Neuro-garbage in education

Pop neuroscience — silly and scientifically inaccurate — has spurred a backlash, writes Alissa Quart in a New York Times op-ed. Among the critics are NeurocriticNeurobonkersNeuroskepticMind Hacks and Dorothy Bishop’s Blog

There’s a lot of neuro-garbage in education, writes Daniel Willingham, a cognitive scientist.

Sometimes it’s the use of accurate but ultimately pointless neuro-talk that’s mere window dressing for something that teachers already know (e.g., explaining the neural consequences of exercise to persuade teachers that recess is a good idea for third-graders).

Other times the neuroscience is simply inaccurate (exaggerations regarding the differences between the left and right hemispheres, for example).

Even when the neuroscience is solid, “we can’t take lab findings and pop them right into the classroom,” Willingham writes.

. . . the outcomes we care about are behavioral; reading, analyzing, calculating, remembering.

. . . Likewise, most of the things that we can change are behavioral. We’re not going to plant electrodes in the child’s brain to get her to learn–we’re going to change her environment and encourage certain behaviors. . . . Neuroscience is out of the loop.

It’s possible to use neuroscience to improve education, writes Willingham. But it isn’t easy.

Teachers who know the most about neuroscience believe the most things that aren’t true, writes Cedar Riener, a psychology professor, in Cedar’s Digest, citing this study. These teachers’ belief in myths is rooted in their values, he writes. People want to believe low achievers just haven’t found the right way to tap their “unlimited reservoir of intelligence” properly. “To dismiss the learning styles myth, we have to let go of equating cognitive ability (or intelligence) with some sort of larger social value.”

Should teachers learn neuroscience?

Educators should learn neuroscience, some argue. From Ed Week:

Dr. Janet N. Zadina, a former high school teacher who is now an adjunct assistant professor in neurology at Tulane University, in New Orleans, said more cross-training of teachers and neuroscientists, including lab work for the teachers and classroom experience for the researchers, would help stop the “telephone game” of half-truths conveyed now in the education neuroscience field.

Starting in the late 1990s, teachers began “sending rising numbers of students to be evaluated for conditions they didn’t have, from attention deficit disorder to epilepsy,” says neurologist Judy Willis. Classroom observations showed high rates of boredom and stress, but teachers were “attributing problems to students’ brain hemispheres or to whether they were drinking enough water.”

Drinking enough water?

Teachers don’t have the time to learn neuroscience, responds Daniel Willingham, a cognitive scientist. “Neuro-myths” should be defused during teacher training, though that doesn’t always happen. Then a central-office administrator should be in charge of evaluating whether a professional development session is legit or snake oil.

The human brain adapts with experience, scientists now say. Very little is hard-wired.

“What we find is people really do change their brain functions in response to experience,” said Kurt W. Fischer, the director of Harvard University’s Mind, Brain, and Education Program. “It’s just amazing how flexible the brain is. That plasticity has been a huge surprise to a whole lot of people.”

Among the “neuro-myths and snake-oil pitches,” Ed Week notes are “programs to improve cross-hemisphere brain communication to teaching practices aimed at ‘auditory’ or ‘visual’ learners.”

I wonder what percentage of teachers believe they should tailor instruction to auditory and visual learners. More than half would be my guess.

Musical training may help the brainstem choose

Musical training may help children pay attention in class. Researchers at Northwestern University’s auditory neuroscience laboratory have been studying the translation of sound waves into brain waves. They are able to play the brain wave out loud and compare it to the sound wave that triggered it, according to Chicago Public Radio.

Those with musical training may be better at picking out an important or complicated sound in a room than those without. Doctoral student Dana Strait says: “Musicians spend so much time manipulating to the sound from their instruments, listening to the output from their teacher and mimicking it, communicating musically with other perfumers. And that can translate into how we process speech.”

It makes intuitive sense. But it is remarkable that the researchers can actually play these brain waves. I wonder what would happen if research subjects listened, let’s say, to a Donne poem several times. What happens to the brain wave sounds the second or third time around, and how does musical training affect this? I imagine musical training may affect not only how we take in what we hear the first time, but how we listen to it the second and third times.

The researchers are not saying that music alone has these effects. It is musical training–the practice of listening to music closely and grasping what is in it–that makes the difference they describe.