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Posted at 02:57 PM ET, 06/05/2012

Why teachers shouldn’t learn neuroscience

This was written by cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham, a psychology professor at the University of Virginia and author of “Why Don’t Students Like School?” His next book, “When Can You Trust The Experts? How to tell good science from bad in education,” will be published in July. This appeared on his Science and Education blog.

By Daniel Willingham

This article from Education Week suggests that teachers ought to learn neuroscience. That strikes me as a colossal waste of teachers' time.

The offered justification is that a high percentage of teacher's hold false beliefs about the brain, and thus ought to be "armed" to evaluate claims
(bigstockphoto)
that they encounter in professional development sessions, the media, etc.

But it takes an awful lot of work for any individual to become knowledgeable enough about neuroscience to evaluate new ideas. And why would it stop at neuroscience? One could make the same case for cognitive psychology, developmental psychology, social psychology, sociology, cultural studies, and economics, among other fields.

Further, this suggestion seems like unnecessary duplication of effort. What's really needed is for a few trusted educators to evaluate new ideas, and to periodically bring their colleagues up to date.

In fact, that's how the system is set up. But it's not working.

First, the neuro-myths mentioned in the article ought to be defused during teacher training. Some programs do so, I'm sure, but most appear not to be doing a good enough job. It's certainly true that textbooks aimed at teachers don't do enough in this regards.

Learning styles, for example, go unmentioned, or perhaps get a paragraph in which the theory is (accurately) said to be lacking evidence. Given the pervasiveness of these myths, schools of education ought to address the problem with more vigor.

Second, there is virtually always someone in the district central office who is meant to be the resource person for professional development: is this professional development session likely to be legit, or is this person selling snake oil?  If teachers are exposed to professional development with sham science, the right response, it seems to me, is not to suggest that teachers learn some neuroscience. The right response is outrage directed at the person who brought the knucklehead in there to do the professional development session.

Third, it would make perfect sense if professional groups helped out in this regard. The Department of Education has tried with the What Works Clearinghouse and with it's various practice guides. These have had limited success. It might be time for teachers to take a try at this themselves.

Teachers don't need to learn neuroscience — or better put, teachers shouldn't need to learn neuroscience — to be protected from charlatans. Teachers need to learn things that will directly help their practice. Charlatan protection ought to come from institutions: from schools of education, from district central offices, and (potentially) from institutions of teachers' own creation.

You may also enjoy:

3 brain facts every teacher should know

Children and fear: What neuroscience is teaching

Brain-based education: Run from it

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