clear, appealing layout.

    The book's linkage of theories about the brain with real classroom experiences is the strongest feature of the book. Moreover, each chapter, covering a different area of the brain's functioning, is capped off with a host of suggestions in vivid "practical application" sections.

    As such, this book might be enjoyed by anyone seeking fresh ideas on how to successfully reach children in the classroom. Parents seeking to understand the behaviors behind teaching and learning issues may also benefit.


    Having spent 15 years in ad agencies, I have great respect for anyone who can take a complex subject area and turn it into a lively, compelling presentation. Eric Jensen clearly has a gift for presenting material in a way that is most likely to have an impact. In effect, his own presentation is a great illustration of the philosophy he espouses!

    Jensen manages to present a great deal of material in a relatively slim volume. There is little filler or prattle here, words are used economically and efficiently. That gives it a high throughput of ideas per minute.

    It's even more satisfying that this rich set of topics is provided in such an attractive, visually captivating way. I am a great fan of using visuals to convey ideas in a meaningful way (although I make no claims to mastery of that skill myself!) At DDB Needham (a top 10 advertising agency and my "home" for eight years), every media group head and up was sent to regular seminars on exactly this topic. Jensen is terrific at this skill.


How Best To Approach the Book

    TWBIM is not a research document, nor a medical report, nor even an educational treatise, nor does it seem that any of these is even its intention. Rather, the book is designed to do one thing: focus the reader's attention on some speculations of how the brain works, and how ideas about these speculations can be applied to real teaching situations and techniques.

    If it inspires teachers to try new methods or new approaches, or if it inspires administrators to think creatively about management and curriculum issues, it has sufficiently accomplished its goal.


Classroom Impact

    There is no question that so-called "brain based learning" has been wildly embraced by many administrators and others in the education industry. One consultant, Pat Wolf, said, "Teachers are lapping this up like you would not believe."

    An article "Resisting Education's Fads" (Christian Science Monitor, August 25, 1998) heavily focused on "brain based learning" as one of those fads, adding, "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."

    Thus, Jensen has positioned himself and his book in the right place at the right time. It certainly helps that many of Jensen's ideas and suggestions have immediate appeal, and many have a common sense rightness to them. His style in encouraging fresh thinking about approaches to teaching can't help but be motivating to teachers.

    In fact, one feature of the book that greatly appeals to some teachers is Jensen's concluding of every chapter with "Practical Suggestions", to answer the implied "so what" question with thoughts on how the insights of the chapter lead to specific implications for the classroom.

    But do his "Practical Suggestions" actually work? Which ones work better than others?

    Unfortunately, we have no guidance from Jensen on these questions, as there are few if any citations given for any real classroom benefits gained.

    Even on one of Jensen's own commercial ventures there is no solid evidence presented for positive educational impact. On Jensen's website, his "SuperCamp" is described as "the world's first and largest brain-compatible teen program", whatever that means. He discusses SuperCamp across three pages of the book but, remarkably, gives no shred of evidence that it actually accomplishes anything useful, with the single exception of a reference (with no details given) to a pop book called "The Learning Revolution". It would be terrific to learn that this 10-day program could produce lifelong benefits, or even solid short-term benefits! But even for his own commercial product Jensen fails to document any results.

    Jensen occasionally shades his discussion so as to impugn common sense notions of teaching that rival trendier philosophies. He says that "many" people "admire Hollywood teachers from movies like 'Stand and Deliver'" and he then asks, "What if such a teaching model were wrong?". In doing so, Jensen ignores the fact that Jaime Escalante (the teacher portrayed in 'Stand and Deliver') was and is a real teacher, not just a "Hollywood" teacher, whose engaging and challenging style of direct instruction was a real world success, not a "model". (Incidentally, Jaime Escalante is today active in the movement in California to restore meaningful standards in math and science, after disastrous results using so-called "reform" standards.)

Sources Used in TWBIM

    As a source of ideas and inspiration, anything is fair game. Jensen covers an amazingly wide swath to glean interesting and thought-provoking observations about the brain and learning. Even better, he weaves a compelling story using these markers, tieing them together into a dramatic whole.

