Paul A. Kirschner & Mirjam Neelen
It’s beginning to be a normal everyday thing to run into (sometimes wild!) claims about the brain. Blogs, newspapers, magazines, videos, podcasts, and so forth discuss things like brain-based learning, brain-based instruction, brain-based teaching, brain-based … well, you get the picture. Brain-based everything.
And it’s not just in the media. There are also plenty of institutions and organisations – both public and private – that offer training programmes, computer programs, or apps with some kind of brain-training or ‘brain exercises’. The promises that come with those offerings are quite strong and often sound really impressive. These brain exercises will supposedly lead to better learning and a ‘healthier’ brain (in various shapes of forms).
Hold on, something isn’t right …
First of all, to put it mildly, using ‘brain-based’ as a term in these contexts is a worthless pleonasm. Have you ever heard someone talk about ‘leg-based walking’, ‘mouth-based eating’ or ‘ear-based listening’? We simply walk with our legs, eat with our mouths, hear with our ears, and learn with our brains.
Learning is – per definition – brain-based!
Simply put, when we learn (or actually when we are just standing around doing absolutely nothing), external stimuli come at us through our senses in one way or the other. Our ears hear things, our noses smell things, our eyes see things, our mouths taste things, and our skin feels things. When we pay attention to these stimuli ‘attacking’ our senses (either consciously, sub consciously or unconsciously), then the stimulus is perceived by our sensory memory after which it enters our working memory.
When we ‘do’ something with this stimulus (elaborate on it, repeat it, reflect on it, etc), it enters our long-term memory. In there, the new bit of information will either be added to an already existing schema, the schema will adapted based on the new bit of info, or if there are enough new ‘buts’ (that is, things that don’t fit) we’ll create a new schema.
All these schemas are our memories and these memories are all part of our brain. Learning is often defined as “a change in our long-term memory… If nothing has changed in long-term memory, nothing has been learned”. (Kirschner, Sweller, & Clark, 2006, p. 75-77). What it comes down to is, again, that all learning is brain-based!
Second, there’s a huge gap between what we know based on neurosciences and how we can apply this knowledge when it comes to learning and instruction.
We could write multiple blogs about this topic but we wouldn’t be able to do it any better than Dan Willingham has done, starting with his article ‘Three problems in the marriage of neuroscience and education’ and his 2012 blog ‘Neuroscience Applied to Education: Mostly Unimpressive’.
Finally, ‘brain-based training’ doesn’t work. It’s as simple as that. Pedro De Bruyckere, Casper Hulshof en Paul have discussed this extensively in their book Urban Myths About Learning and Education. They conclude that brain-training only makes you better at what you have actually practiced (practice makes perfect; duh!). However, whatever you practice with whatever ‘brain-based training’ that you’ve followed doesn’t generalize in any way to things like intelligence or memory. Up to this point, there’s no evidence that brain-training works that way. It simply doesn’t improve general cognitive skills, such as fluid intelligence. So, please don’t believe that ‘brain exercises’ will make you smarter.
Thank goodness there are also crystal clear voices who emphasise the facts, such as (again) Dan Willingham, but also Lydia Krabbendam, and Daniel Ansari. Dan Willingham wrote a blog titled Bad news for brain training in which he explains why ‘brain-training’ as such doesn’t work and why research that shows that it does is actually based on the placebo-effect. In short, the only people who made any progress were those who thought that they were participating in a study to show that the ‘brain-training’ would improve overall memory functions.
Because they expected their memory would improve, their memory improved. In contrast, the people in the control group who thought that they just participated in the study to get some extra credits, nothing happened! Note that the brain-training for both was exactly the same. ONLY the expectations were different. The figure below shows the different invitations for both groups.
And here the results of the experiment where you can see that both groups began at the same level for the two measures (Raven’s Progressive Matrices (RAPM) and the Bochumer Matrizentest (BOMAT)), but that the group that thought that they were in a study to show how brain-training works increased on both measures even though there was no difference in the ‘training’.
Lydia Krabbendam, professor in Psychology and Education at the Vrije University, Amsterdam, emphasized in her EARLI keynote that there are three pitfalls to avoid when we talk about neurosciences in the context of education and learning, according to Hruby (2012).
Pitfall 1: Using category mistakes and neuro-realism, such as ‘the learning brain’, ‘the vital brain’, etcetera.
Pitfall 2: Not respecting other disciplines. Expertise on teaching and instruction comes from others and not from neuroscience.
Pitfall 3: Take ethical concerns seriously. Be aware of potential misuse and misconceptions such as (1) parents and/or teachers who may become more permissive or feel helpless because the brain… or (2) adolescents who may act in line with the notion of an immature brain.
As an example, Paul is a member of the Advisory Board of CRADLE (Centre for Research and Development in Learning; Nanyang Technical University, Singapore). In one of the meetings, CRADLE presented a slide on their key research. One of the key pillars was, according to the slide, ‘Brain Literacy & Brain-based learning. Daniel Ansari, Professor in Developmental Cognitive Neurosciences at Western Ontario University, spoke up immediately, saying that they had to remove that phrase if they wanted anyone to take them seriously. In his words, neuroscientists know that terms like ‘brain literacy’ and ‘brain-based learning’ are pure nonsense. The problem, of course, is that learning professionals, instructors, teachers, politicians, policy makers, parents, and so forth, believe this nonsense and sometimes even welcome it!
Please, listen to real experts, such as real neuroscientists (e.g., Daniel Ansari) and reject all ‘brain-based’ bullocks. Avoid the trend that neuroscientists call ‘neurofication’, ‘neurohype’, ‘neuromania’, and ‘neuromyths’ (Gunter, 2014). Whenever you hear ‘brain-based’, dismiss the trendy nonsense. How will you know?
Just use your brain.
Gunter, T. D. (2014). Can we trust consumers with their brains? Popular cognitive neuroscience, brain images, self-help and the consumer. Indiana Health Law Review. 11, 483–552. Beschikbaar via https://mckinneylaw.iu.edu/ihlr/pdf/vol11p483.pdf
Kirschner, P. A., Sweller, J., & Clark, R. E. (2006). Why minimal guidance during instruction does not work: An analysis of the failure of constructivist, discovery, problem-based, experiential, and inquiry-based teaching. Educational Psychologist, 46(2), 75-86. Beschikbaar via http://www.cogtech.usc.edu/publications/kirschner_Sweller_Clark.pdf
Willingham, D. (2009). Three problems in the marriage of neuroscience and education. Cortex, 45, 544-545.
Willingham, D. (2012, Nov 26). Neuroscience applied to education: Mostly unimpressive. Beschikbaar via http://www.danielwillingham.com/daniel-willingham-science-and-education-blog/neuroscience-applied-to-education-mostly-unimpressive
 In 2018 $1,9 billion was spent on brain apps! (https://sharpbrains.com/blog/2019/05/24/trend-consumers-spend-significantly-more-on-digital-brain-health-and-neurotechnology-apps/)
 Recently, one of Mirjam’s colleagues, Dr Bruce Pereira, wrote a good article on how neuroscience is misused and abused in corporate settings. Definitely worth a read!