Lately there’s been a push to acquaint educators with “the science of learning.” What aspects of science actually help teachers do their jobs?
Lately there’s been a push to acquaint educators with “the science of learning.” But only some aspects of that science actually help teachers do their jobs. Others just waste their time.
You might think that before aspiring teachers take up their posts, they’re taught what scientists have discovered about how children learn. In fact, many teachers are unaware of that research, and—for complex reasons—some are actually hostile to scientific recommendations.
Recent efforts to connect educators with these findings, including some by deans of education schools and by teachers themselves, are beginning to bear fruit. And some foundations—notably those headed by Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates—are putting significant resources into bringing the science of learning into classrooms.
But there are two basic categories of learning science: cognitive neuroscience and cognitive psychology. Some efforts—particularly the Zuckerberg initiative—focus on neuroscience rather than psychology, while others mingle the two. That’s a problem, because—whatever its larger value—neuroscience is distinctly less useful to teachers.
What’s the difference? Neuroscience focuses on the brain’s structure and the regions that are activated when people engage in various tasks. Psychology, on the other hand, focuses on the mind and behavior. The distinction may sound academic, but it’s not.
Neuroscience is appealing partly because the data appears to be incontrovertible: just look at how different parts of the brain “light up!” But there’s a lot that brain scans can’t tell us—like whether a student is actually learning anything, or what to do if she isn’t. Changes in the brain may or may not have an impact on behavior.
Cognitive psychology, in contrast, has yielded a number of insights into what makes teaching and learning effective. It’s well established, for example, that students get a bigger boost from quizzing themselves about something they’ve read—or being quizzed by the teacher—than from rereading and highlighting the text. Psychologists have also shown that reading comprehension has far more to do with a reader’s background knowledge and vocabulary about a particular topic than with supposed general reading comprehension skills. But because these findings aren’t widely known, students are more likely to reread and highlight than to self-quiz, and elementary teachers are far more likely to focus on illusory comprehension skills than to build students’ knowledge.
When neuroscience does provide support for a particular pedagogical approach, it’s often just confirming something we already know from cognitive psychology. For instance, psychological studies have shown that it’s more effective to space learning out over a period of time than to cram for a test. Brain imaging suggests the reason is “enhanced maintenance rehearsal”—or, in plain English, more time spent thinking about the material. That may be nice for teachers to know, but would it make any difference in how they teach?
Cognitive psychologist Daniel Willingham has opined that acquainting teachers with neuroscience is “a colossal waste” of their time. Testing expert Dylan Wiliam says he’s unaware of “a single neuroscience finding that helps teachers,” and he’s not sure there ever will be one. At least some neuroscientists agree that cognitive psychology does the intellectual “heavy lifting” when it comes to providing guidance to teachers.
A focus on the brain rather than the mind is sometimes not only unhelpful but positively harmful; it can prevent educators from exploring effective ways of addressing learning difficulties that stem from psychology rather than neuroscience. A case in point is the dyslexia community, which has embraced neuroscience that sheds light on the aspect of reading called decoding—that is, connecting sounds with letters. There’s evidence that the brains of dyslexic individuals differ in activation and structure when compared to those of typical readers.
Leaving aside the question of whether that kind of evidence is necessary to address decoding difficulties, the community’s orientation toward neuroscience has been problematic when it comes to the other important component of reading: comprehension. To the extent that teachers of dyslexic students have focused on comprehension (which is not all that much), they’ve viewed problems in terms of neurobiological deficits in “executive function,” oral language comprehension, or working memory. Or, like most teachers, they’ve seen a lack of supposed comprehension skills, like the ability to make inferences or visualize images. What they haven’t focused on—at least until recently—is providing students with what psychology has found to be the most important factor in comprehension: knowledge.
None of this is to say that neuroscience lacks value. By all means, scientists should continue to expand our knowledge of the brain. Their findings may help diagnosticians determine the root causes of learning difficulties and other aspects of human behavior. The question is whether teachers need to devote their limited time to learning about neuroscience.
One argument is that if teachers knew more about neuroscience, they would be less susceptible to “neuromyths”—persistent and widespread beliefs that have no evidentiary basis, like the idea that different students have different learning styles. But why not simply tell teachers these myths are untrue? Or better yet, not spread the myths in the first place? As Daniel Willingham has observed, “Teachers … shouldn’t need to learn neuroscience to be protected from charlatans.”
Another argument is that neuroscience can identify learning disorders before they show up in behavior. Even if that’s true—which is unclear—teachers themselves aren’t able to scan the brains of their students to predict which ones are at risk.
The strongest argument for acquainting teachers with neuroscience is that it can help them deal with students suffering from “toxic stress”—chronic trauma, often associated with poverty, that can affect students’ brains in ways that interfere with their ability to learn. When such students act up in class or have trouble focusing, teachers need to understand that the best way to counteract the effects of toxic stress is to provide a warm, supportive atmosphere. At the same time, that knowledge may not do much good if a teacher’s pedagogical approach is uninformed by cognitive psychology. If teachers use methods that don’t work, students are likely to become frustrated and feel like failures—as are the teachers themselves.
Teachers have a tough job, and we waste enough of their time with education courses and “professional development” sessions that provide them with little useful information. Let’s not add to the problem by requiring them to learn about activation patterns in the prefrontal cortex, bilateral temporal-parietal junction, and posterior medial structures. They need practical information about what actually helps students learn.
View Natalie's original article here