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Look Before You Leap: Concerns About "Brain-Based" Products and Approaches.

Jenny has been teaching kindergarten for two years. She has a very small budget for classroom supplies and materials. There seems to be so much that her classroom needs, and yet so little money with which to buy it. Jenny realizes the importance of making the money go as far as possible, while trying to meet the needs of the school's diverse, urban population of children.

Last week, Jenny attended a professional development conference and heard a well-known speaker from out of state talking about brain research and children's development. The speaker was quite good at describing how the brain functions. Afterwards, looking through some school supply catalogs, Jenny came across several products designed to facilitate the brain development of 5-year-olds. Her plans to purchase a large set of classroom unit blocks are put aside in favor of new plans to buy the "brain-based" products. After all, Jenny believes, children deserve the best start possible. What better way to ensure that outcome than with scientifically based products?

Unfortunately, the above scenario may become more common. Articles about brain research may lead principals, teachers, and parents to believe that we now know all about how the brain develops. But do we? At a 1999 symposium on brain development held by the Foundation for Academic Excellence, neuroscientists, psychologists, and educators were asked to describe their groundbreaking research on brain development and learning. The symposium focused on the impact of music and art on brain development. The first scientist to speak was asked, "How does the brain work?" He answered, "I have no idea." This set the tone for the symposium, and none of the invited speakers reported having proof of any specific teaching technique or material that would create smarter children. Before Jenny and other teachers or principals make decisions and spend money, it is important to ask some integral questions about brain research.

What Does Brain Research Tell Us About "Critical Periods"?

Brain research has focused on the physiology of the brain. A pair of studies often cited (Chugani, 1998; Chugani, Phelps, & Mazziotta, 1987) used positron emission tomography (PET) to measure glucose and oxygen utilization in the brains of children, infancy through age 15, who had histories of seizures. The purpose was to provide information about the various areas of brain activity during children's maturation.

Positron emission tomography is an invasive test that uses tracer elements injected into the brain via vein catheters. The positron-emitting isotopes are recorded by a CAT scanner while the patient's head is kept still in a special brace. Specialists use a mathematical formula to plot the results. It is important to note that this kind of research, by law, cannot be done on children who have had no history of neurological disorders.

The data from such tests have become the basis for what some consider to be physical proof of "critical periods" in early brain development (Kotulak, 1997). Chugani's study indicated that children's brain activity, until age 16, stayed at a higher level than adults' did. Scientists also matched periods of brain activity to developmental growth behaviors. For example, it was found that a newborn's brain activity corresponded to the infant's sense of touch and bodily sensation (Bruer, 1999b).

Analysis of this type of research also seems to show that repeated use of neuronal pathways will result in certain connections being strengthened, while some are lost (Chugani, 1998). What this research does not show, however, is what kinds of activities create strong connections and which do not. It also does not explain why neural connections are lost. Perhaps the loss is a natural and necessary part of brain development.

What Does Brain Research Tell Us About "Enriched Environments"?

In an article that appeared in Time magazine, Madeleine Nash writes, "Rich experiences ... really do produce rich brains." She makes this statement based on research showing that rats being raised in "toy-strewn cages" have a greater number of synapses per neuron in their brains. Proponents of "enriched environments" (Nash, 1997) usually cite studies such as Greenough, Black, and Wallace's (1987) study of rats in complex environments. The Greenough et al. study found that rats raised in complex environments learned faster to run mazes than rats raised in typical laboratory cages. Interpreting these findings, however, depends on two critical understandings. First, in the Greenough et al. study, "complex" meant an environment designed to imitate the rat's natural habitat, not an "enriched" or overly stimulating one. The second critical point is that Greenough et al. found that older rats also could achieve greater learning when placed in complex environments. The Greenough et al. study seems to point to an experience-dependent factor of brain plasticity. Connections made to specific types of environments for infants and preschoolers cannot be made from that study, however.

Does Brain Research Offer Any Applicable Knowledge?

