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Posted at 11:00 AM ET, 12/27/2010

Willingham: 3 brain facts every educator should know

By Valerie Strauss

My guest today is cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham, a psychology professor at the University of Virginia and author of “Why Don’t Students Like School?”

By Daniel Willingham
Here are three facts about the brain that every educator ought to know.

Fact 1: The brain is always changing.
Sometimes an education nostrum is supported by the claim that "it actually changes the brain.” (Less often it's offered as a warning against some alleged danger, e.g., video games.)

The phrase is meant to convey that the object under discussion has a powerful impact, but a change in the brain is no evidence of impact at all. The brain is always changing. Every experience you have, however trivial, leads to some change in the brain.

Brain changes would be a meaningful measure of impact if we knew how they relate to behavioral changes, which brings us to fact number two.

Fact 2: The connection between the brain and behavior is not obvious.
We can readily measure certain aspects of brain anatomy and physiology, and the confidence with which we can interpret what those data mean for behavior varies; but usually we're not all that confident.

This fact sounds self-evident, but it's regularly forgotten or ignored. For example, much has been made of new data showing that myelination (the process by which some neural pathways become insulated) is not complete in humans until they reach their mid-20's.

The last brain area to be myelinated is the prefrontal cortex, a region thought to play a role in inhibiting unwanted behaviors. These facts have been offered as a reason that teenagers have difficulty controlling impulses. They can't help it—their brains are not fully developed.

But this interpretation has unsupported assumptions embedded in it. First, it assumes that we know what the prefrontal cortex does. It does appear to play some role in impulse control, but it does lots of things; it's a large area, which seems to contribute to many higher cognitive functions.

Second, it assumes we know the behavioral consequences of the absence of myelin. The brain is a complex system, and the consequences of changing one component of a complex system are usually not straightforward.

Fact 3: Deriving useful information for teachers from neuroscience is slow, painstaking work.
This fact is a corollary of Fact 2. Teaching is a behavioral business. We describe the desired outcomes for students in behavioral terms—that is, what students can do. We discuss teaching in behavioral terms.

When we bring the brain into the picture, we need to be able to get back to that behavioral description. When I say “the brain works this way,” that's fun and interesting, but for it to do any useful work for me, I need to know what the consequences are at the behavioral level.

Because we're defining educational goals in terms of behavior, I need to be able to move readily from neuroscience to behavior. A bridge between the two must be built. It was to that bridge that John Bruer referred in an influential article from 1997 titled “A Bridge Too Far.” Bruer argued that the ties between neuroscience and behavior were too tenuous to be of much use in education.

Neuroscience can contribute to education—it has already done so, especially in our understanding of reading and why some students have difficulty learning to read. Pick up a copy of the journal Mind, Brain, and Education and you'll see more examples. (I'm an associate editor of that journal.)

But most of what you see advertised as educational advice rooted in neuroscience is bunkum.

How can you tell the difference between bonafide research and schlock? That's an ongoing problem and for the moment, the best advice may be that suggested by David Daniel, a researcher at James Madison University: “If you see the words 'brain-based,' run.”


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By Valerie Strauss  | December 27, 2010; 11:00 AM ET
Categories:  Daniel Willingham, Guest Bloggers, Learning, Science  | Tags:  brain-based classrooms, brain-based education, brain-based teaching, daniel willingham, myelination, neuroscience and education, prefrontal cortex and teens, teaching and neuroscience, the brain and education  
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Next: Ravitch takes stock of education in 2010


More than teachers, it is the whole idea of knowing how the brain works at all ages/stages. There are so many things tugging at students and adults today, refresh is a constant requirement. Having said that, how many times have you heard, "I told them 100 times (more often than not an inflated comment.)

We also know stress plays a huge factor in both learning and decision making. Children are under such stress because education programs now increase the rapidity of changing information as opposed to mastering information. Children fear not learning. They have been told by teachers, administrators, testing sources, and parents, "You must get this or fail."

A wiser move/statement would be "Let's make sure you know it." Then give them time to "know it."

Posted by: jbeeler | December 27, 2010 12:29 PM | Report abuse

Thanks for the skepticism and warnings about concluding too much from research. There is a pretty big gap between understanding how neurons develop, for example, and being able to apply this to teaching.

Another area of recent research that may have some relevance to educators (but also needs further investigated) is how chronic stress and cortisol influence brain development, memory and learning. (

Poor kids are more likely to suffer chronic stress related to material privation and uncertainty, which may impair their ability to learn and retain what they've learned.

