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Posted at 5:00 AM ET, 02/28/2011

'Brain-based' education: Run from it

By Valerie Strauss

This was written by Larry Cuban, a former high school social studies teacher (14 years, including seven at Cardozo and Roosevelt high schools in the District), district superintendent (seven years in Arlington, VA) and professor emeritus of education at Stanford University, where he has taught for 20 years. His latest book is "As Good As It Gets: What School Reform Brought to Austin." This appeared on his blog.

By Larry Cuban
The history of searching for a cancer cure began with “radical surgery” for breast cancer–hailed as a “cure” in the early 1920s.* The restless search then moved to radiation for different cancers including Hodgkins disease in the 1950s, feeding the hope that the lethal disease had found a “cure.” Then in the 1960s researchers bent their microscopes to chemotherapy searching for toxins to “cure” a child-killing leukemia. Medical researchers and physicians heralded each therapy–cutting, burning, and poisoning–as, finally, the “cure” for cancer.

From seeing the disease as monolithic–all cancers were the same–and searching for “magic bullet” cures, the war on cancer has continually tripped over itself in the past four decades as accidental and chance discoveries challenged the mainstream wisdom that all cancers were the same. Serendipity in the lab and luck established that each cancer is different and no one therapy can “cure” all cancers.

Since the 1990s, the search for cancer-killing drugs has now concentrated on the complex genetic mechanisms that turn normal cells into cancerous ones. Not one cure for cancer but many different ones that deal with “oncogenes”–particular genes that encourage and inhibit normal and abnormal proteins within cells.

In the 1990s, researchers found a particular protein that could could prevent abnormal proteins from unleashing the lethal disease called chronic myeloid leukemia or CML. The drug Gleevec, targeted just for this disease, created miraculous remissions and now has become the standard therapy for CML [from Siddartha Mukerjee's "The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer"]. Oncogene research continues for many other forms of cancer.

What does all of that have to do with brain research findings being applied to classroom lessons? The analogy of cancer researchers and medical specialists initially framing the problem of cancer for a half-century as one disease, one cause, and one cure–surgery, radiation, and toxins–before medical researchers began to understand the genetic and molecular mechanisms that turned normal cells into abnormal ones is similar to brain research findings that have spilled into classrooms helter-skelter. See here, here, here and Which Brain Research Can Educators Trust?

While some raised questions and doubts about the applicability of neurological research to classroom practice, for the most part there was a Gee Whiz tone to the writing that left guilt in its wake for those practitioners who ignored the latest research findings.

My point is that brain research is insufficiently advanced to give teachers practical advice since neurological mechanism have yet to be discovered that connect the dots–as a targeted drug such as Gleevec did for a particular cancer–for the kinds of learning issues that arise in classrooms. While neurological findings can reinforce existing practices that experienced teachers have found workable for their students year after year, brain-based research remains in John Breuer’s words, ”A Bridge Too Far.”

Cognitive psychologist Daniel Willingham at the University of Virginia, a frequent blogger and associate editor of the journal Mind, Brain, and Education, offers three bullet-point facts for those educators caught up in brain-based research:

*The brain is always changing

*The connection between the brain and behavior is not obvious.

*Deriving useful information for teachers from neuroscience is slow, painstaking work.

Willingham ends his post by asking a key question and the advice he got from a colleague:

“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.’ “

Running is not bad advice given the rock-strewn history of another medical research saga in discovering what cancer was and the different “cures” that were tried out from one decade to another.

Where life and death are at issue the zigzag history of therapies occurred simply because the biological mechanisms that trigger normal cells into cancerous ones were (and now are) still being figured out. For all of those reasons if running from brain-based lessons for teachers is one alternative, another is the ancient lesson of caveat emptor.


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By Valerie Strauss  | February 28, 2011; 5:00 AM ET
Categories:  Guest Bloggers, Larry Cuban, Learning, Research  | Tags:  brain research, brain-based education, daniel willingham, education and brain, larry cuban  
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Another valued entry from one of the Answer Sheets few reliable sources. Thank you, Professor Cuban.

The theory set forth in this entry as it relates to both treatment for cancer and pedagogical effectiveness in our schools seems to suggest each patient/student is different and needs to be addressed accordingly.

However, history demonstrates all too clearly, at least in public education, that teachers have somehow missed this critical discovery. Why is the abundance of instruction in schools, K-16, whole class? If our schools truly subscribe to the notion that all students are different and should be treated individually, why does instruction to the whole class continue to dominate in practice? IT'S ABSURD.

Just as each cancer is different so are the levels of readiness and motivation for each student different as well. Yet our teachers continue to attempt to deliver one lesson to the entire class, every day?

Posted by: paulhoss | February 28, 2011 8:26 AM | Report abuse

Valerie,there is a tremendous amount of research that refers to the brain that is very important to reading instruction.

