Unfortunately for Teachers Doing Harm is Just One Click Away
*Jorge Correa Rodriguez
According to one of the leading experts in the field of Mind, Brain and Education Science, Tokuhama-Espinosa (2014), educators, similar to medical doctors, when making decisions about their practices, should think about the following idea: “Do no harm” (p. xxvi). Experts like her are helping teachers improve their practices by translating scientific knowledge derived from the area concerned with the study of the brain: neuroscience. This knowledge is specifically related to learning and education, and the efforts these experts are making intend to help teachers enhance learning in their students from an organic perspective. All of us, as teachers, somehow share the same characteristic: we modify our students’ brains on a daily basis when we teach them.
It would not be incorrect to believe that the lack or abundance of expertise we have on this topic may directly influence learning in students. Consumption of information has changed over the years, and people rely more on technology as the main source for learning. Educators need to consider this change. Thus the main purpose of this article is to reflect on how today’s teachers search, receive and interpret findings and claims from neuroscience, which nowadays are just “a click away”. The final point of the analysis will be explicitly to warn educators about the dangers that embracing inaccurate “neuroscience-based strategies” or products may have on students.
There is no doubt that we are living in the era of knowledge; everything we want to know is there, waiting for us. We can surf the internet to search for, for example, something as simple as a recipe for a soup to something as complex as a scientific paper about the recent findings derived from quantum physics. There are tons of information regarding neuroscience and education. However, this fast availability of information is alas also changing and affecting our behavior – and, changing the way we make decisions.
Thus we need to learn how to differentiate accurate information from the incorrect. We need to learn to make the right decisions. Specifically, we need to be discerning in relation to the information tagged with the misleading “neuro” prefix. The problem is that not all information is based on scientific research and that may lead us to do harm unconsciously and unwillingly. Even though we know educators merely aim to take advantage of the current neuro-teaching fads, they may be doing harm as well if they are not able to make logical judgment. Thus, good intentions are not enough, and they can even lead to harmful effects on the developing brains of our students.
Going further, it is not the same to modify your teaching style as for example by asking students to ingest some “neuro-enhancer” type of food to improve their learning, attention or memory. In that sense, the degree of “harm” teachers can produce in students can go from something that can be easily accepted by learners, such as a new learning strategy, or having a profoundly negative effect even on their health. Teachers should rely on accurate sources of information such as Google Scholar or the various academic journal databases such as JSTOR or IMBES among others, which have peer reviewed articles related to different academic and scientific topics.
However, as was discussed in the last FAB8 International NeuroELT conference in Kyoto in September this year, neuromyths are everywhere and producing adverse effects on learners. (The FAB Conference merges English Language Teaching with neurosciene). For example, “Brain Bread” and “Brain Milk”, as pointed out by one of the experts in the NeuroELT area, Robert S. Murphy, in one of his group discussions in the conference, are being sold in some countries claiming to have potential cognitive benefits on people. These are some of the “neuroproducts” not based on scientific evidence that we discussed. These products are so far from being scientifically proven; nevertheless, some people are consuming them in order to enhance their cognitive skills such as memory or attention. Thus, in this case these companies are doing explicit harm by lying to customers selling them “snake oil”. On the other hand, there is correct information we can trust and benefit from: for example, we do know the potential positive benefits that exercise has on cognition. This is an example of information we can share without doing harm in our classrooms.
One key aspect of MBES, a.k.a Neuroeducation, is to provide teachers with correct and applicable knowledge they can use to design teaching strategies in their classrooms. MBES is also worried about guiding teachers in the accurate search of information by alerting teachers to some infamous “neurobunks”, which are so easily accessible these days for internet consumers, especially teachers, stakeholders as well as the general public.
