The Case for Chutes and Ladders

Neuroscience shows kids build concepts of numbers one by one, through a mental number line.

Considering that there is nothing to the "Mozart effect," in which playing classical music to babies supposedly improves their "spatiotemporal reasoning," it has had amazing staying power. Along with similar cases of a gullible public's going crazy over preliminary findings that ultimately fell apart, it has created a bitter rift among scientists about whether neuroscience can explain how the brain learns and thereby guide teaching. Now some scientists are fuming about "scientifically unsupported" claims, about parents and teachers who are "misinformed" and about "myths of brain-based pedagogy."

This is especially odd coming now. A new field, called educational neuroscience, is hitting its stride, with a new program at Harvard University and a new journal, launched this spring, publishing the latest research. But such attacks "happen at the cusp of all conceptual changes in science," says Laura-Ann Petitto of the University of Toronto, a pioneer in the field. "Great new insights are followed by a backlash. The danger here is that we might throw out the baby with the bath water."

Critics are certainly right that there's a lot of bath water that should go down the drain, starting with the Mozart Effect itself and moving on to "brain-based" toys whose benefits remain more mythical than real and "brain-based" education consultants who peddle their questionable (and expensive) services to schools. But the critics go further. In a guest editorial in the journal Science last month, two scholars called "brain-based pedagogy" a "myth." They are especially concerned that teachers, who pay $500 to attend "learning and the brain" conferences at places like MIT and Stanford, believe the research is solid enough to use in classrooms today, such as by teaching boys and girls differently. "People have been sold a bill of goods that there is enough here to make curricular decisions," says psychologist Kathryn Hirsh-Pasek of Temple University, coauthor of the editorial.

Not even researchers who are forging this new field make that claim, any more than scientists who study fruit flies claim their results can be immediately applied to human disease. But it's naive to say that brain discoveries have no consequences for understanding how humans learn. Petitto, for instance, led a 2007 study that settled a decades-long debate over how children learn to spell: does the brain uses the same processes for words you can sound out ("blink") as for those you can't ("yacht")? Brain imaging showed that blink-like words use the brain's soundprocessing system, while yacht-like words rely on circuits that encode memory and meaning. That suggests "a dual-route model of spelling," Petitto says. "Knowing this, there's no way I'd teach a child spelling without phonological information. This is finally evidence that the brain needs that and uses it."

The new journal, called Mind, Brain, and Education, is full of other fascinating hints. One study found that when children begin forming mental representations of letters, more than the visual sense comes into play. Crucially, the brain's premotor area, which plans movements, does. That suggests that having children try to write letters at the same time that they're learning to recognize them might produce what Denes Szucs and Usha Goswami of the University of Cambridge call "a multisensory representation" of letters, and "deepen learning."

Another study found that the brain's representations of numerical magnitude and of physical size overlap, sharing networks of neurons, so that the same circuit that assesses whether 3 is greater than 5 also assesses whether a watermelon is bigger than a grape. Scientists have found a strong link between preschoolers' mental representations of numbers and how well they do in school. That suggests that strengthening this circuitry by challenging it with grape-watermelon exercises, long before a child takes math, might bolster this fundamental arithmetic network. Neuroscience also shows that children build up their concept of numbers linearly, through a mental number line. Reinforcing that linear image—Chutes and Ladders, anyone?—might strengthen children's early number sense.

I say "suggest" and "might" in relating neuroscience findings to education, but that's the point. As this stage in educational neuroscience—just as in the early days of, say, studies relating genes and disease—basic research must generate hypotheses, which must then be tested just like any discovery that hopes to enter real-world use. Hirsh-Pasek concedes that "we don't want to shut down these promising roads," but there is a real danger of that. The attacks "are demoralizing to those of us trying to relate neuroscience to education," says Kurt Fischer, director of the Harvard Mind, Brain, and Education program.

The protestations against daring to do so remind me of biologists who wax lyrical over the insights into the miracles of life that they glean, but if you ask how their work might do something as mundane as help sick people, they look at you as if you had asked them to design bioweapons. It would be a shame if hostility toward using basic science to solve real-world challenges carried over into something as important as teaching our children.

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