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Ed. Magazine

The Myths and Promises of the Learning Brain

[caption id="attachment_8597" align="alignleft" width="185" caption="Bigelow Professor Kurt Fischer (Karlyn Morissette photo"][/caption] We live in an Age of Biology. With new information about the brain rapidly emerging, we now look to biology for answers on everything from how to help children read to how to retain information and what types of curriculum best serve children’s brains. Brain science is a fascinating and dynamic discipline. It is likely that new research in the next several decades will offer insights that make important advances in the fields of learning and teaching. As a scientist, I can’t imagine a more thrilling field of research. But I also feel a responsibility to caution educators to approach brain science with considerable skepticism. This field is still in its infancy; much of the data in cognitive science, neuroscience, and genetics is incomplete. Far too often, new findings are misunderstood and disseminated by the press and other media—setting in motion a series of chain reactions and the establishment of some myths that are sometimes both entertaining and damaging.

Remember the Mozart Effect? That’s a perfect example of how basic research can become distorted.
Remember the Mozart Effect? That’s a perfect example of how basic research can become distorted. In 1992, responsible researchers at the University of California, Irvine, happened upon an interesting finding that showed that when college students listened to Mozart for 20 or 30 minutes shortly before an exam, they tested a little bit better than average on certain kinds of spatial problem-solving tasks. This made a lot of sense: There’s significant evidence in cognitive science and brain science that suggests that, when particular areas of the brain are primed, people perform tasks a little bit better for a short time. Unfortunately, this finding was grossly exaggerated by the press and by policymakers. We ended up with the governor of Georgia partnering with Sony Music to give classical music CDs to families of newborns and Florida’s state-run childhood centers piping in Bach, Vivaldi, and Mozart, all in the hope of making babies smarter! Today, hopeful parents are buying Sony’s Build Your Baby’s Brain series of classical CDs, because they have been sold a success story with absolutely no grounding in science: “Bach in the bassinet and Beethoven with the bottle... next stop, the Ivy League!” Here’s another myth: otherwise intelligent school administrators have said they need to repaint classrooms in pastel colors because brain-based research indicated that children learn better in a pastel environment. That’s nonsense. Another wild and widely influential theory was disseminated by several American biologists and educators in the late 1970s. They told boards of education around the country that children’s ability to learn could be determined by growth in the circumference of their skulls. The theory was that when the skull isn’t growing larger, the brain isn’t growing larger, and that makes it impossible for children to learn anything new. Of course, that isn’t true at all. It doesn’t even make sense biologically. There was no evidence that correlated learning with the size of a child’s brain or skull. What is true is simply that boys and girls showed different head-growth patterns in adolescence. Because of these scientists’ recommendations, some school administrators considered separating classrooms by gender so children wouldn’t be challenged by these alleged biological differences. It took an aggressive counter-effort—including consultations with school boards, public statements by scientists, and scientifically grounded articles published in highly respected journals—to put a stop to these faulty steps.
We educators must make sure that research is conducted responsibly and that we are training people to truly understand the connection between brain science and the world of education.
That’s when it became clear to me that educators have a strong desire to make a connection between biology and scientific findings. And, in fact, this is a wonderful breakthrough. For a long time, educators have resisted biology as a source of information. They have feared that, if they followed a medical model, they would end up stigmatizing children’s problems as biologically determined and fixed. But we can move beyond that, and we must. In fact, modern biology shows that an individual’s learning environment influences the growth of new patterns of activity in the brain—it even shapes how genes are expressed in brain activity. To build appropriate connections with biology, we educators must make sure that research is conducted responsibly and that we are training people to truly understand the connection between brain science and the world of education. At the Ed School, we’re conducting research that has revealed important correlations between psychological development and brain development. Children, adolescents, and young adults demonstrate clear spurts in optimal performance for particular skills at the ages of 3 ½-4 ½, 6-7, 10-12, 14-16, 19-21, and 24-26 years. Research on cortical activity also shows physical brain growth spurts at similar ages. During those periods, a new cycle of growth processes form around the cortex, promoting new learning and also creating an improved possibility for reworking old learning problems. Indeed, this work explains much of the adaptability of human learning and shows why adults, as well, can learn many new things. We recently developed a model of how cortical changes relate to cognitive changes. Eventually, this research will influence important new developments in curricula and modifications in classroom teaching styles. But there’s still a lot we don’t yet know for certain. In HGSE’s Mind, Brain, and Education Program, we’ve taken an interdisciplinary approach to training educators to understand the connections among neuroscience, cognitive science, and education. A group of our students, for instance, has been taking brain scans of children while they read; this information is enabling them to ask important questions about the way students learn to read. Another student is investigating how knowledge is organized in the brain, by modeling the learning process with tools from artificial intelligence; this promises to help educators design curriculum more effectively. Research by several other students is revealing that middle-school science students solve abstract problems more easily by thinking in terms of metaphors or models—for instance, by using a nail, a wire, and a battery as a model of how magnetism works. Teachers are empowered by information like this. Here at HGSE, many of our students plan to become teachers and administrators, and, in the age of biology, we need to be preparing teachers and administrators who can say “I know about biological research, and this claim makes sense, but that other claim doesn’t make sense.” This is not just an Ed School effort; it is an international movement. Last November, I presented a paper with much of this information at the Vatican for the 400th anniversary of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences; half of the conference was devoted to analyzing how the mind and brain work in education. Sister programs to ours are taking root at Cambridge University and Dartmouth College. Next fall, HGSE is hosting a Usable Knowledge conference that will synthesize insights from leading researchers around the world who are building links between biology, cognitive science, and educational practice.
Educational theory must be research-based, just as medical theory is.
We are ushering the discipline of scientific research into educational practice and also bringing the insights of teachers into the laboratory. Educational theory must be research-based, just as medical theory is. The field will be more professional when educational practices, as a rule, are tested to determine when they work and when they don’t. We need to be able to say that “this educational intervention for kids with dyslexia helps 50 percent of the kids who fit a certain pattern, but only five percent of the kids who fit another kind of a pattern”—just as doctors break down results for medical treatments. Pushing toward these kinds of findings will feed back into classrooms in ways that are more honest and useful for the people who really matter: children. About the Article A version of this article originally appeared in the Spring 2004 issue of Ed., the magazine of the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

Ed. Magazine

The magazine of the Harvard Graduate School of Education

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