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Real brain-based learning

By Michael Zwaagstra 
web posted December 13, 2010 

Many education gurus are renowned for promoting theories that have limited empirical support.

One of the best examples is the work of "brain-based" education guru Eric Jensen. His promotional website proudly trumpets his specialty as the "integration of cutting-edge neuroscience with practical, user-friendly brain-based learning classroom strategies." That's a rather bold statement for someone with only a B.A. in English and no public school teaching experience.

Like many other education gurus, Jensen downplays the importance of factual knowledge and academic content, and makes it clear that he is not a fan of requiring students to do a lot of rote memorization. Fortunately, there are some people with real cognitive expertise who are challenging the misguided approach of armchair neuroscientists like Jensen.

Daniel Willingham, a psychology professor at the University of Virginia, has written an informative book for educators called Why Don't Students Like School. Willingham, who has a Ph.D. in cognitive psychology from Harvard University, is an expert in how the human mind works. In his book, Willingham uses several widely accepted principles of cognitive psychology to make his case for more traditional methods of instruction.

For example, Willingham notes that there is good reason for requiring students to practice their multiplication tables and memorize the spelling of commonly used words. This is because lack of space in working memory is the key bottleneck in human cognition. In other words, students who do not know their math facts by heart find it very difficult to perform more advanced problems since they end up wasting valuable mental capacity on something which should be automatic.

Although education gurus often deride repetitive practice as "drill and kill", the fact is that it provides the foundation for deeper learning. We do our brains a significant favour when we commit basic skills to memory since it frees up our working memory for other things. It may not be very exciting to practice doing the same thing over and over, but it pays off over the long-term.

Willingham also dissects the claim by education gurus that schools need to spend less time teaching students about science and history and more time helping students think like scientists and historians. These gurus argue that reading about scientific discoveries in the textbook or hearing a lecture about major historical events are far removed from the work that scientists and historians actually do. As a result, they propose that schools should decrease the amount of emphasis placed on the acquisition of factual knowledge.

However, Willingham points out that this advice is hopelessly misguided. Scientists and historians became experts in their field through many years of study and practice. Students need to have a broad-based understanding of the academic basics before they can even begin to think like experts. It is impossible to think deeply about something you know little about. After all, it would be foolish to expect a detailed historical analysis of the root causes of World War I from a student who didn't know, by memory, the names of the major countries involved in that conflict.

In addition, since students with the broadest knowledge-base are the ones best able to make sense of the world around them, schools should focus on giving them solid academic content from as early an age as possible. Education gurus do our students a grave disservice when they minimize the importance of content.

Willingham also effectively debunks the multiple intelligences theory of educational psychologist Howard Gardner. According to Gardner, traditional IQ tests are not an accurate measure of intelligence since they do not measure other so-called intelligences such as musical ability and interpersonal skills.

While it is true that students have many different talents and skills, most cognitive psychologists reject the way in which Gardner redefines the very nature of intelligence. In fact, there is little empirical data supporting the broad sweeping claims that Gardner makes.

It is ironic that the theory of multiple intelligences is widely rejected by psychological experts while enthusiastically embraced within the school system. One can only hope that educators pay more attention to where the evidence really points.

Everyone who wants to know what real brain-based learning looks like should take the time to read Willingham's book. It certainly exposes the flaws in the progressive ideology promoted by many education gurus. ESR

Michael Zwaagstra is a research associate with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy, a high school social studies teacher, and co-author of What's Wrong With Our Schools and How We Can Fix Them.

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