Work In Progress -- The Brain and Education, a Foundation for Change?

Ian Morton's picture


Stemming from several discussions over the course of this past summer (2007) concerning the brain and education, I have been preoccupied with a critical issue facing education: Should we teach students to be better learners and creative thinkers, or should we focus on teaching children so as to meet standardized test scores? Or more generally, should we teach students in ways that will allow them to progress as individuals, or should we teach students to fit an objective standard? In order to address this question I will draw upon research concerning both the brain and forms of education. While this paper is only meant to serve as a preliminary examination of this issue, I believe the implications of the research I address are indispensable if we are to shape an education system that best serves society. Through writing this paper I hope to promote further discussion of the education system, as it is through the sharing of ideas that we can begin the reevaluation and reformation of education. Such conversation has already begun here and here.


First, I’d like to consider traditional, deductive teaching and its subsequent effects. Deductive teaching caters to what Paul Grobstein would call “passive learning,” or what Prince and Felder refer to as “low cognitive” learning, which entails the memorization of “facts,” theories and models. This form of teaching can be done straight out of textbooks, with little demand for either the teacher or students to be engaged with the subject matter or with one another. Assessment of how well students have internalized this contextual knowledge, one uses tests that will check to see how well students can regurgitate the information. Such is the case with standardized testing.

Passive learning is beneficial to the extent that it allows for an organized, predictable and simple exchange between teachers and students; the teacher gives “facts” and students memorize them. This process, reproducible from year to year, has simply been the way to teach for years. However, as aforementioned, with this style of teaching there is a dangerous potential for teachers and students to become disengaged with the material and with one another. Many students lose interest in learning, as one is no longer learning for the sake of learning, for the purpose of satisfying one’s natural inquisitive and curious nature, but rather for the sake of grades, future benefit, or merely because they are being told to do so. Consequently, the students are less likely to take an active interest in the material and are therefore less likely to take something valuable from their education.

If we consider the role of emotion in learning, memory, decision-making, and applying knowledge to real-world complex social environments, as Immordio and Demasio point out, we can begin to see some of the problems with passive learning. As the cognitive skills taught and called upon in school are not purely rational processes, are instead evolutionarily grounded in and supported by one’s emotional machinery, it seems important to foster the proper emotional aspects of growth and learning. Deductive teaching, failing to tap into one’s emotional processes, will fall short of providing students some of the necessary tools for a more successful entrance into the real world. Not only will the knowledge gained though passive learning be short lived in a student’s mind (e.g. facts and concepts forgotten soon after a test), but it’s likely the student will also find difficulty trying to apply those concepts within the non-controlled environment of the real world. While students may be able to apply memorized facts and concepts within the controlled environment of a deductive classroom, they will find real world experiences to be much more complex, posing problems not necessarily amenable to purely rational thought

Creative and Critical Thought

In addition to neglecting the emotional aspects of learning, deductive methods seem to de-emphasize two important cognitive functions: creativity and critical thought. Creativity, the innovative and generative nature of the human mind, has been one of our greatest assets as a species. (Consider the notion of “getting it less wrong” and Paul’s assertion that science is just as much about creation as discovery according to the “loopy story telling perspective. See also: Science as Storytelling) Creativity acts as one of the major driving forces behind progress; it is through creative and abstract thought that one can arrive at new and potentially better or more effective ways of thinking and acting. While it is important that students grasp concepts and formulas so that they may then apply them in new and innovative ways, the manner in which concepts and formulas are taught should be done in such a way so as to encourage and support creative thought. Deductive methods do strive to deliver concepts to students, but it is done through strict memorization and regurgitation, which does little to promote the growth and application of creative thinking.

Within the deductive classroom, students are not being encouraged to discover their own “stories” or to think for themselves, but rather to look to their teachers for “facts” and to think within pre-constructed lines. Instead of promoting independent, creative thought, this system of education is merely teaching students to follow others and to accept the stories written for them by someone else as objectively true, without first critically considering how “true” these stories are. This runs parallel to the concerns of Bloom and Weisberg in their paper Childhood Origins of Adult Resistance to Science, who discussed the implications of “common knowledge.” This notion of non-critical thinking is also addressed by John Stuart Mill in his essay On Liberty, in which he eloquently describes this as a form of “social tyranny.” While I may not entirely agree with the points Bloom, Weisberg and Mill make through identifying this problem, I believe they do us a service by considering this issue and its potential consequences. It is important to recognize the role of critical thought, the importance of questioning, for both progress (getting it “less wrong”) and for offsetting the naivety of “common knowledge.”