    Every topic Jensen covers -- readiness, environments, enrichment, attention, stress, motivation, and so on -- he peppers with numerous interesting references that can't help but trigger the reader's own reflection and creativity.

    But one should not draw hard and fast conclusions for what is "best" in a classroom situation from this book. The citations are thought provoking, but they are not rigorous enough to hold up as evidence for particular courses of action. Other sources will be needed for that.

    The first problem is that as sources, Jensen makes extensive use of feature and lifestyle articles in consumer newspapers and magazines, pop psychology and self-help books, and new-age inspired newsletters. In reading TWBIM, when I started actually checking the book's bibliography for details on the many citations, I was astonished. I found that most of the dramatic claims in this book have extraordinarily weak source references! With the source as given, there is no way for the reader (or presumably Jensen himself) to evaluate the quality of the research design, the claims made by the experimenters themselves, or the projectability or suitability to real world situations. Here are some examples:

    Page Intriguing claim ... ... Disappointing reference
    8 Left hemisphere observes "positive" emotions, right hemisphere notes "negative" emotions "The Healing Brain and How It Keeps Us Healthy" (pop book)
    23 27% of kids 9-13 play videogames 2 to 6 hours per day (a rather unbelievable claim) USA Today
    24 If kids are not forced to read, but encouraged to read when they're ready, this will produce better readers with no reading disorders or dyslexia "Mothering" (pop book)
    25 "Many" kids have diets with only simple carbohydrates, insufficient for even basic learning and memory. "Managing Your Mind and Mood Through Food" (pop book)
    25 "Many" children have food allergies that can cause behavioral and learning problems. "Getting Better With Nutritional Therapy" (pop book)
    25 Specific listed foods are "good for the brain" "Feeding the Brain" (pop book)
    36 "Higher IQ brains" fire more neurons upon novel stimuli "Owner's Manual for the Brain" (pop book)
    38 Problem solving uses some of the same brain lobes used for music, art and movement Minneapolis Star-Tribune (lifestyle story)
    45 Regular 20-minute breaks increase productivity "The 20 Minute Break: Using the New Science of Ultradian Rhythms" (pop book)
    45 Workers need 5 to 10 minutes breaks every hour and a half "Owner's Manual for the Brain" (pop book)
    49 Some students are "out of control" due to genetic problems "Personality: It's In The Genes", BrainWaves newsletter (!)
    54 Classrooms with full-spectrum lighting lead to fewer absences and better moods "Did You Know That?" column in "Bottom Line Personal" newsletter
    54 Keeping eyes focused on a computer is stressful "BrainGym" magazine (!)
    69 A morning walk, discussion of personal problems, and stretching improves learning "Quantum Learning" (Dell Paperbacks, pop book)
    85 Students doing "dance activities" boosted their reading scores "Teaching the Three R's Through Movement Experiences" (pop book)
    86 Extra hour of gym leads to higher exam scores "Smart Moves" (pop book)
    86 Aerobic activity boosts short-term memory "Boost Your Brain Power" (Rodale Press pop book)
    87 Teaching art promotes "visual thinking" "Drawing as Thinking" in "Think Magazine" (!)
    87 Playground spinning stimulates the brain "Brain/Mind Bulletin"
    87 Art classes produce academic excellence Minneapolis Star-Tribune (lifestyle story about a single, rural, Southern school)
    89 Physical activity is essential in promoting normal growth of mental function "Smarter, Healthier, Happier" - booklet of the International Health, Racquet and Sports Club Association

    Of course, at least some of these claims are undoubtedly true. However, with the citations given, the reader simply cannot determine their validity. Moreover, since it seems safe to assume that Jensen himself used these pop culture references as his sources, it appears that he hasn't gone very far in checking these claims either!

    Even in some of the rarer occasions when Jensen does use authoritative sources, a red flag becomes apparent on whether the study is being quoted out of context in a way that makes its findings unprojectible to the typical classroom. Jensen says that music groups trained in folk songs have significantly higher reading scores, but checking the citation we learn that this is from the Journal of Learning Disabilities, which makes one wonder about the representativeness of the test groups.

