Eric Jensen: Californian stardust or worse
By Kelvin Smythe
Eric Jensen: Californian stardust or worse - Click here.
Eric Jensen: Californian stardust or worse
Jensen (along with a number of other American ‘popsters’) has been a vogue voice in American education in recent years. If teachers haven’t heard much of him directly, then it should be known his ideas have had a big influence on learning style advocates like Dunn and Dunn (K. and R. Dunn: ‘Learning Style Inventory’ 1984.) As well, his writings have provided an important underpinning for the whole brain movement. For instance, his book ‘Brain Based Learning’ is the key text for a ‘Whole Brain Learning’ course run by a group styling itself the Teacher Education Institute. The problem with all this dodgy brain science advocacy is that while the science claims are shonky, the education message of variety and balance in classroom activities, and individualisation is attractive. Claims by Jensen that his education ideas derive from neuroscience research are, on analysis, rubbish, and where they are not, massively disputable. This could be said of all the brain science advocates, many of whom have been quite dominant in New Zealand professional development seminars in the past two decades.
Take away Jensen’s claims for a neuroscientific basis for his education ideas, and you are just left with another liberal educationist (of which I am one). In other words, his reputation, company, and career depend on the neuroscience credentials of the ideas he propounds. And he is, from my interpretation, well aware of that. There is a conscious and steady attempt to shore up the neuroscience credibility of his message.
In an interview on the internet (BrainConnection.com) Jensen is asked how much he interacts with neuroscientists. He answers by saying he is a member of the Society for Neuroscience; brings scientists to his workshop; has extensive e-mail contacts; visits scientists in their laboratories; and has two researchers who look up references ‘like crazy’. The Society for Neuroscience, however, has very loose membership requirements. A scrutiny of Jensen’s writing abounds with references to neuroscientists in general, but when the names of scientists are given, they turn out, from my research, not to be neuroscientists at all. In the interview he is then asked if he thinks brain scientists appreciate what he is trying to do. He answers that ‘most of the scientists I work with (about a dozen or so) do understand and appreciate what I’m trying to do … But, on the whole, probably less than 1 percent see any link between neuroscience and teaching methodology.’ This answer deserves scrutiny. The dozen or so scientists he works with are not named, and if he could name any, are they neuroscientists or more vaguely scientists? He then slides away into further evasiveness with his comment that less than 1 percent give support to his ideas. That could mean none.
There is no doubt that teachers who read or listen to Jensen, or other learning stylists or whole brainers, would have their ideas about teaching confirmed, and be reinvigorated for their classroom endeavours. Some of the ideas about learning and the brain will be correct, and much of pedagogical advice helpful. However, none of this can excuse the ill-based scientific claims for their origin. In my view, Jensen’s ideas have been a distraction from attendance to our own pedagogical roots, and, for international inspiration, from more soundly-justified ideas coming out of the UK. I acknowledge my own concern here about a strong Californian stardust, new age element that has entered the primary education discourse in New Zealand. The reasons for this escape into what I consider unreality will be discussed in a later posting. To me, pedagogical insights are hard won from the daily struggle to do things better; they come from reflection on the outcomes of everyday practical experience. The source for the New Zealand way for primary education, even when university research has been involved, has been this reflection on what happens in classrooms. If Jensen wants to put forward his ideas on education he should do so on this basis, not on the basis of pseudo-science. What kind of a discourse can you have when the justification is neuroscience which is not neuroscience? Jensen’s is a pre-emptive strike especially when wrapped around with ideas that have an intrinsic appeal to teachers.
I checked the sources for his central book ‘Teaching With The Brain In Mind’ and found them to be mainly from pop, self-improvement and new age books, and life style magazine and newspaper articles. Networkonnet readers are invited to check this for themselves. When I looked up one of Jensen’s apparent authoritative sources claiming that folk singing improved reading scores, I found that it came from ‘The Journal for Reading Disabilities’ which begs the question about its relevance to general reading. Often Jensen makes claims with no sources given at all. For instance, that ‘we use less than 1 percent of our brain’s projected processing capacity.’ There is no source for this idea, and there never will be, because it is rubbish.
It is useful to consider some of the summations of John Bruer a leading neuroscientist, ‘Educational applications of brain science may come eventually, but as of now has little to offer teachers in terms of informing classroom practice.’ In another article he says scathingly ‘Within the literature on the brain and education one finds, for example that brain science supports Bloom’s taxonomy, Madeline Hunter’s effective teaching, whole language instruction, Vysgotsky’s theory of social learning, thematic instruction, portfolio assessment, and co-operative learning.’
As an antidote to all this, read ‘Spinster’ or ‘In the Early World’, or anything inspirational that comes from the classroom, with the justification that it does come from the classroom. A comparison will serve to make Jensen, and his brain science compatriots, now how can I say this politely – unauthentic in comparison.