Some educational theorists (Caine & Caine, 1994; Jensen, 1998; Schiller, 1999; Sprenger, 1999) have speculated about what the brain research means to educational practice. Studies that might show direct connections between physiological brain function and educational practice have not yet been done, however. Behavioral psychology has developed theories and practices separate from the neurological sciences. Both fields have historically viewed the world in ways that are equally informative and knowledgeable; at this time, however, there have been no studies that directly connect these fields. Bruer (1999a) points out that only in the last 15 years have cognitive neuroscientists started studying how our "neural hardware might run our mental software" (p. 650).

Articles from education journals, popular magazines, and other media often are enthusiastic about how brain research can rejuvenate early childhood programs and education. Any warnings about how to interpret the research generally are found buried in the article or tacked on at the end. Thus, there is a growing market for "brain-based" programs and products that gear their advertising to appeal directly to special needs groups. Those willing to pay for such reassurance include parents worried about their baby's development, caregivers concerned about providing good environments, and teachers under pressure to meet inappropriate educational standards. We need reminding that "it is unethical to mislabel, mislead, and miseducate our most vulnerable children" (Puckett, Marshall, & Davis, 1999, p. 10). It is more important than ever before that parents, caregivers, and teachers educate themselves about these products before accepting their advertised promises.

What Does the Future Hold?

Perhaps some day we will know exactly how a "normal" brain functions and learns. Perhaps, because of that knowledge, we will be able to diagnose and "fix" children's learning problems. But that day is far off. Most neuroscientists and cognitive scientists believe that some day we will have information about brain functioning that will have a direct effect on classroom practice; right now, we do not. Educators need to keep reading about scientific findings and asking questions. We need to educate ourselves about the brain-based products that have become available, but not lose sight of the possibilities and benefits of the materials already around us.

Caine and Caine (1994) and Jensen (1998) are among many educators who believe that current brain research supports their theories about learning. There is nothing wrong with reading on the subject and reflecting on what these ideas could mean for early childhood. If, however, money is going to be spent on brain-based products, if teachers are going to be asked to make decisions based on incomplete information, and if children are going to be subjected to unproven teaching techniques, then we need to step back and ask some critical questions. We need to keep ourselves from jumping on the brain-based bandwagon, or using inadequate information to rationalize our decisions.

References

Bruer, J. (1999a). In search of ... brain-based education. Phi Delta Kappan, 649-657.

Bruer, J. (1999b). The myth of the first three years. New York: The Free Press.

Caine, R. N., & Caine, G. (1994). Making connections: Teaching and the human brain. Menlo Park, CA: Addison-Wesley.

Chugani, H., Phelps, M., & Mazziotta, J. (1987). Positron emission tomography study of human brain functional development. Annals of Neurology, 2, 487-497.

Chugani, H. (1998). A critical period of brain development: Studies of cerebral glucose utilization with PET. Preventive Medicine, 27, 184-188.

Foundation for Academic Excellence: Music and Art Integration -Impact on Brain Development in Early Childhood Education, Symposium held October 12-13, 1999 in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. Sponsored by Foundation for Academic Excellence and the Department of Minority Education - Oklahoma City Public Schools.

Greenough, W. T., Black, J. E., & Wallace, C. S. (1987). Experience and brain development. Child Development, 58, 539-559.

Jensen, E. (1998). Teaching with the brain in mind. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Kotulak, R. (1997). Inside the brain. Kansas City, KS: Andrews McMeel.

Nash, M. J. (1997, February 3). Fertile minds. Time, 149(5), 48-56.

Puckett, M., Marshall, C. S., & Davis, R. (1999). Examining the emergence of brain development research: The promises and the perils. Childhood Education, 76, 8-12.

Schiller, P. (1999, March/April). Turning knowledge into practice. Child Care Information Exchange, 126, 49-52.

Sprenger, M. (1999). Learning and memory: The brain in action. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

The purpose of this column is to stimulate debate of timely issues affecting children, youth, and families. The opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position of Childhood Education or the Association for Childhood Education International.

Sara McCormick Davis is Assistant Professor, Early Childhood Education, Graduate School of Education, Portland State University, Portland, Oregon.
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Author:Davis, Sara McCormick
Publication:Childhood Education
Article Type:Critical Essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 22, 2000
Words:1569
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