    Many of Jensen's wildest claims are presented as unreserved statements of fact with no citation at all! He says (page 15) that "we use less than 1 percent of 1 percent of our brain's projected processing capacity", a new age axiom that is ludicrous on its face. He claims (page 21) that "Today's 2-year-old has spent an estimated 500 hours in a car seat". This works out to be an average of 40 minutes for every child on every single day, a figure far too high to take seriously. Jensen blurts out the outlandish claim that "the single best way to grow a better brain is through challenging problem solving" (page 35), presented without a shred of evidence and ignoring other compelling factors including rich, stimulating environments, active use of the brain in learning and talking, exposure to new situations and concepts, and even nutrition.

    Jensen claims (page 18) that kids today have "more exposure to ... TV", which is dead wrong. Television usage by both kids and teens has been dropping consistently through the past two decades.

    All of this adds up to Jensen's greatest failing: a remarkable lack of critical judgment. The written word is NOT self-validating. Jensen takes numerous disconnected, unjuried, untested claims from popular press feature articles, self-improvement paperbacks and dubious new age newsletters, and even a racquetball club leaflet, and accepts them as solid facts. Worse, he passes on some claims that are totally uncited, unproven or even provably wrong.

    Jensen tips us off to his willingness to accept just about any source, no matter how absurd or preposterous, by referring (page 16) to "demonstrated thought transference" and "extraordinary use of ESP [and] remote viewing".

    In short, Jensen is not doing science.

    Jensen is a vendor of books, seminars and workshops, not a scientist, so this isn't too surprising.

What About REAL Brain Research?

    There certainly is extensive, serious research being done on how the brain learns. However, Jensen largely ignores it at best, and is possibly unaware of it at worst.

    It's quite revealing to compare what serious brain researchers are saying about education, and to compare that to Jensen's references. For example, Simon McCrea of the University of Alberta and John Mueller of the Department of Educational Psychology at the University of Calgary authored a paper, "Implications of Neuropsychology For Educators". It included a bibliography with 25 references to recent serious studies on the brain and learning, with some 37 authors listed. We might well surmise that this serious, scientific bibliography captures a good slice of what is happening in this field of the brain and learning.

    Now compare this list of serious, scientific citations, with the bibliography given in Teaching With The Brain In Mind:

    • Of the 25 references on the brain and learning cited by the scientists, only two were cited by Jensen! One of those is apparently a standard neuropsychology textbook. The other is Gardner's book on "multiple intelligences", and from the context it appears that this book may be on the scientists' list more as a centerpiece for debate rather than as a real source.
    • Of the 37 scientist authors on the "serious" reference list, none of any of their works are cited by Jensen (except for the two references above).


    Jensen seems to have USA Today, the International Health, Racquet and Sports Club Association and the self-help section at Border's well-covered. What he's missing is real science.

What DOES Brain Research Tell Us About Education?

    When reading Teaching With The Brain In Mind, one quickly is struck by how little time the book actually spends talking about the brain! Almost all of the topics discussed would be better labelled as cognitive science, not neurology or neuropsychology.

    One researcher, Dr. Paul Regnier, writes:

    "The idea that neuroscience has produced any findings that can help improve instruction is totally bogus. This is one of those ideas that has taken hold in the education community without any attempt to vet it with actual scientists doing the actual science on which the idea is putatively based.

    "As I said in my letter in the Jan. 13 Education Week: 'I challenge any ...[promoters of 'brain-based education'] to find actual neuroscientists (people who do research on the workings of the physical brain) who will vouch for their claims.' No takers yet."

    I wrote to Dr. Regnier asking for his opinion on Eric Jensen. Here is what he wrote to me in reply,

    "Jensen holds national conferences on this stuff. I noticed in a flyer for one of them that some reputable neuroscientists were scheduled to speak. I e-mailed them and one responded, saying that he thought he was just going to explain neuroscience to some teachers who had an interest; he had no idea what would surround his presentation."

