Information Age Education
   Issue Number 87
April, 2012   

This free Information Age Education Newsletter is written by Dave Moursund and Bob Sylwester, and produced by Ken Loge. The newsletter is one component of the Information Age Education project. See http://iae-pedia.org/ and the end of this newsletter. All back issues of this newsletter are available free online at http://i-a-e.org/iae-newsletter.html.

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.

For the most part, these guest articles will focus on cognitive neuroscience. However, Dave Moursund will provide Information and Communication Technology follow-up commentary to the articles. In addition, readers are invited to send their comments using the Reader Comments directions near the end of this newsletter.

We encourage you to tell your colleagues and students about the free IAE Newsletter. Free back issues and subscription information are available at http://i-a-e.org/iae-newsletter.html.

How Educational Neuroscience Will Contribute to
21st Century Education

Ron Brandt
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 mass media.

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 innovative approaches.

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.

ASCD Publications

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” patterns.

Fads?

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.


References

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. brandtron@verizon.net


Reader Comments

We are using the Disqus commenting system to facilitate comments and discussions pertaining to this newsletter. To use Disqus, please click the Login link below and sign in. If you have questions about how to use Disqus, please refer to this help page.
Readers may also send comments via email directly to moursund@uoregon.edu.


About Information Age Education, Inc.

Information Age Education is a non-profit organization dedicated to improving education for learners of all ages throughout the world. Current IAE activities include a Wiki with address http://IAE-pedia.org, a Website containing free books and articles at http://I-A-E.org, a Blog at http://i-a-e.org/iae-blog.html, and the free newsletter you are now reading.

To subscribe to this twice-a-month free newsletter and to see back issues, go to http://i-a-e.org/iae-newsletter.html. You can change your address or cancel your subscription by clicking on the “Manage your Subscription” link at the bottom of this message.