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Reconciling the Neurosophists and the the Neurosnobs

A recent article in Brain in the News, a publication of the Dana Foundation lamented the increase in the impressive sounding but empty use of references to the brain in education. The authors use the term “neurosophism” to criticize the use of neuroscientific language to make statements about good pedagogy sound more important or to justify what educators have known for a long time.

I am sympathetic to this argument. Educators have too often embraced neuromyths and neurofads and neuroscientific terminology without a deep enough understanding. At the same time, the authors of the article are excessively dismissive of educators’ attempts to accept that neuroscience (and other scientific disciplines) may have something to offer their field. Educators will undoubtedly oversimplify and make mistakes along the way, but rather than dismissing the whole effort as neurosophism – which smacks to me of neurosnobbism – a more constructive approach is needed.

For example, the authors of the article are highly critical of this statement: You can’t think when you’re stressed, you can’t learn when you’re anxious and that’s one of the primary principles of the neuroscience… Their criticism is that it suggests that teachers were unaware previously of the effects of stress on learning. If the authors had talked to any of the people who actually educate teachers on neuroscience and its applications to education, they would have heard that we often say – and I always say – “There are many of the things that you will hear that will not be new to you. In fact, they will reinforce what you already know to be good instructional practice and good ways of working with students. But understanding the underlying principles of how brains work and why this is the case will be much more helpful to you than simply knowing that students don’t learn as well when they are stressed.”

In fact, it seems to me the height of neurosnobbism to take the position that only the neuroscientists are smart enough or worthy enough of commanding certain principles of neuroscience, and that the field of education should be confined to memorizing examples of instances. This is exactly what we are told we should not be asking of our students.

In another example, the authors take exception when the type of research that is quoted is not neuroscience research but research from the field of psychology. One has to wonder what good it does to understand the structure of neurons or the connection of the hippocampus to other parts of the brain if we can’t also connect that to human behavior. Neuroscience is a relatively new field and many really useful findings are happening at the intersection of neuroscience, cognitive psychology, behavioral economics and a variety of other fields. Personally, I celebrate the fact that the practice of teaching is becoming more evidence-based and more scientific and that educators are becoming better consumers of research. I will admit that they have a way to go, in general. But please, let us help them and not make them feel that their stupidest fault is their misclassification of a piece of research as neuroscience when it was from the field of psychology. If it is good research and they are using it appropriately, that is a huge step!

The need for collaboration between neuroscientists and educators is so urgent and important, it’s time to find some common ground among those who are willing to make and forgive some mistakes in the interest of helping improve an educational system that desperately needs all hands on deck. Neurosnobbism will not help. The only thing that will rid the field of education of neurosophisms is encouraging educators to understand the research better and to model it for them.

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