    (Just for background, Dr. Regnier holds a Ph.D. in comparative literature from the University of Wisconsin. He has worked in public education as a teacher and administrator for 25 years in New York State and Virginia. His most recent publication is "The Superintendent of the Future" (Aspen, 1998), and he is Director of the Intellectual Life of Schools project, sponsored by George Mason University.)

    An excellent overview of the hoopla surrounding brain-based education and its dubious impact on schools is provided in "Brain Research Oversold, Experts Say" written by Valerie Strauss in the Washington Post, March 13, 2001. Replying to an administrator (in the failing D.C. school system) who says he plans to revamp early childhood education with the "latest brain research," the article replies, "The only problem: Top brain researchers say it can't be done." While granting that "One day, its findings may have broad applications for education .. it cannot yet tell most teachers what or when to teach or how to organize their curriculum, many experts say." The article quotes several experts with extraordinarily stark assessments of this fad:

    • "You can't go from neuroscience to the classroom, because we don't know enough neuroscience."
      -- 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 ... Educators are making a very big mistake by wasting their time on 'brain-based' curricula."
      -- John T. Bruer, president of the McDonnell Foundation in St. Louis

    • "Snake oil"
      -- Sam Wineburg, professor at the College of Education at the University of Washington in Seattle

    • "There is an enormous body of brain research, but with the brain being easily the most complicated thing we know about in the universe, we really still understand very little about it"
      -- Bryan D. Fantie, director of the Human Neuropsychology Laboratory and Behavioral Neurosciences Doctoral Program at American University

    In a recent paper published in Educational Researcher (November 1997), Dr. John T. Bruer of the James S. McDonnell Foundation takes to task attempts to link neurology and brain research with educational theory. His paper, " Education and the Brain: A Bridge Too Far", warns educators not to be deceived by claims of such links:

    "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."

    In another paper, "Put Brain Science on the Back Burner", Dr. Bruer writes,

    "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."

    Dr. Bruer has authored a truly breakthrough article on brain research and education, published in the May 1999 issue of Phi Delta Kappa's Kappan, "In Search Of ... Brain-Based Education". If you are interested in the relationship between genuine neuroscience and what the free-lance ed consultants like Jensen are saying, then you must read this paper. Point by point, Dr. Bruer dissects the most popular claims, and relates them to what is really known. In his introduction, Dr. Bruer warns of the danger of blind faith in using these claims to justify a host of educational trends:

    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.

    An article "Resisting Education's Fads" in the Christian Science Monitor (August 25, 1998) devoted a healthy chunk of text to brain-based learning, also warning of the disconnect between real research and classroom practice, and also quoting Dr. Bruer:

    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.

    Finally, on a personal note, a professor of educational psychology (who asked me not to use his name) read an earlier edition of this review and wrote to me,

    I really appreciate your review of Jensen's book. I am really sick and tired of the new breed of scam artist known as "brain-based researcher" who have an incredibly limited knowledge of neurology and learning systems. They sell their ideas to people who don't have any basic knowledge of brain function as if this "research" is the answer to America's educational problems. I'm not surprised when the public eats it up! There seems to be about three of us yelling against the tide that this material is bogus. Hey, I plan to keep yelling.

    ...You brought to light a lot of the points that I've been concerned about as I watch the frenzy about brain-based learning sweeping the field of education.

    As your review points out, when you read the work of real neuropsychologists they all feel like certain people (like Jensen) are way too excited about brain-based learning. We just don't know enough yet. People seem to feel frustrated when I say that and seem to want me to be able to tell them fun and easy ways to make learning better for kids. When you boil down the advice of the brain-based crowd it all seems to be suggestions that would be considered "good instruction." Many are almost common sense ideas like "deliver the content in a variety of ways." Did we really need a workshop leader to tell us that?

The Story Within the Omissions:
Jensen's Odd Gaps

    So, we have discovered that Jensen's book does not correlate well with real brain research.

