Saturday, January 23, 2010

Minds, Brains, and Learning: A foundational book on brain science and education

Review of: Minds, Brains, and Learning, by James P. Byrnes

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Nearly a decade after its publication, this book remains for me one of the very best basic resources for those who want to understand how we learn in terms of brain function, and in general the educational relevance of neuroscience.

Brain science remains a potentially important source for expanding and revising our psychological theories of learning. On the other hand, a lot of enthusiastic authors have made excessive claims in recent years about brain science research providing us with new ways of thinking about learning, and most of these claims are hype, many falling into the category of popular "neuromyth" as they become more widely accepted.

It was once the case that talking about human life in terms of brain function would immmediately inspire resistance. We don't like to think of ourselves in mechanical terms. The popular enthusiasm of the past two decades around brain science in popular books has reversed this bias in some ways, now "brain-based" has become a common marketing term. Basing principles on brain science is more than just throwing a few technical terms around and quoting from press releases for recent research.

Byrnes' wonderful book sets out to give the foundation of the major research programs relevant to both neuroscience and education, point out the important ideas they test, evaluate how those tests have fared, and come to balanced conclusions about the results. This is a far cry from the typical popular "brain-based" book which gives you a bums rush tour or neuroanatomy, a highly selective review of certain research, and then a wildly speculative theory followed by the author's personal favorite principles (which in many cases I think these authors would have promoted even without their "brain-based" research).

This is one of the few books that actually does look closely at brain science as a source of information about educational principles and comes to useful conclusions about what we know and what we still need to find out.

Some highlights:

1. Brain research by itself cannot support particular instructional practices, although it can support particular psychological theories which can in turn be used to design more effective forms of instruction.

2. Although we know that complex stimulus environments in early life alter brain structure, we still have no idea how to make good use of this to childrens' advantage. Common claims for special benefits of exposing infants to music, physical activity, and so on have not yet been supported by reliable evidence.

3. The synaptic basis of learning is largely irrelevant to particular modes of instruction. Principles of instruction are better based on psyhological principles such as deliberate practice and creating elaborate multicoded representations, which are stil consistent with neuroscience but not dependent upon its details.

If you have an interest in education and want to understand the real fundamentals of how neuroscience data relates to educational practices, I think this book should be one of your stepping stones.

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