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Brain and Education

ellenv's picture

Over the course of this semester, it has become increasingly obvious that the educational system exists within several social and political structures. Each of these structures is making demands of the system. Whether it be the political structure demanding a level of equality in learning level (as measured through state and federal standardized tests) or a social structure like the family unit which influences a student’s perception of their strengths and weaknesses, there is rarely a moment where students are left to simply learn for the sake of learning. Each student becomes a part of these systems through their school attendance and whether they know it or not, they are being sucked into a system where students are often viewed as a group rather than as individuals. So where does that leave the integration of an understanding of the brain in the educational system? Will the neural sciences just because another outside structure that puts another stress on the classroom by requiring teachers to understand the biological basis of their students’ learning? What differentiates the impact of the neural sciences on the educational system is the place where the emphasis of the research is placed: on the student. Not only does an understanding of the brain allow teachers to gain a better idea of the learning process, it also creates a much-needed individual identity for the students.

During this course we have repeatedly tried to make the point that each brain is different. No two students are going to understand an idea or concept in the same way. At the same time, no two students are going have the same experience within the educational system. In that sense, an understanding of the brain is useful to not just teachers, but students as well. If students as well as teachers are given the opportunity to understand how their brain works, the interaction between the conscious and unconscious, and the interaction that the brain has with the outside environment, there is an opportunity to place more emphasis on the students themselves than the structures in which they exist. Instead of being viewed as a large group of individuals who can be divided up and placed in an infinite number of sun-groups based on age, gender, race, socioeconomic status etc., the student body can be seen as a group of interconnected and variable brains, each one separate from the other.

Where research in the field of neuroscience comes in, then, is in developing a pedagogical system that allows for connections between these separate brain entities. In his article “A Fresh Look at Brain-Based Education,” Eric Jensen argues that “the current model of brain-based education is highly interdisciplinary” (1). This model of brain-based education, therefore, takes into account the fact that there are multiple structures, factors, and stressors that influence school performance via the physical process of learning. This physical process, as described by Jensen, can be molded and influenced in the classroom based on research proposed within the field of neuroscience. It has been a long held belief by many educators (including most prominently, Dewey) that experience shapes education. In a theoretical sense, each student is shaped by each learning experience and each subsequent learning opportunity is influenced by this history of experience. While this idea makes sense in theory, it is hard to see how exactly it should be put into practice. Jensen highlights several neural understandings that explain this phenomena when he explains the idea “brains change based on experience” (1). In his explanation, Jensen cites the fact that “behaviorally relevant repetition is a smart strategy for learning skills” while at the same time “we know that intensity and duration matter” in the process learning through experience (1). With such understandings in mind, it is possible for educators to create classrooms where the idea of experience isn’t as abstract, but rather can be seen in behavioral terms.

It seems like a great number of problems with the educational system exist due to an imbalance between the abstract and the concrete. Before one abstract question can be investigated, another one arises. As a result, there is often little time spent on developing pedagogical practices that concretely answer the questions that have been raised. This means that the pedagogical practices that have arisen from the development of such questions often provide an incomplete answer to big problems in the educational field. For students, this means inconsistent teaching practices and a focus on students as a statistic rather than an individual. This focus on students as statistics arises from the process by which inadequacies in the educational field are often investigated.  Oftentimes, this investigative role falls to the government to fulfill. Because the U.S. consists of a public school population that comes from so many diverse backgrounds, students are often reduced down to their defining characteristics (gender, race, SES etc.) and then their scores and grades are analyzed on that basis in order to understand the problems in the educational system. From there, statements are made about the problem (without looking at the students as individuals) and these analyses lead to education reform.

By opening up the discussion of problems in the educational system to analyses and considerations based on the brain rather than a list of statistics, there is more room for an understanding of such problems on an individual level. Research based on the brain acknowledges and celebrates the fact that each brain (and by extension, each student) is different. The results of such research are not a list of standards to be met or specific changes to be made to the content of a class; rather, they are ideas to be taken into consideration in developing a teaching style. If, as Jensen asserts, it is found that both repetition and intensity matter in the process of brain development by experience, then teachers would know to create lessons that allow for the highlighting and repetition of central ideas via several instructional forms.

Ultimately, the goal of education in its simplest form is to develop the brain of each student. While it is true that education is used to shape students into citizens, this is a socially constructed secondary goal of education that has little to do with the physical process of learning. In this sense, bringing the neural sciences into the educational field does not simply mean having teachers learn a list of facts about the brain and then try to use those in creating their classrooms. Instead, the introduction this discipline into education creates the opportunity to interject individuality into education.




(1) Jensen, Eric P. “A Fresh Look at Brain-Based Education.” Phi Delta Kappa International 2008.