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This is the thirteenth
of a series of IAE Newsletters exploring educational aspects of the
current cognitive neuroscience and technological revolution. Bob
Sylwester (Newsletter # 75) and Dave Moursund (Newsletter # 76) provide
two introductory articles. Newsletter #77 and subsequent newsletters
are written by guests.
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neuroscience. However, Dave Moursund will provide Information and
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How Educational Neuroscience Will Contribute to
21st Century Education
Executive Editor Emeritus, Educational Leadership
I have been encouraged by the editors of this series to offer my
perspective on the striking change in how educators view the brain. For
about 20 years I was executive editor of Educational Leadership
and other publications at the former Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (now simply ASCD).
Just a few decades ago, educators considered brain functioning as
mostly a mystery and irrelevant to their work. Some still do, but most
now recognize that knowledge about the brain is an essential part of
understanding learning. References to brain research are found
regularly not only in professional publications but almost daily in the
Praising Effort, Not Ability
For example, a recent article in The Washington Post
reported that teachers in Montgomery County, Maryland outside
Washington, D.C. are being asked to stop giving undeserved praise. The
article noted that some experts have warned for years that, compared
with their peers in other countries, American students tend to
overestimate their capabilities and that the cause was a mistaken
effort to build students’ “self esteem.” These authorities say that
when teachers tell students how “smart” they are, it gives children an
unrealistic view of their abilities. Teachers are advised to praise
effort rather than ability.
The article is an interesting example of how brain research has come to
be accepted as providing a basis for particular practices. It says
teachers at Rocky Hill Middle School in Montgomery County talk about
neuroplasticity and dentritic branching. They tell students, “You have
a whole different set of neurons popping up there!” Neuroscientists
might question the apparent oversimplification involved, but the
project is based squarely on the work of psychologist Carol Dweck of
Stanford University, author of the book Mindset
and an online curriculum called Brainology
. Dweck’s publications do cite brain research, although her recommendations are derived from numerous other sources as well.
A Long Search
Educators have long sought to base our professional practice on
scientific knowledge. Calls for valid research findings that would
support dependable recommendations were sounded throughout the 20th
Century. The Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, which
provided for creation of federally-funded research centers and regional
laboratories, was justified as a means of “putting research into
practice.” At that time, however, few people would have considered this
goal as including references to dendrites or neurons. And most editors
of education publications would have rejected manuscripts on the
subject. So what happened?
The editors of this series believe that in the years I spent as editor
and publisher at ASCD I played a role in this transition. If I was
unusually receptive to manuscripts on the subject, it may have been
because I had developed a deep interest in thinking and learning during
the eight years I spent as associate superintendent of the Lincoln,
Nebraska Public Schools. A related reason was that early in my career
as an educator I reached the conclusion that traditional methods of
education were outmoded and that we should experiment with a variety of
Early Books About Brain Research
I first became interested in the brain when I read How the Brain Works
by a free-lance writer, Leslie Hart. His descriptions of brain
functioning were not always accurate compared with the knowledge
available now, but his work was interesting because he was an
accomplished writer. It was also groundbreaking. Hart strongly
condemned behaviorism, then the prevailing theory of learning, on the
grounds that it was contrary to what medical researchers and cognitive
psychologists were beginning to understand about the brain. Although
behaviorism still has its place, most current cognitive psychologists
would undoubtedly agree.
I don’t know exactly when I read Hart’s book, but it was published in
1975, three years before I moved to ASCD. About that time I had begun
sponsoring a pair of capable entrepreneurs, Sydelle and Lyle Ehrenberg,
who had developed a teacher in-service program based on the works of
Irving Sigel, a child development psychologist at Princeton, and Hilda
Taba, a respected professor of education at the University of San
Francisco. The course was quite different from what most teachers had
encountered in education classes. It emphasized concept formation and
what a few years later would be called “thinking skills.” In Lincoln
the Ehrenbergs taught the course to the central office subject-matter
consultants I supervised, and the consultants then taught the course to
teachers of their subjects.
Another pioneering book, a copy of which is still on my shelves, was Richard Restak’s The Brain: The Last Frontier
published in 1979. When I glance through my copies of the books by Hart
and Restak, I note that both authors emphasized the work of
neuroscientist Paul MacLean and his concept of the “triune” brain
(reptilian, old mammalian, and new mammalian).
My Role as an Editor
These and probably other books published at the time suggest that
it was only reasonable that someone in my position—sort of a “traffic
cop” for ideas—should want to provide readers with information about
the brain. Although I surely did not realize it then, the explosion of
knowledge about the brain that has characterized the last three decades
was just beginning. It was my responsibility to be aware of it and
encourage it if I could.