To prevent this, Geake (2009) reflects upon this idea, “Before a school buys a brain-based programme, the old saw, ‘Look before you leap’ comes to mind” (p.2). He was conscious of the good intentions teachers have but also conscious about the professional ethics we should rely on before blindly falling for any product or strategy with the word “brain” or “neuro” attached to it. These decisions are critical because they directly affect one main agent of the teaching-learning process: the student. If our aim is to give them the best, we should search for the best and most accurate information when considering modifying our teaching based on neuroscience findings or deep and peer reviewed technical classroom adaptations made by experts, for example from the MBES field.
Thus, the way in which teachers search for information is one of the key factors which can influence future positive or negative classroom outcomes for students. There are several researchers who are making this connection for teachers: Tracey Tokuhama-Espinosa is the Latin American leader in this area together with Kurt W. Fischer in the United States and Paul Howard-Jones in the UK to name a few. They are making incredible contributions by translating scientific learning related information to be applied directly into the classroom. These experts, among others, are providing teachers with the tools they need to be able to distinguish, in their search for knowledge about the brain, between what is correct and incorrect, specifically in relation to learning and teaching.
The “one click away” sentence, if used correctly will lead in this case to more validated and serious researchers from the area. We provided these three big names as a start, it is just your mission now to find more according to your own preferences because some researchers specify their area of interest to some key elements of learning while others are more interested in the whole process.
How we search for, receive and interpret information about the brain and related topics is crucial. Teachers cannot ask students to eat some specific type of bread or drink a brain boosting power milk to become smarter because a beautiful and attractive advertisement says so. We need to be aware of the possible negative effects this may have. At this point, medical placebos come to mind; in relating these products to education, they are somehow leading to a “fake” mental state of motivation, as we all know the role of emotions leading to motivation is fundamental to learning. For a more detailed analysis, please refer to Mary Helen Immordino‐Yang and Antonio Damasio’s article (2007), “We feel, therefore we learn: The relevance of affective and social neuroscience to education”. In that sense these, “neuroproducts” may generate a higher state of concentration or willingness to learn due to the false belief they are instilling in the consumer.
The right thing these companies need to do is to stop making people believe the effects they claim these products have are actually true. Moreover, disciplines such as neuroethics field have a lot to say in this area by supervising companies and their products that lack scientific evidence. In our field, educators need to be aware of this, too. Then, teachers should try to get informed by experts who are academically qualified to share the connections they have established between education and neuroscience for the benefit of learners in every classroom around the world. The information we search for and receive should be accurate enough that we can think about ways we can apply this knowledge in the classroom. We also need to learn to differentiate and learn how to interpret and judge the good from the evil. Shouldn’t human beings be experts or at least informed about making this distinction? We should.
In brief, teachers need to become critical consumers of information; then they will be able to do good instead of doing harm.
All I know today about the brain came from the “light” that the Argentinian Neuroeducator Lucrecia Prat shared with me around three years ago. Thanks Lucrecia for sharing your amazing light and showing me the way.
Special thanks to Professor Dylan Jones at Fukui University for his review and suggestions.
Jorge Correa Rodriguez is an English teacher and TEFL master from Chile. He is also currently a researcher at University of Fukui in Japan. Mr. Correa has been teaching English as a foreign language since 2008, in primary and secondary schools. His academic interests are educational neuroscience, language learning and teaching methodologies.
Geake, J. (2009). The Brain At School: Educational Neuroscience In The Classroom: Educational Neuroscience in the Classroom. McGraw-Hill Education (UK)
Immordino‐Yang, M. H., & Damasio, A. (2007). We feel, therefore we learn: The relevance of affective and social neuroscience to education. Mind, brain, and education, 1(1), 3-10.
Tokuhama-Espinosa, T. (2014). Making Classrooms Better: 50 Practical Applications of Mind, Brain, and Education Science. WW Norton & Company.
FAB NeuroELT International conference : http://www.fab-efl.com/
Google Scholar in Japan: https://scholar.google.co.jp/
International Mind, Brain and Education Society (IMBES) http://www.imbes.org/
JSTOR Peer review journal: http://www.jstor.org/
The International Mind, Brain and Education Society (IMBES) http://www.imbes.org/
(*Jorge Correa Rodriguez is from Chile.)