Central Auditory Processing Deficit-Fetal Alchohol Syndrome,Dyslexia,the phonological deficit being the cardinal deficit-

Sorry but you have greatly undermined the research on Reading-we now know how 95 % of students can learn to read and we also know that simultaneous modality instruction teaches all children-their different ways of learning addressed from day 1.
This very sad,struggling public education sector where 95% of students go to school every day, do not need a flawed article like this.
I am a reading disability specialist and have come to know that it isn`t reading disability,it`s teaching disability.

I am upset at a very overly simplistic view printed in the Washington Post on how students learn.Maria Montessori `s method has shown tremendous success in engaging all the senses when looking to accomplish profound learning.
Be careful who you believe.

Posted by: Reading101 | February 28, 2011 8:45 AM | Report abuse

As a non-educator trying to understand this stuff -- I have no idea what brain research you are talking about. However, I believe that the stuff written of in Coyle's Talent Code and Cushman's Fires In The Mind have wonderful implications for education and for anyone interested in helping kids pursue their strengths and their dreams.

I respectfully ask that you clarify the above; interested in knowing exactly what you are deriding before I can accept/reject the whole idea.

Lisa Cooley

Posted by: lisafromjackson | February 28, 2011 9:15 AM | Report abuse


In the last several years,some neuroscience researchers have concentrated on more than just how the brain works but how it learns; this has important implications for teaching practice. For instance, many school incorporate "hands on learning" or manipulatives in the lesson rather than drills. Neuroscientists are seeing in fMRI studies that division utilizes the part of the brain benefiting from manipulatives while multiplication uses a different portion of the brain suggesting that memorization and drills as a more effective teaching approach.

The research is new and evolving; however, teachers should have a basic understanding of how the brain works (learning & physiology)as they are on the front lines and more likely to see the connections for effective practice using neuroscience rather than relying on behavioral studies that can only show outcomes and not the process of learning that occurs within the brain.

Posted by: Robin4ascii | February 28, 2011 12:27 PM | Report abuse

paulhoss and the rest of you:

Don't use phrases that seem to blame teachers for everything that goes on or not in the classroom.

Remember, prescriptive lesson plans and teaching-to-the-test are running everything that is presented to children. Those things are decided by a central office, school board and superintendent, not teachers. They are more concerned about what looks good to the public, not what really works better in the classroom. Only the teachers have the right answers to that.

Posted by: 1bnthrdntht | February 28, 2011 2:08 PM | Report abuse


The thing about the brain research I've become familiar with is that everything they now say about the neurology of practice and mastery is very familiar to those of us who have experienced it. I'm a violinist, and understand instinctively what "deep practice" or "deliberate practice" is, and that it works.

If the research is telling us that we are all equal in our ability to grow intelligence, how is that not a reason for dancing in the streets?

All kids can pursue their passions and their strengths, if we can construct a school system around them.

Lisa Cooley

Posted by: lisafromjackson | February 28, 2011 5:41 PM | Report abuse

One of the items which teachers frequently fight with government and school board officials over is classroom autonomy. That is the permission to choose how and when they teach the information and skills mandated by the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (a.k.a. "No Child Left Behind". The ESEA dictates a clear timeline which every teacher in our country is supposed to be able to make every student conform to regardless of all other precipitating factors. Teachers are the people in education who object to this because they know all kids are different. Teachers want to teach. That means that they individually and as a group constantly review what they do, and which students that approach was effective with. In the past this strategy was implemented as ability grouping, or tracking. Then it was decided that tracking students based on their ability and which type of instruction was effective for them was not fair and constituted discrimination. Teachers responded by finding was to assess, teach, practice, and assess their students and group them in by how they learned best. This approach yielded approaches like peer tutoring and round robin groups. Again it was decided that this type of individualized attention was not appropriate, because it damaged the student’s self-esteem. Now the new approaches are Differentiated Instruction, and Brain Based Education. Of these two approaches I would say that despite the existence of some flawed applications of neuroscientific research to education Brain Based Education is the better. I say this because at least with Brain Based Education there is a scientific basis, quantifiable data, and research to reference. People say differentiated instruction is whatever works. The concept of differentiated instruction is this: "As the teacher you must acknowledge that all of your students are individuals and may need to be taught the same information using different instructional approaches. Therefore, if you are teaching and your students aren't passing the test prescribed by the "Elementary and Secondary Education Act", then it is your fault and has nothing to do with any other factors, because the teacher is the person who has the greatest impact on a student’s development." So while there are some people floating bad information about brain based education, at least there is enough information about the approach to compare and cross reference. The alternative is just to scapegoat teachers. Brain Based Education - Run from it" you encourage people to ignore brain research. You presented instruction guided by neuroscientific findings as being irrelevant and unattainable to teachers. Your saying that a teacher is not able to grasp the research or that they don't have the mental capacity to distinguish between valid and invalid research. Never run from any research. All research is valuable. The more you read, the more fluent you will be at determining the veracity of brain research applied to teaching.

Posted by: malamuteshogun | March 6, 2011 12:45 AM | Report abuse

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