Neuroscience and Early Childhood? A Dangerous Liaison

Article excerpt

Introduction

In asserting that neuroscience and early childhood is a `necessary partnership', Talay-Ongan joins the views of enthusiastic writers from the USA that are sweeping the field of education. Brain research is fascinating. It has the capacity to capture the imagination and thrill our desire for new discoveries with its use of cutting-edge technology. The media enjoy brain research, as it is embedded in hard-nosed scientific endeavour, and the computer-generated images make exciting copy. However, I urge early childhood professionals to avoid being charmed by the `looks good, feels good' factor. Neuroscience and early childhood appears to be a logical partnership, but we need to consider the research base before being seduced by persuasive rhetoric.

In answer to Talay-Ongan's claim that neuroscience will `enrich the field of early childhood', I argue that it is too soon to apply neuroscience to practice, because many studies are exploratory and offer few conclusive findings. In addition, prematurely coupling neuroscience with early childhood may be a dangerous liaison that could lead to an erosion of social justice for some groups of children. In particular, I suggest that the idea that `enriched environments' are important for children's brain development is not value neutral. Embedded in judgements about `enrichment' are moral commitments and ethical assumptions that need to be considered by early childhood professionals.

Background

Neuroscience as the panacea for educational ills is an appealing idea that has been easy to sell to the public (Le Doux, 1996). Governments welcome the `quick fix' and it is no coincidence that brain research and education connections have been supported by the United States Congress (Begley, 1996).

Talay-Ongan reflects the popular views of educators who are effusive in their support of brain research, for example, stating it is `indispensable' to `understand and apply this knowledge to our practice with young children'. However, it is important for early childhood professionals to examine the research base that substantiates any calls for change to practice, and we need to ask who is pushing the neuroscience/education partnership. Bruer (1998a) notes that educational futurists are transposing brain research to education, but neuroscientists have warned consistently against using their studies to guide practice. Fitzpatrick (a neuroscientist) said in a conversation with Jones (1995, p.24):

   Anything that people would say right now has a good chance of not being
   true two years from now because the understanding is so rudimentary and
   people are looking at things at such a simplistic level (my emphasis).

A partial picture of the research base may be conveyed when writers (such as Shore, 1997) simplify highly specialised scientific material for a broad audience, and caveats about the research findings may be easy to ignore. There have been many publications that show educators have ignored the neuroscientists' advice. Some authors talk about brain research as if conclusive evidence has been established; for example, Bimonte (1998, p. 16) asserts:

   The key to all learning is experience. It is experience that creates
   dendrites--the hair-like extensions that grow from neurons and create the
   neural pathways necessary for learning. The very best dendrites are grown
   from real world experience.

Bimonte does not cite evidence to support his view, and critics may say that currently such evidence does not exist. The lack of evidence has not hindered writers making many assumptions about the brain and scholastic achievements, and there has been a flurry of new publications to promote `brain based learning' (for example see Diamond & Hopson, 1998).

At times writers appear to confuse the fields of neuroscience and cognitive psychology, which is seen when `learning styles' are referred to in discussion of neuroscience. …