In The Fundamental Importance of the Brain and Learning for Education, Kurt W. Fischer and Mary Helen Immordino-Yang warn, “Expectations for educational neuroscience are extremely high, but at this point it could turn out to be just another fad, a popular enthusiasm that fades with time as the unreality of exaggerated expectations becomes clear.” Given Fischer’s role as advisor and former president of the International Mind, Brain and Education Society, one cannot easily dismiss such a statement. It is peculiar, in this light, that the NYC Department of Education would award a multi-million-dollar no-bid contract to a “brain-based” program like Schools Attuned®, which specifically trains teachers to diagnose students’ learning breakdowns in terms of brain function and apply relevant strategies. “Brain-based” and “child-centered” approaches both view the child (and brain) as the starting point—a laudable premise on the surface, but treacherous beneath.
My purpose here is not to criticize Schools Attuned® (whose workshops I have attended), nor to comment on the scientific aspects of brain-based programs in general. Rather, as a teacher of middle-school students, I ask whether our schools might not be taking child-centered and brain-based ideas too far, glorifying the strategy at the expense of knowledge, and accommodating the individual student beyond reason. As nice as it is to reach out to the kids, perhaps we ignore some of the dangers of over-accommodation: dilution of curriculum, isolation of the student, confusion of roles, and invasion of students’ privacy.
In Education and the General Welfare (1920), Frank K. Sechrist writes, “Any activity that is made an end in itself, when it is properly only a means to a higher end, is an educational fad.” Perhaps “success” is one such fad today. We are supposed to help every child succeed, but what does that mean? Success is only as meaningful as the thing it serves. One cannot “succeed” in general; one succeeds at a particular activity, for a particular purpose. In order to help students learn, we must establish a curriculum. Conversely, if we ignore curriculum, then we will chase our own tails in pursuit of success.
Some might argue that we are not ignoring curriculum, but rather tuning it to the individual. Why demand that an entire class read Antigone, when the individuals have different interests, levels, and needs? To these child-tuners I reply: How can we ignore two of the deepest human needs of all: to understand the world around us and to communicate with others? When I teach literature, music, or theatre to my students, I am often struck by the meanings they find and the bonds they form. Without common knowledge and common vocabulary, we are stranded and can only send out help signals.
The teacher, then, becomes the rescuer. Instead of conveying subject matter, she circulates from student to student, providing “strategies” for vague purposes. The “strategy” may be a tape recorder, checklist, behavior chart, mnemonic device, highlighting technique, stuffed animal, or soothing music. The teacher is now psychologist, maid, surrogate parent, and “guide on the side.” Students quickly figure out that teachers are supposed to serve them, and treat them accordingly. A teacher who actually teaches a specific book may be taken to task for not “differentiating” the instruction enough, or for making students read something they might not want to read. The teacher is supposed to turn her eyes away from the book and toward the child. Yet such a gaze has its dangers.
Perhaps the most insidious effect of this ultra-sensitive pedagogy is the invasiveness. We are supposed to scrutinize, diagnose, and remedy every possible learning obstacle in every child. Are they not entitled to some dignity and privacy? If the child’s mind wanders in class, must we find a “strategy” to rein the child back in? What about the child who loves daydreaming and is not harmed by it? Is it our duty or even our business to make every student perform in the way we expect? I always appreciated the teachers who let me be and who gave me help only when I asked for it. Students differ in this regard; but no child should be subjected to diagnoses that have not been substantiated by research, nor should teachers be required to diagnose brains. Teachers should remain teachers.
This is not to say that teachers should ignore students’ individual obstacles and challenges. By all means, teachers should do their best to help their students learn the subject at hand, striking the appropriate balance of class instruction and individual assistance. Teachers must know and love their subject. Within the context of excellent lessons, we can offer appropriate help to our students, who must respond with their own efforts and choices. If we do not give them this opportunity to learn and choose, then we will turn schools into social service centers– and futile ones at that, as we will have forgotten what they are for.
Diana Senechal teaches ESL and drama at a Brooklyn middle school and holds a Ph.D. in Slavic Languages and Literatures from Yale.