    This is not a medical, neurological or psychological textbook: it is not intended to be a thorough review of brain research and its implications for education. In a way, this is disappointing, because a more thorough, academically-grounded treatment of the topic would have a more substantive basis. A better grasp of what is known in this field would have helped create a book with stronger implications for learning.

    Notably, Jensen's sources have a curious omission as a group: He seems to avoid reference to well known and authoritative sources whose opinions fly in the face of trendy educational theorists. There is no mention of E. D. Hirsch, Jeanne Chall, Chester Finn, Diane Ravitch, Charles Sykes, Elaine McEwan or William Bennett for example, nor any mention of the huge battle in California (Jensen's home) over standards for math and science (a battle which has now been settled decisively in favor of substance over platitudes). Much of what these experts have to say, and much of the popular debate, centers on how kids learn but Jensen says nothing, not even to offer a contrasting view. The educrats see these experts as persona non grata and the public outcry as a heresy, so they simply do not exist as far as Jensen is concerned. If Jensen wants to sell his commercial workshops and seminars to educational administrators, he needs their nihil obstat on his book.


    Startling Omission #1:
    Neural Networks

    The very first time I heard the title Teaching With The Brain In Mind, my immediate reaction was, "Ah, neural networks and training strategies." There is substantial interest in computer circles about computer neural network models that attempt to mimic the organizational structure and operation of the human brain (albeit in a simplified fashion). A large chunk of writing about this topic concerns the best approaches to "training" (that's the term used) of neural nets. It turns out that the manner of presentation, the size of chunks of data presented, the number of repetitions, and cycling through elements to be considered are crucial variables that affect the "training" process and its degree of success in producing a neural net that does useful things.

    Here's an example. The classic (and stereotypical) application of neural networks is in pattern recognition, and the classic example of that is recognition of alphabetic characters. A neural network that is trained by repeated exposures to each letter in sequence will not be as successful as training that presents each letter one a time and then repeats the alphabet. Also, there are definite discoveries and discussions about strategies regarding how often and in what sequence troublesome elements should be repeated in training.

    For example, a study reported in Science News ( Learning May Unify Distant Brain Regions by B. Bower, Science News, March 6, 1999) provides this tantalizing evidence in favor of repetition, practice and knowledge:

    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.

    Wow -- all of this certainly sounds like it has huge relevance to the topic at hand!

    But despite the very substantial amount that has been written on the subject of computer neural nets, their specification and their training, parallels with biological systems, with many books on the subject and numerous websites, and despite the obvious potential classroom implications, Jensen doesn't mention this topic at all!

    I can easily surmise two reasons why Jensen omits mention of neural networks:

    First, including neural networks would be too much like real research. The USA Today doesn't cover this technical subject, so it might be completely off of Jensen's pop culture radar.

    Second, the whole experience and development of the field of neural networks depends on refining an understanding of the roles of presentation and repetition. Neural networks learn through repeated presentations of data, and much of the subject literature is concerned with the nature of how data is presented, the order of presentation, and the frequency of presentation. As I will cover next, the whole notion of repetition is anathema to Jensen's target audience.

    Startling Omission #2:
    The Role of Repetition

    Jensen completely avoids mentioning the vast amount of evidence that practice and repetition are unquestionably vital for success in virtually every aspect of mastering a new skill, whether mental, computational, social, athletic, linguistic, expressive, musical or performance arts, or just about anything else.

    Jensen ignores recent (1999) research demonstrating that children can gain algorithmic competency through repetition and practice of math, without ever needing to discuss the algorithms themselves.

    Jensen ignores Hirsch's demonstration that place value in arithmetic is learned best through the understanding that comes from repeated practice on two-digit addition problems.

    Jensen ignores research in music, showing that initial understanding of musical relationships and patterns is readily intuited by children merely through repetition and practice.

