Willingham making sense of brain research

In what will be his last guest column for the Washington Post education column, “The Answer Sheet,” cognitive psychologist Dan Willingham advises people to be skeptical about the poppycock that masquerades as scientific advice about brain-based education. Under the headline “Willingham: 3 brain facts every educator should know,” Professor Willingham explains clearly and with the force of evidence and plain, ordinary reason why “most of what you see advertised as educational advice rooted in neuroscience is bunkum.”

Professor Willingham contends that there are three facts educators should know.

  1. The brain is always changing.
  2. The connection between the brain and behavior is not obvious.
  3. Deriving useful information for teachers from neuroscience is slow, painstaking work.

These facts are especially relevant for those who are concerned with Learning Disabilities. They remind us to understand that educational activities actually affect brain function, that we can hope to make a difference by carefully and systematically programming effective instructional interventions. They show that we still need to focus on behavioral outcomes in education, that the bridge between brain and behavior is still very much under construction and educators already have instructional variables that they can manipulate to induce changes in students’ outcomes.

Some of the feel-good news for those of us in LD is that many of our colleagues are among the people who are in the forefront of those who are working on making circumspect, sensible connections between brain and behavior. These leaders are not those who turn up on the Pop-Ed talk shows or the front covers of supermarket tabloids extolling the virtues of super-brain exercises and multi-factitious training regimes. Instead, they have names such as Berninger, Cutting, Just, Pugh, or Shaywitz (and others), and you’ll find them by reading the lists of authors for articles published in rigorous scientific journals.

Meanwhile, jump over to the Post and read Dan’s column, Willingham: 3 brain facts every educator should know.

Willingham, D. T., & Lloyd, J. W. (2007). How educational theories can use neuroscientific data. Mind, Brain, & Education, 1, 140-149.

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