A Challenge to Brain-Based Educators

Phi Delta Kappan, November 1999 | Go to article overview

A Challenge to Brain-Based Educators


Congratulations to the Kappan for publishing John Bruer's article debunking so-called brain-based education ("In Search of . . . Brain-Based Education," May). As Bruer points out, there is no scientific support for the notion that the scientific study of the physical brain (neuroscience) has produced findings that can help us improve instruction. Those of us who work in K-12 education need to press for actual scientific support for claims like this and not accept the assertion of such writers as David Sousa, Renate and Geoffrey Caine, and Eric Jensen. Unfortunately, pseudoscientific claims such as theirs are too common in our profession.

Here is a very simple demand that I have made a number of times of people who make claims such as those Bruer debunks: produce an actual neuroscientist (that is, someone who does research on the physical brain) who supports these assertions. This is a very simple demand, but I do not think it can be met. Paul Regnier, Washington, D.C.

A Gathering of Minds

We wish to respond to John Bruer's May article ("In Search of . . . Brain-Based Education") in which our and others' work on the relevance of brain research for educators was called into question. We are puzzled by a number of things. For example, we would like to know why Bruer chose to use only one of our brain/mind learning principles and why he would want to choose to quote something we wrote over 10 years ago, given that he knows how quickly research in the neurosciences is unfolding. We originally relied on the two publications by Springer and Deutsch, works by Gazzaniga, and the original research done by Sperry and others. As a matter of course, we update our own knowledge and refine the principles as required, as evidenced by our more recent books.

There is something else that is problematic in Bruer's writings. Anyone familiar with the field of neuroscience knows that it is riddled with controversy and that the birth of definitive, undisputed conclusions is extremely rare. It is also a field that is exploding and upsetting new theories and beliefs on an almost weekly basis. A good example is the discovery of new brain cells in the hippocampus when everyone had believed that brain cells do not regenerate. In such a controversial and chaotic process, it is easy to "pick your neuroscientist." Bruer continually references scientists who support his position while ignoring other pioneers, such as Marian Diamond and others at the University of California, Berkeley, or researchers at the University of California, Irvine, who contradict or at least question many of his arguments on plasticity. When taking a position as demanding and unequivocal as his, we suggest that he spell out his biases beforehand.

Bruer rightly draws attention to the trivialization of brain research, a point that we have been making for 12 years. However, his argument that neuroscience has nothing to offer educators today simply misses the point. Bruer correctly notes that brain research (for the most part) cannot be directly applied to educational practice (a point we have also made repeatedly). But the implication to draw from that fact is that brain research needs to be synthesized with research from other domains. When that happens, practical implications and applications abound.

It is precisely because of the complexity of the research on learning that we organized our documentation around general systems principles. The principles are reference points both for educators and for research on learning. They are, if we dare to say it, a new type of bridge. Documenting the principles relies heavily on the work of others. We make our biases clear from the start and do our best to provide educators with information, research, and conclusions that support these principles.

In fact, our own work for the last 12 years has been devoted to reconciling the often conflicting views of neuroscientists with the equally disparate views of cognitive scientists and integrating these with research from fields as diverse as stress theory, anxiety research, memory in its multiple forms, creativity, sports psychology, linguistics, and more. …

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