Thursday, January 04, 2018

What Neuroscience Tells Us

Yesterday, someone tried to pull me into an online debate that involved several people authoritatively evoking "neuroscience" in defense of their favored pedagogical approach. These are the folks that once scolded us about things like "learning styles" and before that the "right-brain left-brain" myth. I didn't even take the time to try to figure out what they were asserting, but rather clicked away to a happier place.

I have nothing against neuroscience, but it is science, a branch that is still in its infancy with much more that we don't know than we do. These scientists are pioneers, exploring new territory with new tools, and with each new discovery a whole new world opens to them, which explains why it is both exciting and ever-changing. Most of us are not neuroscientists, so what we "know" about the science tends to be the dumbed down version that one finds in publications written for lay audiences, information that is filtered through journalists, refined by editors, and pumped up by marketing departments interested in eyeballs. The work neuroscientists do is interesting and important, but when we non-professional scientists attempt to apply it to our day-to-day lives we invariably get it wrong.

I have nothing but respect for professional scientists, but they are not professional educators. In most cases, they have never spent a day in a classroom. To their credit, they typically admit as much in their conclusions which are most often couched in phrases like "there is a possibility" and "likely" and "seems to indicate." And they always, when interviewed, admit that there is a lot more research to do. We amateurs, however, not being neuroscientists, tend to overlook those qualifiers as we leap to apply what we now "know" only to later find that we were wrong. Just look at the whole Common Core fiasco, which was supposedly "science-based" and promoted by dilettantes like Bill Gates, even as professional educators have overwhelmingly rejected it because it doesn't match what we know from our experience working in actual classrooms.

As I scrolled through the debate comments, I found myself cringing as these self-proclaimed "science-based" advocates kept insisting that they were talking about "learning" when really they were talking about information retention. Information retention, which is something scientists can sort of measure through testing (although every teacher knows the flaws in testing), but that is only a small sub-set of what comprises education which is a social-emotional-psychological-biological-anthropological-physical-philosophical process, one that is unique for each unique individual. There will never be a neuroscience breakthrough that explains it all: it will always just be a small piece of what we "know."

So I head off to school this morning, a professional educator who is aware of a few new ideas about how human brains retain certain types of information. I may or may not find the opportunity to test those ideas out today, like experiments, but probably only if it doesn't get in the way of what I know as a professional. What I'm thinking more about this morning is how these pro-science dilettantes are partly responsible for the widespread mistrust too many Americans have about science: they grab hold of the small glimpse that they understand, a moment in time, then trumpet it authoritatively, even scoldingly, only to find that the professional scientists, doing what scientists do, which is to attempt to prove their theories wrong, not right, have already moved on.

I love science, but I'm not a scientist. Most of my information comes from publicans like Popular Science and Scientific American. I sometimes get insights by thinking about the small parts of what scientists are doing that I think I understand, but when it comes to the core of what I'm going to do in the classroom, my pedagogical approach, I'm going to follow the lead of professional educators, just as I expect scientists to follow the lead of professional scientists and not some half-cocked, blowhard teacher on the internet.

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