Modern School at

Posted by: ModernSchool | December 27, 2010 7:05 PM | Report abuse

As a teacher, I wonder what the implications of this are on how teachers should be assessed. It seems to me that if it is largely unclear how changes in the brain affect behavior, then it must be equally unclear how teachers behaviors affects student behaviors. Until that becomes more clear, I think teaching will necessarily remain an art rather than a science.

Posted by: TheReflectiveEducator | December 27, 2010 7:59 PM | Report abuse

I love the pithy, reality-oriented ending to this article, "If you see the words 'brain-based', run" in terms of how to discern valid research from schlock research in education.

@TheReflectiveEducator, re "...I think teaching will necessarily remain an art rather than a science." - Would that our tunnel-visioned reformers, Gates, Rhee, Arne, Jeb Bush et al, had some basic understanding of what constitutes an art.

Posted by: PLMichaelsArtist-at-Large | December 27, 2010 10:26 PM | Report abuse

This call by Willingham for us to assume we know nothing is not very helpful. As teachers we have to assume we know something about the brain, however tenuous that knowledge might be, otherwise our teaching strategies have no basis at all. What we probably need teachers who are willing to try many different strategies...something that we already know.

Posted by: jjedif | December 28, 2010 4:17 AM | Report abuse

@jjedif my point was not that we know nothing about how people learn. Most of my professional life is devoted to trying to apply what's known from cognitive science to education.
My point is that it's harder to do with neuroscience. I made this video to briefly explain some of the problems

Posted by: DanielTWillingham | December 28, 2010 9:47 AM | Report abuse

Isn't it reassuring to know "educators" are still free to engage in impractical blather--and toss around their own schlock--while still drawing a paycheck? I didn't think so.

Posted by: pjwertz | December 28, 2010 11:34 AM | Report abuse

I guess screen name gives it away, but my observation is that our society is filled, indeed OVERRUN with excuses and research to explain away simple lack of discipline and respect for others and other's property.

Students who can't conform to rules of behavior should be separated from those who can and want to learn. I gotta be honest --- I could care less what happens to them. More kids need to learn that behavior has consequences. Put them in a boot camp or some other venue where the emphasis is on discipline and behavior. When they've mastered those difficult concepts, let them back into school at whatever grade level they test at.

We're now 25th in the world and heading south. What we don't need is more "research" and eggheads redesigning the system every other year.

Posted by: Curmudgeon10 | December 28, 2010 4:06 PM | Report abuse

If the student hasn't learned then the teacher hasn't taught. Even the dumbest of animals can be taught with patient training the same goes for dumb people. I had to train a few that came out of our school systems that didn't know what end of a shovel to use. The education system we have now is disgusting. It is no wonder we have to import educated people from other countries. Have you ever wondered why we have so many foreign doctors?

Posted by: OldCoot1 | December 28, 2010 11:19 PM | Report abuse

The whole search for improving the present education system has been escalating over the past 60 years. The search is related to the scientific and technological developments of the past 200 years that is changing the human survival need from physical to intellectual. This is leading from the historic elimination process to the natural intellectual development of each child.

The science that is used in education today is about the students response to the dominant externally motivated system. The science of the natural intellectual development is an internal process.

The most powerful natural unavoidable learning process for all life in the universe that we are aware of today is survival. It is internally motivated. That understanding needs to be the scientific base for education.

There are two natural problems that are related to this educational search for improvement. One is that it has been the present educational experience that has brought us to this evolutionary change. The other is the natural survival conditioning that the external education system has had for us personally. It is self-justification.

The scientific time for formal education to begin is at the beginning of conscious intellectual development that begins at the age of 2 1/2 to 3. This is the real reason for pre-k education.

At this point the needed scientific understanding is about how to naturally facilitate the intellectual development process. The expressed reason for pre-k as conditioning for the k-12 system is not scientifically appreciate if the child's natural intellectual development is the goal.

Learning is unavoidable it is life and we can't even stop thinking when we are asleep. The unscientific controls that these term project in education need to be understood. When children are taught scientifically science becomes the experience.

Since this is a human evolutionary change level that has never been consciously implemented before we don't need to do what we have been doing other than searching for improvements in the present system. It will just take the historic generational time line. We have already been in this evolutionary change for 8 or 9 generations.

Posted by: LaserArtsMan | December 30, 2010 5:06 PM | Report abuse

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