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Thursday, April 19, 2012

Brain Science Is Not Education Science

The Metropolitan section of the New York Times last Sunday (April 15, 2012) presented on its first page an intriguing headline: “Making Education Brain Science”. The article, by Jenny Anderson, described a Manhattan private school, the Blue School, which is said to have been founded with the idea of incorporating scientific research about child development into the classroom, and is now “a kind of national laboratory for integrating cognitive neuroscience and cutting-edge educational theory into curriculum”.

What does this mean in practice? Anderson mentions teaching young children about the role of the amygdala in out-of-control behavior, and building in periods of reflection that are thought to facilitate executive functions.  Instruction about ways to  describe emotional experiences is also part of the curriculum. One kindergarten child, while “drawing his emotions”, described a battle between happy and angry feelings and said, “The happy fights angry, but angry gets blocked by the force field and can’t get out”; he also explained that happiness can escape through the mouth, but anger is blocked and turns into sadness--   presumably statements based on the instruction he had received and on the opinions of the school’s adviser, Daniel Siegel, co-author of The whole-brain child. Siegel advises against multi-tasking on the grounds that concentration is better at making synaptic connections, among other things.

But brain science, while a fascinating and worthwhile study in itself, is not directly relevant to educational methods. It may offer hints as to ways learning takes place, but those hints need to be tested empirically before we claim that they facilitate learning. Education science is a study of its own and carries out—or should carry out—randomized controlled trials of pedagogical methods, giving evidence about outcomes of different educational techniques.

Brain science, as it exists today, is in fact barely relevant to education science. To jump from one to the other is the error of critical thinking called the non sequitur; effective educational methods do not necessarily follow the suggestions we can derive from neuroscience. Believing that we can go straight from the first to the second is an example of what Howick, in his 2011 book The philosophy of evidence-based medicine, called the “pathophysiologic rationale”--   the belief that we understand how a process works, and what things can go wrong with it, so we can automatically decide how to solve the problem, without recourse to tedious outcome studies. This erroneous approach has been applied to educational decisions with increasing frequency since the 1997 White House Conference on Early Childhood Development and Learning: What New Research on the Brain Tells Us About Our Youngest Children. Although leaders like Kathy Hirsch-Pasek have argued strongly against the assumption that neuroscience automatically tells how education should proceed, the neuroscience fad continues to be embraced by the education community.

Presumably those who tell young children about the role of the amygdala also make suggestions about self-regulation or even guide young children to practice useful techniques (like counting to ten before speaking). If we see those children improving in self-regulation and therefore in educational success, to what do we attribute the improvement? Is it knowledge about the amygdala? Is it adult guidance toward techniques of self-control? Is it simply maturation?  Only genuine education science in the form of careful outcome studies can answer these questions. (However, I’m willing to bet that knowing the word “amygdala” has nothing to do with it.)

What, by the way, is happening with the kindergarten child who believes that happiness can get out of your mouth but anger gets blocked by a “force field”? Did he think this up for himself, or has the Blue School curriculum informed him that he needs catharsis of negative feelings--  a concept still accepted among psychoanalysts, but rejected by empirical work? If this is being taught, the Blue School has veered far from its stated dependence on neuroscience. The assumption that brain science defines pedagogy is bad enough, but to present outmoded psychological concepts as “education science” is a real mistake.

The Blue School seems to have important goals for children, including a shaping of their emotional lives toward positive achievement and an acknowledgment of the social aspects of learning as outlined over the years by Vygotsky, Barbara Rogoff, and many others. Genuine education science would test the importance of those goals and the effectiveness of the methods used to reach them. But you can’t create an education science by waving flags with the word “brain” embroidered on them.


  1. I thought you would like to know that several copies of the post appear in its body.

  2. Thanks for the heads-up, Stephanie-- I don't know why that happens sometimes.