    A recent paper succinctly describes the attack on the common-sense notion of practice:

    "This criticism of practice (called "drill and kill," as if this phrase constituted empirical evaluation) is prominent in constructivist writings. Nothing flies more in the face of the last 20 years of research than the assertion that practice is bad. All evidence, from the laboratory and from extensive case studies of professionals, indicates that real competence only comes with extensive practice (e.g., Hayes, 1985; Ericsson, Krampe, Tesche-Romer, 1993). In denying the critical role of practice one is denying children the very thing they need to achieve real competence. The instructional task is not to "kill" motivation by demanding drill, but to find tasks that provide practice while at the same time sustaining interest. Substantial evidence shows that there are a number of ways to do this; "learning-from-examples," a method we will discuss presently, is one such procedure that has been extensively and successfully tested in school situations."

    -- "Applications and Misapplications of Cognitive Psychology to Mathematics Education", by John R. Anderson, Lynne M. Reder and Herbert A. Simon, Department of Psychology, Carnegie Mellon University

    Why does TWBIM have this glaring omission? I suspect that the reason is because the common-sense notion of "practice makes perfect" is pejoratively maligned as "drill and kill" by the new age educational theorists. To sell his courses and books to that market, Jensen may be wise to ignore this entire subject.


    Startling Omission #3:

    Jensen provides a lengthy chapter on attention, but I could not find a single reference anywhere to a key enemy of attention: distraction.

    Jensen gives many suggestions for aiding attention, including

    • having the teacher move around the room
    • changing voice tones, tempo or accent
    • adding novelty and surprises to the lesson
    • using guest speakers
    • tossing in claps, foot stomps, whistles, noisemakers and singing
    • wearing costumes

    Sounds like Jensen recommends everything but a trained chimp act!

    That's not to say that some of these aren't valuable. In fact, it's delightful to see someone in the education industry so enthusiastically supporting thhe role of the teacher as the center of instruction!

    But he says nothing about the obviously practical step of enhancing attention by also reducing distractions, such as by maintaining some degree of order in the classroom and perhaps toning down the students' physical wanderings.

    It would also greatly aid attention to give kids substantive textbooks with clear uncluttered layouts, instead of huge "Tokyo By Night" textbooks chock-full of MTV-style graphic distractions. (As an example, see the mediocre series, "Scott Foresman Addison Wesley Math")

    Of course, it would be unwise for Jensen to offer any of those suggestions: educrats just hate the notion that there should be limits to kids' freedom, and textbook adoption committees hardly ever actually thoroughly read the textbooks they review, and are instead easily dazzled by meaningless visual glitz.

    But there is another method for holding attention!

    It's almost magical how well this method works, and it works in all aspects of human society: business relationships, dating, family interactions or as a teacher in a classroom. But Jensen ignores this breakthrough method entirely. This amazing magical method is this: say something interesting. Kids and adults enjoy learning substantive things! To hold interest in a classroom, teach! But the concept that the teacher has something worthwhile to teach is repudiated as an antique at virtually every ed school in our country. Recent studies have found that teachers "rarely used content facts and concepts as a means to establish interest." (For more on that, see: Lost In Action: Are Time-Consuming, Trivializing Activities Displacing The Cultivation Of Active Minds?" by Gilbert T Sewall, "American Educator" magazine, American Federation Of Teachers, Summer 2000.)

    Jensen, as a devout progressivist, is not about to upset the apple cart.


    Startling Omission #4:

    If there is any key element going on in a child's brain that is vital to a self-starting enthusiasm to education, it is curiosity. It would seem that a successful education, and bootstrapping a child's interest in learning, would have a lot to do with curiosity.

    But what is this thing called curiosity? What encourages it? What discourages it? What forms does it take? What is current thinking about how the brain correlates seemingly unrelated material to come up with novel questions? Is it psychological, chemical, genetic? What brain activity is taking place (PET or MRI) as the brain works on such puzzles, or when new questions are being formed? What affects curiosity? Nutrition, exercise, ability to verbalize? What is the academic groundwork on this?

    Unfortunately, and oddly, "curiosity" does not appear in TWBIM's index, and I do not recall this juicy topic being mentioned at all.


    Still More Omissions!

    It's easy to come up with other areas that are glaringly absent. Many of these gaps are probably due to poor research rather than a politically correct agenda.