A 1981 article by Robert Sylwester was probably the first article about the brain ever published in Educational Leadership
. In the years that followed, Educational Leadership
published more of his articles, as well as articles and books by other
capable interpreters of brain research such as Renate and Geoffrey
Caine. When I heard that Sylwester was retiring and might have some
time available, I urged him to write a book. He was reluctant, but
finally agreed—and the result was one of the most popular books ever
published by ASCD: A Celebration of Neurons
Other Exciting Ideas
I published books and articles about the brain for the same reason that
I chose to publish on other topics that I saw as potential ingredients
in a growing base of knowledge about teaching and learning. I was
excited by developments such as teaching thinking skills, cooperative
learning, effective teaching, multiple intelligences, differentiated
instruction, performance assessment, and outcome-based education. Each
of these terms, and numerous others, represent portions of the valuable
heritage that I believe future educators should be able to draw upon.
Unfortunately, these topics are considered by some people—including
some educators—as little more than fads that have distracted our
profession from the common-sense task of running schools.
I believed otherwise. I was personally excited as I learned about each
of these topics. They were thoroughly explored by thoughtful, committed
advocates. Proposed practices were tried and tested, and while some
proved unworkable, others were highly productive. Unfortunately many of
the ideas that I thought held great promise have been abandoned through
the years as schools tended to regress to conventional “tried and true”
I continue to wonder whether attention to such potential
improvements is in fact “faddish,” although I acknowledge that it would
be a huge challenge for any group of practicing educators to implement
simultaneously ALL the good ideas advocated by outside “experts.” In
fact, I wonder whether the structure of our profession may be a
contributing factor in what I see as our inability to sustain complex
changes. The field of education is characterized by a huge chasm
between “experts” (consultants and professors) who promote various
ideas and “practitioners” who may pay lip service to these ideas but
actually are often hostile, or at least indifferent, to such
“unrealistic” notions. I don’t know whether this is true of other
professions as well, but it seems unusually exaggerated in education.
In recent years this unfortunate pattern has been overridden to some
extent by politicians at state and federal levels who have imposed
their own versions of “reforms.” These requirements have often
prevented schools from even considering more radical innovations.
A Sound Body of Knowledge
Although this development has been profoundly discouraging to me, I
continue to believe that, over time, educators will accumulate a sound
body of knowledge that is the basis for reliable practices. Findings
from brain research will routinely be part of this knowledge
base—although not independently, as though neuroscience can by itself
dictate classroom practice. For that reason, as Robert Sylwester has
observed, terms such as “brain-based education” are no longer
appropriate. That kind of language may have been useful a few years ago
to get educators’ attention, but it has quickly become outmoded.
Discoveries that certain mental functions are associated with
particular areas of the brain, or that certain behaviors reflect
particular neuronal patterns, are extremely valuable—but only when
combined with findings from psychological studies and from applied
research in school settings. Our profession does not yet have the body
of valid knowledge that many of us want, but I continue to believe it
we will have it eventually—and that brain research will play an
important part in its development.
Dweck, C. (2006) Mindset. New York: Ballantine.
Dweck, C. Brainology. http://www.brainology.us.
Hart, L. (1975) How the brain works. New York: Basic Books.
Ehrenberg, S. (October 1981, p. 36) “Concept learning: how to make it happen in the classroom.” Educational Leadership.
Ehrenberg, S., and Ehrenberg, L. (1978) BASICS: Building and applying strategies for intellectual competence in students. Coral Gables, FL: Institute for Curriculum and Instruction.
Restak, R. (1979) The brain: the last frontier. New York: Warner.
Sylwester, R. (39. October 1981, 7-10) “Educational implications of recent brain research.” Educational Leadership.
Sylwester, R. (1995) A celebration of neurons: An educator’s guide to the human brain. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.
The Washington Post. “In schools, self-esteem boosting is losing favor to rigor, finer-tuned praise.” http://www.washingtonpost.com/local/education. 1/21/2012.
Ronald S. Brandt
Ron Brandt was editor of publications for the Association for
Supervision and Curriculum Development (now ASCD), Alexandria,
Virginia, from 1978 until his retirement in 1997. In that capacity he
was also executive editor of Educational Leadership
magazine. He is author or editor of 7 books and 38 articles, not including numerous pieces he wrote as editor of Educational Leadership
Before joining the staff of ASCD, he was associate superintendent of
the Lincoln, Nebraska Public Schools. He had also been a teacher and
principal in Racine, Wisconsin; teacher-consultant with a University of
Wisconsin project in Nigeria; program coordinator for the Upper Midwest
Regional Laboratory; and director of staff development of the
Minneapolis, Minnesota Public Schools. He lives at 1104 Woodcliff
Drive, Alexandria, VA 22308-1058. firstname.lastname@example.org
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