Evaluating "Brain-Based" Curricular Claims

Article excerpt

At least once a month, an advertisement for a "brain-based" curriculum in a particular content area arrives in my mailbox, a school official calls to ask my view of a newly marketed "brain-based" approach, or a brochure advertising a "brain-based" curriculum workshop is brought to my attention. Catalogs for educational products now tout the links between the products and specific areas of brain development, and parents are urged to buy many products purporting to stimulate development of certain skills during early "critical periods" for children's brains. This is especially true in early childhood education, (1) but it is increasingly evident in middle childhood and adolescent education as well.

Isn't it wonderful that parents' and educators' use of a special set of learning activities (usually requiring purchase of costly products) will now guarantee the optimal development of specific parts of children's brains! How exciting for educators to be able to embed the concepts of an important content area, such as social studies, more easily into students' brains with particular "brain-based curricula products! Or it is more likely that parents, educators, and product manufacturers have too quickly made assumptions about "brain-based" curriculum at a time when research on the brain, although full of possibilities, is still far from being able to show direct implications for specific educational practices? I believe the latter is the case.

Recently, my colleague at Miami University of Ohio, Juliet Coscia, and I wrote a book designed to give educators up-to-date information gained from recent brain research and to discuss how that knowledge might be use to educators. (2) We were both familiar with some of this research because of our own professional disciplines (Juliet is a neuropsychologist, and I am an educational psychologist). Our initial knowledge of specific brain research findings hinted at ways they might inform educational practice, and we assumed that an extensive search of this research base would give us a deeper and broader set of evidence that would allow us to make clear its practical use for educators.

Thus, we engaged in a systematic review of the findings from brain research, especially focusing on the knowledge gained through recent technological advances (for example PET, fMRI) that provide images of the living brain. (3) This research has added greatly to basic understanding of brain structures and functions, and has contributed to understanding the sequence of development of various areas of the brain. We were looking for any evidence that various environmental factors and particular experiences (such as specific educational methods) might affect brain development, either positively or negatively.

After an extensive search through the research literature, we concluded that the only convincing examples of child experience affecting brain structure that can be detected involved the development of the brains of infants and toddlers who had been exposed to extremely neglectful or abusive environments. (4) Such early experiences can result in deficient or abnormal development in areas of the brain, may affect long-term cognitive and social-emotional development (even this point is in dispute by some scientists). These ongoing studies, however, have not yet followed these specific children for a sufficient number of years to detect which changes might be reversible, or irreversible.

There is clear evidence that prenatal exposure to teratogens such as drugs or disease, or to situations of severe nutritional deprivation, does have irreversible negative effects on the developing brain of the fetus. These environmental factors may prevent normal development of the cortex, where higher brain processes are located. (5) Although this body of evidence is compelling, I have yet to see, in the United States, a call for "brain-based" low-cost prenatal care for all expectant mothers. …

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