Feature

A true understanding of how the brain handles learning tasks will only be reached with the help of cognitive psychologists, says John Bruer, PhD, president of the James S. McDonnell Foundation.

Over the last decade, Bruer has seen the rise of a "brain-based" education movement with the media, educational consultants and researchers trying to apply basic brain research to the education of the nation's children. In a much cited 1997 article, "Education and the brain: a bridge too far," published in the Educational Researcher (Vol. 26, No. 8, p. 4­16), he criticized a trend to overinterpret the findings of this kind of research and apply it in schools. Holding more immediate promise for application in schools, he believes, are imaging technologies that examine the human brain's processing of math, reading and other specific learning tasks.

But even imaging research, he says, must stem from quality cognitive science. Cognitive psychology, says Bruer, can serve as the "bridge" between this type of hard neuroscience and the schools.

In a conversation with the Monitor, Bruer, whose background is in philosophy and physics and whose foundation funds mainly biomedical and behavioral sc iences research, called on psychologists to collaborate more closely with educators as they structure studies of the brain and attempt to apply their findings to education.

Q. What have been some of the most dangerous myths that have been spread through brain-based education?

A. One is the idea that there's a critical period for school-type learning, an optimal period during brain development that ends at around 11 or 12 years and after which learning becomes much more difficult. There's absolutely no basis in neuroscience for that claim. What a lot of brain-based consultants don't appreciate is that to turn basic psychological research into effective learning practices you have to develop interventions based on cognitive science in math, reading and other subject areas and test them in classrooms.

Q. Who do you think is in a position to do that kind of work?

A. Cognitive psychologists. What a lot of people do not realize is that better understanding of brain function relies on improved understanding of learning and behavior. Our understanding of how mental tasks are executed by neural structures in the brain is crucially dependent on cognitive and behavioral research by psychologists.

Q. Are imaging studies relying on this kind of behavioral research?

A. Totally. To have an interpretable imaging study depends on very careful behavioral study of the experimental task. Our imaging technologies have limited temporal and spatial resolution, so we want to design studies that optimize our ability to look at the smallest parts of the brain that we possibly can. The way to do that is to analyze mental arithmetic, for example, down to its subcomponents--retrieving a number fact, trying to decide which of two numbers is larger. You can begin to see where those subcomponents might be located in the brain, and from there you can begin to see the circuitry involved in doing these tasks.

Q. Do you think that findings from brain research on learning disability--in math and reading, for example--might apply more generally to educating children?

A. The attempt to understand learning and our mental capacities in terms of brain structures is such a new discipline that if they make advances over the next 50 years as they have over the last 15, who knows? It could be very exciting. But until 10 years ago, most cognitive psychologists did not take any interest in the brain. Brain imaging helped change that. But still, this hybrid discipline, cognitive neuroscience, that attempts to map cognitive mental functions onto brain areas and circuits, is in its infancy. We all have great expectations, but it's hard to make specific predictions about what the ultimate applications might be.

Q. Do you think that, at this point, enough cognitive psychologists are involved in bridging brain research with education?

A. Because of the interest in brain imaging and cognitive neuroscience, there are people doing it. But one of the problems is that there aren't enough experimental psychologists thinking about applications of psychology to education. Part of that is a funding problem. But it's been our experience at the foundation that if you make resources available for psychologists to work with educators to do that kind of work, you can elicit some very good proposals.

Q. Are you looking more at funding that kind of work?

A. Yes. I see an opportunity to work with some cognitive neuroscientists to ask, "What educational problems do you think you might be able to solve because of what you know?" I would like to see the foundation's interest moving more in that direction over the next five to 10 years.

Q. Is it a problem that most cognitive psychologists don't have as much experience with education as with science?

A. Yes. In most areas there's some friction between researchers and practitioners. It happens to be pretty evident in education. One way to address that is to encourage long-term collaborations between researchers and practitioners, where they're working together as peers rather than with the scientists going into schools and acting as master and educators as their servants. Two things have to happen. The researchers have to become a bit more aware of and sensitive to the problems teachers confront in the classroom. And teachers need to begin to think like researchers--to at least understand the importance of experimental controls, evidence, this kind of thing.

Q. And how do you get that collaboration going?

A. One thing we have found is if you send out a request for proposals that requires the teachers, the practitioners and the researchers to come in together on a project, they do it. You want to structure funding programs for research and for improving instruction that incorporate the best research thinking and the best practical classroom knowledge.

Further Reading

John Bruer's most recent book is "The Myth of the First Three Years: A New Understanding of Early Brain Development and Lifelong Learning" (Free Press, 1999).