Wednesday, 21 October 2015

How to influence your students' brain chemistry and other handy hints

Science activities for kids

I'm not the first academic commentator to be critical of the rapid infiltration of classrooms by so-called "neuroscience". Indeed some teachers at the coalface are also sceptical of this latest education movement, though it is not always easy for them to speak out against the zeitgeist when a charismatic presenter spruiks the virtues of teaching to the "whole brain". I say "so-called neuroscience" because in the main, this is neuroscience-lite at best, and neuroflapdoodle at worst. Either way, it comes packaged in an over-simplified box and is promoted to teachers via equally over-simplified sound-byte messages.

I think it's fair to say the average classroom teacher has limited-to-zero knowledge of neuroscience. That is not a criticism of teachers, nor of teacher training. Teachers need to understand factors that promote good learning and positive behaviour. They also need to learn to apply skills in the classroom that increase the likelihood of good learning and positive behaviour occurring. Knowing something about the inner workings of the human brain may or may not be useful in these endeavours, I really don't know. The question is akin to whether I need to know about the inner workings of a carburettor in order to be a good driver. Maybe we should devote time in the pre-service teacher education curriculum to neuroscience and maybe we shouldn't. However I am quite certain that we should not be feeding teachers (at any stage of their careers) a diet of pseudo neuroscience, and dressing it up as "research-based".

Education has a long history of loving its fashions and fads, and one of the more recent skirt-lengths is so-called "Brain-Based" (or "Whole Brain") learning. There's a large number of Youtube clips demonstrating this approach in action. If you're not familiar with it, I suggest you have a look and decide for yourself.

At least one Faculty of Education at an Australian university is offering teacher professional development on this approach. Yes, it's possible, in spite of the rigours of peer-review, to find research to support almost anything. However, we don't accept such reasoning in medicine, aviation, or engineering, so why should we accept it in education?

The term "research-based" devalues the currency if it only means "there's a study published in a journal somewhere that says this might be okay". Medicine woke up more than twenty years ago to the idea that all evidence is not created equal, and hence in the health sciences, we refer to levels of evidence. This hierarchy gives us a yardstick with which to exercise our scepticism and offers some protection against the hasty (and potentially premature) adoption of approaches that may be no better than current practice, may create an opportunity cost, or may actually be harmful. In health sciences, of course, we are exposed to the impact of our poor practices, as people deteriorate and sometimes die when we don't get it right. In education, practitioners are quarantined from having to see effects of poor practices; children disappear from view, progressing automatically to the next grade, until an inevitable tipping point at which an ongoing relationship with education is no longer tenable.

Why does Education not engage with the notion of levels of evidence?

Children are not in a position to give or withhold consent regarding the teaching and learning experiences they are exposed to in the classroom, and in most cases, their parents are not either. So it's the responsibility of the other adults in the village to call out practices that do not maximise the limited developmental window that is available to convey core skills to all children in the early years.

Faculties of Education running courses for teachers on brain-based learning is akin to Faculties of Medicine running courses for doctors on homeopathy. The latter would see editorials in major newspapers and would potentially threaten the good standing of the medical program in the eyes of accrediting bodies.

Come on Education. It's time to get serious about producing, accessing, stratifying, and using evidence.

(c) Pamela Snow 2015


  1. Amen. As an SLP working in schools in Canada, it continues to amaze (or more like shock) me how little teachers think critically when it comes to their own practices. There seems to be a consensus that anecdotes of successful learning via such programs are enough. 'But it worked for this one student and so it's worth trying it for these others', even though there is little evidence to back up such claims, seems to be the mantra. Hence we employ FastForWord and Reading Recovery in abundance, yet do not use, for example, a program on offer that teaches children systematic phonics and phonological awareness. The education faculty closest to me is apparently known for being 'a joke' (a colleague's own words) which passes any student regardless of their knowledge and aptitude. So why are they not tightening up their entrance criteria and their syllabi so that material IS more evidence based? So frustrating to see as an SLP who was taught about EBP from day 1.

  2. Thanks for your comment and for sharing my exasperation - there's some comfort in knowing we're not alone with these issues.

    As an SLP, you may be interested in a forthcoming paper of mine:

    Snow, P.C. (in press). Language is literacy is language. Positioning Speech Language Pathology in education policy, practice, paradigms, and polemics. International Journal of Speech Language Pathology. Invited paper based on Elizabeth Usher Memorial Lecture, Speech Pathology Australia National Convention, Canberra, May, 2015. Accepted 22 October, 2015.

    Warm wishes

  3. Pam, we're out here (teachers with undersating of fads in education). We're more prevalent than people might think. But we all have to pay lip service to the fads to get, keep or progress in our jobs. We desperately need help from other disciplines. Desperately.