Beware snake oil,the brain story is not yet told

27th April 2001 at 01:00
The question is this: what is the connection between the White House, London taxi drivers, eels' brains and classroom practice?

Science has made dramatic advances in the understanding of the brain in the past 15 years. Susan Greenfield's lucid explanations of these developments have made her a celebrity. Colin Blakemore, the world-renowned Oxford neuroscientist, has starred in the lecture programme at the Royal Society of Arts and, not long ago, Hillary Clinton presided over a White House seminar on the implications of brain research for education.

As ever, in the wake of profound developments and serious science come the purveyors of snake oil. Your child can be hothoused to Socratic intellectual levels before she's out of nappies (and will play violin concertos in her pushchair). Just as in the Wild West, when pale riders rolled up and made a quick buck by persuading the credulous masses to buy expensive cure-alls, so now their fraudulent successors claim that brain research provides seductively simple solutions to everyday educational problems. There is justified excitement at the remarkable new insights, but the advice to educators from serious scientists is virtually unanimous and very simple: be cautious. Yes, they say, we have learnt a great deal, but what we now know pales in comparison to what we don't yet know. Remember HL Mencken's famous dictum: to every problem there is a simple, straightforward solution which is wrong.

This doesn't mean there are no conclusions to be drawn: far from it. Here are three, for example, to which Colin Blakemore drew attention:

* Early learning between birth and age five is profoundly important: social interaction, and a sense of self need to be fostered. Early identification of problems can make all the difference.

* Language acquisition and development before the age of eight or nine is crucial. It is riht to give this priority and, if the immense logistical challenges could be overcome, it would make sense to promote second language learning at this age too, as around a quarter of primary schools have begun to do.

* The brain's potential is not fixed at birth. The brain develops and adapts, not just throughout childhood, but also throughout life. The most remarkable discovery of all is that the part of the brain which deals with memory about location is markedly bigger in London taxi drivers than in the rest of the population. Whether there is a corresponding reduction in the part of the brain that determines social attitudes remains to be researched, but the message is clear. Using the brain helps to develop it, just as exercise develops the muscles. This surely gives additional scientific underpinning to the case for lifelong learning?

The implications for educational policy and practice are only just beginning to emerge. More research is needed and, in particular, it is important that these developments in neuroscience are brought together with developments in cognitive science and social science. These domains are now largely separate but at least there are signs of dialogue beginning.

Who knows where all this will lead? Some science fiction becomes science fact before you've had time to blink. The Times reported last week that scientists in Chicago have created a machine the size of a cigarette packet which is driven by an eel's brain and rushes about searching for light. Let your imagination loose and the implications are mind-boggling. But it is hard to see a practical application in the foreseeable future.

We in education will watch and learn from science. In the meantime, good teaching, high expectations, effective use of ICT and a concern for the social as well as academic development of all young people will deliver improvement.


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