What Brain Science Doesn't Tell Us About Children And Learning

November 05, 1997

Parents and educators are looking in the wrong place when they attempt to apply brain science to improve early learning and classroom experiences. Neuroscience gives us no reason to believe that children's early years are the most important time for human learning. These are some of the conclusions reported in November's lead article entitled, "A Bridge Too Far," to be published next week in the journal, Educational Researcher. The article by John T. Bruer, Ph.D., President of the St. Louis-based James S. McDonnell Foundation, explains that the current excitement about "new" findings from neuroscience and brain development and their relevance to children's learning go well beyond what the science can support.

"Stories stressing that children's experiences during their early years of life will ultimately determine their scholastic ability, their future career paths, and their ability to form loving relationships have little basis in neuroscience," reports Bruer. Contrary to the use of the word "new" when describing the research findings, much of the neuroscience mentioned has been known for years. Furthermore, educators have been making the same ill-founded claims based on this misunderstanding of neuroscience for the last two decades. For example, scientists have known for over twenty years that there are discrete times in development when the brain is actively shaping the connections between nerve cells. It is also known that there are biologically determined periods during early childhood when the presence or absence of sensory input (visual or auditory stimuli) can effect development.

What is "new" in neuroscience is most often overlooked in the numerous articles purported to report exciting breakthroughs. What is new is an emerging widespread agreement among neuroscientists that the brain remains "plastic," adaptable and changeable, in response to the environment throughout the life span. What is not known is what these changes in brain cell structure mean when it comes to learning culturally defined and transmitted skills such as reading, doing math, or studying economics. The new neuroscientific finding should cause us to question, rather than embrace, the popular view that the brain cannot be changed after the first few years of life. So, Bruer explains, although there might be any number of reasons justifying an investment in early childhood education programs, neuroscience doesn't provide any. At least not yet. (The paper is posted on the McDonnell Foundation website at: www.jsmf.org)

James S. McDonnell Foundation

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