    Example: Science News and Scientific American, if my recollection serves, have carried several stories related to a conjectured "interpreter" function in the brain, whose purpose it is to take new, incoming data (sights, sounds, ideas) and interpret them in terms of "known" quantities. The novelty of this approach (again, as I recall) was in running lab experiments to consider just what the brain does when it has to do with something completely out of the subjects' experience. (I read these articles because they seemed to have a great deal to do with how people deal with pseudoscience, and I've been curious about that subject.) From what I've read, I gather that this is again a hot topic, and highly relevant to the premise of this book, but again Jensen completely misses it.

    And one more: In the chapter on stress and threats, Jensen mentions the stress produced by the "barely audible hum" of most fluorescent lighting. Since I have tinnitus, I was very intrigued years ago by research done by Dr. Douglas Covert of University of Evansville on the seemingly innocuous hum from computer monitors and its effects on speed and accuracy of task completion in classroom situations. Jensen doesn't mention this, and that's a concern as one, two or more humming computers are placed in classrooms. (In a nutshell: Covert found that accuracy dropped in the presence of the monitor sound, but speed went up, as if students subconsciously desired to get out of the situation!)


    Why These Omissions?

    Why all of these omissions? Because this is not a survey book of the topic, and it is not a book of science. In fact, the book does not even claim to be an academically rigorous, exhaustive, or even a balanced treatment.

So, Who Is Eric Jensen?

    The bio given in the book for Eric Jensen is spartan at best. For education credentials, Jensen claims to have taught "at all levels", but no specifics are provided. We don't know if this means faculty positions, or merely commercial seminars. If Jensen was a faculty classroom teacher, we learn nothing about what institutions or length of service.

    His own educational credentials would seem minimal to qualify as an expert: he was an English major in college, and he is currently pursuing a "Ph.D." degree in something called "media psychology" from a mostly online program offered by an entity in Santa Barbara, California.

    In searching the web, I quickly found Jensen's website for his business, "Jensen Learning Corporation". His commercial venture, based in southern California, is doing what he no doubt excels at, doing seminars and workshops. For persons who are gifted in presentations and motivational speaking, this is a very good career choice. But Jensen does not appear to be an educational administrator, or a doctor, or a Ph.D., or a neuroscientist, or a scientist, or a psychologist.

    Jensen offers no credentials for science, psychology, medicine or other related areas.

    That is, except for mention of two professional memberships: One is the New York Academy of Science, but this group does not have any particular membership requirements; you can join online for $60. The other membership mentioned is the Society For Neuroscience, but while most SFN members have either Ph.D. or M.D. degrees, the only real requirement for membership is two references and ownership of $125.

    I don't intend all of this as an ad hominem, because it is no doubt true that good ideas remain valuable regardless of source. In science, all-too-often we've seen fresh ideas ignored because they didn't come from the properly credentialed source.

    Nonetheless, looking deeper into the author's background tells us more on how to approach this book. It tells me that when it comes to lots of ideas, great presentation, exhortation to innovate, and sheer motivation, then Jensen's the right man. But when it comes to meaningful gathering of sources and selection of material, research analysis, and authoritative conclusions from known data, then other sources must be consulted.

    The greatest danger of all is that schools use the message of TWBIM in support of trendy progressivist "reforms" in their schools. Even Eric Jensen himself sees this; in a personal e-mail message to me, Eric wrote,

    "Schools have used TWBIM for all sorts of agendas, supporting whatever they believe in, much of it never intended or stated in the book."

    -- Eric Jensen


    After reading (and, to a good extent, enjoying) Jensen's book, I feel that my conclusions are best expressed in a clear, punchy table:

    "Teaching With The Brain In Mind"
    by Eric Jensen
    Is this book...
    Thought provoking?
    Enjoyable to read?
    A call to action for fresh thinking on how kids learn?
    Does this book...
    Thoroughly cover current research on the brain and implications for learning?
    Demonstrate a solid grounding in science?
    Prove its premises?
    Provide evidence to support a course of action?
    Additional sources would be needed to do any of this.

    Your comments are warmly invited! Please write to me at here at the Illinois Loop.
    -- Kevin Killion

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