'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.


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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