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Brain-Based Education: Don't Get Snookered!

"Brain-based education" is K-12's latest fad. Dan Willingham, a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia, has put together a 10 minute video about what we know - and what we need to know - about brain-based education. If you know nothing about cognitive psychology (like me) but want to size up this trend, this video is a helpful introduction. Kudos to Dan Willingham for putting this resource together.

Hearty applause for Professor Willingham. The video is enlightening, well-argued, and witty. It confirmed some of my many misgivings about "brain-based education."

As school systems embrace this "latest research" and accompanying lingo, they renounce language that makes sense. Some brain-based educators would say, for instance, that if a child has trouble writing (i.e., forming letters) fluidly, it's a sign of a problem with the graphomotor function. It sounds fancy, but perhaps it would be more useful to find out if the child ever studied penmanship.

It seems to be the story of a fad: a flawed idea may seem rather innocent at its inception, but grows in nonsense as it spreads. As school systems embrace these programs, they essentially buy and implement language with a tenuous connection to reality.

As a teacher of language and literature, I have a stake in the honest use of words. I will not use jargon in which I do not believe, let alone diagnose a child with it. At the same time, actual brain research is interesting to me, and I look forward to reading more.

How about a contest for "most abuse of pseudoscientific jargon"?

Oh, and while none of your attentive readership would have guessed otherwise, you just outed yourself as Not a Cognitive Psychologist.

Hey Sherman, I don't think anyone was under the impression that I'm a cognitive psychologist!

What did your students say about your avatar?

Diana, "graphomotor function" - oy. Do people throw around these terms a lot now?

Willingham is going to do some follow-up videos, so hopefully we'll all be able to learn more. This is all very new to me.

Ah, eduwonkette ... it gets worse. The graphomotor function, according to exciting new brain-based research, consists of the following components:

a. Pre-Visualization
b. Graphomotor Memory
c. Graphomotor Production
d. Graphomotor Feedback

This is a good example of one of Professor Willingham's key points. They (the brain-based learning promoters) take a known phenomenon (e.g., kids call upon their memory of the formation of letters), attach a "scientific" name to it, and then present this as something "new."

Hey y'all
Thanks for watching. More vids to come. Next ones will look slicker, I promise! Seriously, the technology defeated me, but I'm going to hang in there!


I first asked whether you were criticizing someone else. I have been rereading a cognitive scientist named Willingham for years. He's always the high point of the AFTs American Educator, and he writes articles that I can not only read once. So I watched his video and again I was thrilled. He takes complexity and presents it in such a clear manner that you are temepted to conclude "I already knew that." But on rereading Willingham I always conclude that he has taught me something so profound that I've immediately labeled it as common sense.

And his video was just as good. He concisely explained why administrators who lack practical experience with dealing with classroom and school dynamics are caught up in the Power Point version's of Brain Based psuedoscience.

How should we apply Willingham's insights? I don't know. On the obvious level, they show why the policies inspired by NCLB which gamble everything on a narrow focus on the brain, while neglecting the whole person and social dynamics are not going to work. As far as practical applications of his work to my own classroom, I just think they've made me wiser and that makes me a better teacher. I can't put my finger on it, but I think Willingaham's work allows my to better understand my kids and their social interactions.

But I also have big news. I won the type of teaching award that matters the most - an award for the students. This award was inscribed,

"This award is to hereby express appreciation to Dr. John "D.T." Thompson for showing me all the different personalities you can express, even the gross ones!"

Another multiple post from a multiple personality ...

I meant to say the video you SEEMED to be criticizing.

I don't know. I put ten minutes into watching it. The hierarchies (mind/child/classroom) on the right and the brain and lower levels on the left don't impress me as the worlds only or most accurate models for linking understanding of the brain to understanding how to teach.

I just spent an afternoon reading about graphomotor dysfunction and some other observed differences in children with bipolar disorder (sleep patterns, for instance). I agree that simply knowing that there is a brain-based explanation for what is observed does not add up to understanding what to do about it. But it might help to explain what continuing the same things over and over don't help (like running a kid through penmanship over and over again because they can't write; or dismissing a deviant circadian rythmn as laziness).

I prefer to maintain an open mind.


Keeping an open mind is admirable. I, too, try to keep an open mind, and am interested in genuine brain research.

Some brain-based programs (especially those seeking quick implementation in the classroom) grossly oversimplify the questions and answers. There is an inverse relationship between the heavy-handedness of a brain-based program and the depth of its research and conclusions.

Graphomotor dysfunction is a documented phenomenon, yes. And there is much research regarding it. However, from what I can glean--and cognitive psychologists are welcome to jump in and correct me--much is still unknown, and the specific relationship of writing to the brain is under investigation.

Despite such uncertainty, some brain-based programs will offer the following course of action:

  • 1. Observe Freddy's difficulty in forming letters.
  • 2. Look up the associated brain function. Identify it correctly as graphomotor. Narrow the problem down, if possible, to one or more of the graphomotor components.
  • 3. Turn to the strategy handbook, look up a strategy that matches the graphomotor problem, and voila.
  • In the meantime, many schools don't teach penmanship at all.

    Thanks for posting this link. I have been cringing for years at educators' (and especially vendors') use of "brain-based" to make their material seem more "scientific." We are still at the basic science level of learning about the brain, and the rush to apply the science is not about educating as much as it is about making money.
    I find the video quite useful in explaining where the horse is vs. where the cart is....

    As an educator, I am intrigued by brain-research and the possibilities it has to impact my teaching and my students learning. As a professional, I am always skeptical of where the information is coming from and what the "research" is based on. I appreciate Professor Wilingham's view on brain-based education. It is easy to see how big of a leap one can draw a conclusion on because there is so little known still in this field. It reminds me of the claims that we still have only discovered less than 1% of all aquatic life in the deepest oceans. It is exciting to think of all we have to learn still as a race. I was glad to see Professor Willingham end his 10 minutes with a bit more positive spin. As a teacher, it would be somewhat ignorant of me to not take a look at brain-based research. After all I am in the business of "shaping minds". I would appreciate more help from cognitive psychologists and other knowledgeable scientists to help my colleagues and me take a close and critical look at what is being researched and what is valid and helpful. It is a lot to sift through and many of it is not written in layman's terms. Pointing out all that is wrong in the field is not helping me to make a difference in my classroom. I will be looking for Professor Willingham's next video.

    As a parent of a child diagnosed by a pediatiric nerologist with dysgraphia or what others call graphomotor, I want to say all the penmanship in the world would not "cure" his issues. He works harder than my other childern and his peers at the act of putting letters on paper with unreadable results. His verbal responses far exceed these same peers. This is a very real brain issue. I do sometimes wonder who has the real learning issues my son our society's view of what is the best way to measure one's knowledge or learning. My son can tell you anything he has learned verbally!

    Comments are now closed for this post.


    Recent Comments

    • Carolyn Tepe: As a parent of a child diagnosed by a pediatiric read more
    • Mary Ann: As an educator, I am intrigued by brain-research and the read more
    • Kathy McKean: Thanks for posting this link. I have been cringing for read more
    • Diana Senechal: Margo/Mom, Keeping an open mind is admirable. I, too, try read more
    • Margo/Mom: I don't know. I put ten minutes into watching it. read more




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