Look before You Leap: Concerns about "Brain-Based" Products and Approaches

Article excerpt

Jenny has been teaching kindergarten for two years. She has a very small budget for classroom supplies and materials. There seems to be so much that her classroom needs, and yet so little money with which to buy it. Jenny realizes the importance of making the money go as far as possible, while trying to meet the needs of the school's diverse, urban population of children.

Last week, Jenny attended a professional development conference and heard a well-known speaker from out of state talking about brain research and children's development. The speaker was quite good at describing how the brain functions. Afterwards, looking through some school supply catalogs, Jenny came across several products designed to facilitate the brain development of 5-year-olds. Her plans to purchase a large set of classroom unit blocks are put aside in favor of new plans to buy the "brain-based" products. After all, Jenny believes, children deserve the best start possible. What better way to ensure that outcome than with scientifically based products?

Unfortunately, the above scenario may become more common. Articles about brain research may lead principals, teachers, and parents to believe that we now know all about how the brain develops. But do we? At a 1999 symposium on brain development held by the Foundation for Academic Excellence, neuroscientists, psychologists, and educators were asked to describe their groundbreaking research on brain development and learning. The symposium focused on the impact of music and art on brain development. The first scientist to speak was asked, "How does the brain work?" He answered, "I have no idea." This set the tone for the symposium, and none of the invited speakers reported having proof of any specific teaching technique or material that would create smarter children. Before Jenny and other teachers or principals make decisions and spend money, it is important to ask some integral questions about brain research.

What Does Brain Research Tell Us About "Critical Periods"?

Brain research has focused on the physiology of the brain. A pair of studies often cited (Chugani, 1998; Chugani, Phelps, & Mazziotta, 1987) used positron emission tomography (PET) to measure glucose and oxygen utilization in the brains of children, infancy through age 15, who had histories of seizures. The purpose was to provide information about the various areas of brain activity during children's maturation.

Positron emission tomography is an invasive test that uses tracer elements injected into the brain via vein catheters. The positron-emitting isotopes are recorded by a CAT scanner while the patient's head is kept still in a special brace. Specialists use a mathematical formula to plot the results. It is important to note that this kind of research, by law, cannot be done on children who have had no history of neurological disorders.

The data from such tests have become the basis for what some consider to be physical proof of "critical periods" in early brain development (Kotulak, 1997). Chugani's study indicated that children's brain activity, until age 16, stayed at a higher level than adults' did. Scientists also matched periods of brain activity to developmental growth behaviors. For example, it was found that a newborn's brain activity corresponded to the infant's sense of touch and bodily sensation (Bruer, 1999b).

Analysis of this type of research also seems to show that repeated use of neuronal pathways will result in certain connections being strengthened, while some are lost (Chugani, 1998). What this research does not show, however, is what kinds of activities create strong connections and which do not. It also does not explain why neural connections are lost. Perhaps the loss is a natural and necessary part of brain development.

What Does Brain Research Tell Us About "Enriched Environments"?

In an article that appeared in Time magazine, Madeleine Nash writes, "Rich experiences . …