Brain Research: Cautions and Caveats

For over a decade, brain research presentations have attracted large crowds at education conferences. Like most teachers, I love learning about the inner workings of the human mind. I aspire to use cognitive neuroscience discoveries to improve my teaching. Here I share tips for teachers interested in brain research.

1. When you read a news article saying that certain learning results are correlated with certain brain characteristics, remember that correlation does not equal causation. Perhaps the brain characteristic caused the learning result, or perhaps the learning result caused the brain characteristic, or perhaps a third factor caused both and thus the correlation was merely spurious.

2. When you see a news article about brain research, try your best to access the research article mentioned by the journalist. An increasing number of research articles are available free online.

3. If you are unable to find a research article, try to read about it in a source known for good science reporting. I enjoy reading articles in Scientific American (www.scientificamerican.com), Medical Xpress (medicalxpress.com), and Phys Org (http://phys.org/).

4. When you read a research article, pay attention to the sample size and other crucial details, such as whose brains did the scientists examine? Those of young right-handed men? English speakers? Children? Ask yourself whether the findings can be applied to the wide range of students in your classes.

5. Make sure to read the discussion and conclusion sections of research articles. Those sections are where the scientists discuss the limitations of their research.

6. Think about the methodology used in the research. Ask yourself whether you can accurately replicate the methodology in your classroom. Realize that cognitive neuroscientists and educators operate in different environments.

7. Be aware that better tools for measuring brain activity are under development. Some scientists are already using magnetoencephalography (MEG), a technique that measures brain activity more directly, faster, and at a higher resolution than is possible with the fMRI technology used by most cognitive neuroscientists. (http://www.meg-brain-mapping.pitt.edu/index.html)

8. Be careful to analyze arguments that cite neuroscience just as carefully as you do arguments that do not mention neuroscience. Why? Because Yale University scientists recently found that non-experts “judged that explanations with logically irrelevant neuroscience information were more satisfying than explanations without.” (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2778755) The non-experts in the study were not average non-experts; they were Yale University undergraduates enrolled in a neuroscience course.

9. Absorb the wisdom of the late John Geake, a teacher who became a cognitive neuroscientist and author of The Brain at School: Educational Neuroscience in the Classroom (2009). In his book, Geake wrote:

“[At education research conferences] I rarely hear an education/​practitioner researcher stand up and say that a particular theoretical position, much less a piece of research, is wrong, or silly, or useless in the classroom. Or say that here is evidence that this particular pedagogic approach is ineffective. Instead, it all gets added into a cornucopia of unpredictable flubber recently expanded, to make matters worse, with the latest neuromythologies.”

10. Realize that Geake’s words carry more weight today in light of a recent survey of 242 teachers in the UK and The Netherlands. Scientists discovered that many of the teachers believed erroneous information about brain research. Additionally, the scientists wrote that their findings “suggest that teachers who are enthusiastic about the possible application of neuroscience findings in the classroom find it difficult to distinguish pseudoscience from scientific facts. Possessing greater general knowledge about the brain does not appear to protect teachers from believing in neuromyths.” (http://www.frontiersin.org/Educational_Psychology/10.3389/fpsyg.2012.00429/full)

I wish all teachers the best as we learn about brain research in our quest to improve our teaching.

Wenda Sheard, J.D., Ph.D. teaches seventh grade English and journalism at TASIS The American School in England. She has taught middle school English in Hangzhou, China and Greenwich, Connecticut, as well as worked in the legal and education policy fields. She currently serves as a trustee of Potential Plus UK (www.potentialplusuk.org) and blogs on her school website (http://england.tasis.com/page.cfm?p=837).

References

Dekker, S., Lee, N. C., Howard-Jones, P. & Jolles, J. (2012) Neuromyths in education: Prevalence and predictors of misconceptions among teachers. Frontiers in Educational Psychology, (3)429. http://www.frontiersin.org/Educational_Psychology/10.3389/fpsyg.2012.00429/full

Geake, J. G. (2009). The brain at school educational neuroscience in the classroom. Maidenhead, England: McGraw-Hill/Open University Press.

Weisberg, D. S., Keil, F. C., Goodstein, J., Rawson, E., & Gray, J. R. (2008). The Seductive Allure of Neuroscience Explanations. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 20(3), 470-477.

Photo Link

Patient in a MEG Scanner. Photograph. National Institute of Mental Health. http://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/neuroimaging-and-mental-illness-a-window-into-the-brain/neuroimaging-and-mental-illness-a-window-into-the-brain.shtml

Acknowledgement

This article was originally written for the European League for Middle Level Education’s June 2013 Tips for Teachers.  I appreciate ELMLE’s encouragement and publication of this article.