Neuroscience Nonsense

Yes, that’s an in-your-face title, but having written previously about how education isn’t particularly good at using research, but is good at jumping at fads, here are two links that illustrate the misuse of research in education.

Sarah Sparks writes a blog for Ed Week which I don’t regularly read, but after running into this entry I think I’m going to subscribe.  On August 11, she wrote “Making a Mountain of an Educational Neuroscience Molehill,” in which she links to a Nature journal article that takes a critical look at the hype surrounding several educational applications of neuroscience clamining to improve student performance.  The article, “Power failure: why small sample size undermines the the reliability of neuroscience,” offers a somewhat statistically dense explanation of why many of the reported positive effects of various neuroscience educational applications are of questionable value: They come from studies with too few students/cases to be reliable.  This means they can’t be replicated with any regularity, and the likelihood that the results are actually true is not very high.  

Over the years, education has been peppered with a wide range of proposals to improve student performance based on weak research followed by someone’s feel-good suggestions about how our brains work.  Sparks notes the left-brain/right-brain research in her article.  This is among the most popular fallacious notions about learning approaches, very popular among educators, the subject of many books, and unsupported by well-designed neurological research.  Another notion that feels good and sounds good to teachers is learning style research, which suggests that we have to identify a preferred learning style for children in order to design instruction that will be effective for them.  This too, is unsupported by carefully designed research, and might have even more books written about how to implement learning styles than the right-brain/left-brain theories.

That learning styles is unsupported is a shocker to me: It just feels like it makes sense to me.  My doctoral dissertation research was heavily invested in Myers-Briggs type, and my early research looked into several variations of learning styles and communication styles and how they might influence administrative behaviors.  It seems to me that I can identify students from my 20+ years in the classroom that responded differently to changes in my teaching style.  That children can learn in many ways is clear.  That they respond differently to different teachers is also clear.  That this has to do with learning styles is not, in hard-core research terms, demonstrable.

Another ‘movement’ that was going to help our low achievers blossom was the effort to reinforce positive self-esteem among all students, including the low achievers.  Praise, praise, praise.  Always find something to praise even when results were dreadful.  Praise effort over results.  Most good teachers, fortunately, had a hard time doing that, because they knew that low-performing kids understood clearly that they didn’t get it and the praise was artificial.  Fortunately, enough good research evolved over time that I think this sugar-coating of low performance is no longer in vogue.  Kids benefit from successful learning experiences for which they deserve praise, not praise for performance they know is mediocre.

What does this mean in practice?  Many things, I think.  First, while we would like to see education as a science that can be nailed down with research-based explanations for everything so we can teach everyone how to do it, unfortunately it’s not all that easy.  I believe in research to attempt to understand want works, but I also believe that we have to pay attention to research that debunks the ‘innovations’ we emotionally adore.

Many educators want to say that teaching is an art, not a science.  I’m not one of them–there is a lot of science to teaching well.  We know a lot about what works.  Most teachers should be able to use that science to improve their teaching.  That some teachers can take the science of what works and do considerably better than average is where the artistry comes in.  I think it’s an interpersonal talent–an ability for a teacher to connect to students more completely or more consistently than other teachers.  Every teacher can connect with a few students every year: Some teachers connect with more than others.  A few teachers are magicians with kids.  We haven’t figured out the magic yet.  If we ever do, it will transform education.


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