Scientists Find Learning Is Not ‘Hard-Wired’

Article in Education Week, June 6, 2012

by Sarah D Sparks

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Neuroscience exploded into the education conversation more than 20 years ago, in step with the evolution of personal computers and the rise of the Internet, and policymakers hoped medical discoveries could likewise help doctors and teachers understand the “hard wiring” of the brain. . . .

That conception of how the brain works, exacerbated by the difficulty in translating research from lab to classroom, spawned a generation of neuro-myths and snake-oil pitches—from programs to improve cross-hemisphere brain communication to teaching practices aimed at “auditory” or “visual” learners.

“What we find is people really do change their brain functions in response to experience,” said Kurt W. Fischer, the director of Harvard University’s Mind, Brain, and Education Program. “It’s just amazing how flexible the brain is. That plasticity has been a huge surprise to a whole lot of people.”

In contrast to the popular conception of the brain as a computer hard-wired with programs that run different types of tasks, said Dr. Jay N. Giedd, a neuroscientist at the National Institute of Mental Health, brain activity has turned out to operate more like a languageRequires Adobe Acrobat Reader.

In 1997, the cognitive scientist and philosopher John T. Bruer of the James S. McDonnell Foundation, in St. Louis, declared in a landmark essayRequires Adobe Acrobat Reader in the American Educational Research Association’s journalEducational Researcher that directly connecting neuroscience to classroom instruction was “a bridge too far.” He urged collaboration among cognitive psychologists, neuroscientists, and educators.

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