Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Neuroscientists Find Learning Is Not 'Hard-Wired'

This from Education Week:
Neuroscience exploded into the education conversation more than 20 years ago, in step with the evolution of personal computers and the rise of the Internet, and policymakers hoped medical discoveries could likewise help doctors and teachers understand the "hard wiring" of the brain.

That conception of how the brain works, exacerbated by the difficulty in translating research from lab to classroom, spawned a generation of neuro-myths and snake-oil pitches—from programs to improve cross-hemisphere brain communication to teaching practices aimed at "auditory" or "visual" learners .

Ten-year-old Miles Murdough sits in front of brain scans in Dublin, Calif. 
They show the activity in his brain as he plays the piano.
—Manny Crisostomo for Education Week
Today, as educational neuroscience has started to find its niche within interdisciplinary "mind-brain-education" study, the field's most powerful findings show how little about learning is hard-wired, after all.

"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."
In contrast to the popular conception of the brain as a computer hard-wired with programs that run different types of tasks, said Dr. Jay N. Giedd, a neuroscientist at the National Institute of Mental Health, brain activity has turned out to operate more like a languageRequires Adobe Acrobat Reader...

Education watchers have had great hopes for dramatic, instruction-changing findings since the early days of educational neuroscience. President George H.W. Bush declared the 1990s "the decade of the brain," but by the end of it, the promise of the research—most of it done with animals—had not translated into clear guidelines for instructional practice.

In 1997, the cognitive scientist and philosopher John T. Bruer of the James S. McDonnell Foundation, in St. Louis, declared in a landmark essayRequires Adobe Acrobat Reader in the American Educational Research Association's journal Educational Researcher that directly connecting neuroscience to classroom instruction was "a bridge too far." He urged collaboration among cognitive psychologists, neuroscientists, and educators.

"All of our outcome measures, the things we are hoping to see, are not neurological changes; they are behavioral changes," explained Daniel T. Willingham, a psychology professor at the University of Virginia, in Charlottesville. "We don't measure how are your dendritic connections, we measure how well you can read.

"Trying to leverage behavioral science [for education] is complicated enough," he said. "For neuroscience to get into the mix, we have translation problems. The more distant you get from the level of the classroom, the less likely [the research] is to make a difference in the classroom."...

In the absence of cohesive collaboration among the disciplines, Dr. Zadina said, teachers, policymakers, and education companies were often left to draw their own conclusions from the research, and they often came to overly simplistic or outright wrong conclusions.

One 2011 Arizona State University study asked 267 preservice and active teachers to review one of three versions of a fake journal article reporting inaccurate information: One version contained only text, the second contained a graph, and the third had a picture of a brain scan. Teachers were more likely to consider the article containing the brain scan credible, even though it was unrelated to the text.

"There's a reductionism [in which] finding a difference [on a brain scan] is equated with explaining the difference," said Carol A. Tavris, a psychologist and the author of the 2010 Prentice Hall book Psychobabble and Biobunk: Using Psychological Science to Think Critically About Popular Psychology. "It is easy for the public to infer that a snapshot out of context is not a snapshot, but a timeless, unchanging blueprint."

Because most members of the public, including many teachers and researchers, don't understand how brain-imaging equipment works, they often develop "technomyopia—the sense that the technology knows more than I do," Ms. Tavris said in a keynote address to the Association for Psychological Science last month...

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This seems to imply that what some see as cutting edge research or interventions which present technology as a magic key are actually wasting our time taking us down the wrong tracks.

We have got to start shifting learning back on to the student and stop looking for this cure all, one size fits all answer to how kids learn.

Our ability to perceive, interpret and learn have evolved over thousands and thousands of years. Some Princeton professor's research theory or Bill Gates money and technology are not going to master, much less unlock the secrets, to what is a very complex life function of humans.