Both creativity and critical thinking connect to a basic feature of the human condition, our inquisitive nature. It seems that from birth, humans possess an innate drive to explore the social and physical world that surrounds them, a drive termed “epistemic motivation." Such curiosity is evident if one merely spends time with a four year old, who will inevitably want to know what everything around them is, why it is and how it is. This drive to learn and explore has clear evolutionary benefits, as it leads to the construction of a body of physical and social knowledge necessary for survival in an ever changing, complex environment. However, too often a child’s curiosity is greatly diminished over the course of his or her life. Students, tomorrow’s generation of thinkers, would be best served if educators focused on the development of creative, freethinking and curious minds, rather than the conditioning of minds that only regurgitate what they are told in order to meet benchmark requirements. Instead of standing before students as a source of “facts” and a symbol of judgment and authority, educators should work with children, operating as aid and collaborator, encouraging children to explore the world around them.

Standardized Testing

A staple of the traditional deductive classroom is the standardized test. Further, with the No Child Left Behind act, standardized tests are not only a “measure” of a child’s potential academic achievement, but are now also a means for [inaccurately] assessing the state of education across the nation. I recognize two major flaws with this system. First, and most commonly recognized, is the issue of “teaching to the test.” That is, with such a high demand for schools to meet test score requirements, the class curriculum moves away from student interest and a broad range of subject material, towards a narrow focus on material covered by standardized tests. There is a serious risk that teachers will only cover the basic skills needed for succeeding on tests rather than promoting higher-order cognitive abilities such as creativity, critical thinking, and ability to apply concepts learned in the classroom to real world problems. In addition to considering the potential dangers of teaching to the test, one should also consider what standardized tests test for.

What do standardized test scores reflect? Standardizes tests are typically applied in order to assess where students stand in relation to a standard set of curricula and in relation to one another. However, too often test scores are misinterpreted to be a measure of a student’s intellectual capacity or a student’s potential -- this seems to be the case with both the NCLB act and with college admissions. As Paul Grobstein, among others, would likely agree, standardized tests only [roughly] reflect a portion of a student’s education and are poor indicators of a student’s academic capacity. This is the second major flaw of the standardized testing system; these tests do not account for creativity, critical analysis, how well students will be able to translate ideas into complex, real-world environments, or how motivated a student is. What these tests really measure is how well a student can perform on standardized tests, which is little indication of anything more.

Inquiry Education

How can we restructure education so as to foster students’ innate curiosity, and encourage both creative and critical thought? Prince and Felder argue for the implementation of “inductive” teaching methods in the classroom. Inductive teaching has many forms, but it essentially entails presenting students with a problem or challenge based on real-world scenarios and asking them to solve it (P & F). In approaching the problem, students become actively involved with the material and one another, and recognize the need to acquire new knowledge in order to solve the problem. Unlike purely deductive methods, this method taps into the inquisitive nature of students by providing a motivation for grasping concepts and showing that the concepts learned have applications in the real world. The various forms of inductive teaching vary on this general form, but one in particular, inquiry-based education, seems to be of exceptional value.


A quote that I find useful for explaining inquiry learning came out of Bryn Mawr’s 2007 Minisymposium on K-16 Collaboration, a subset of the Bryn Mawr College K-12 Summer Institute Program. One group describes, “It starts with experiences and observations from which students make connections. This happens through teacher guidance and non-scripted collaboration. It’s not always comfortable and the outcome is not always known by students and/or teachers.” Essentially, inquiry learning is the process of having students make observations and then pursue lines of inquiry stemming from those observations according to their interest/curiosity, working collaboratively with teachers and one another. The goal of such learning is to facilitate an active interest in both the learning process and the material at hand, as well as to have students thinking for themselves. When done properly, it seems such methods would excel at tapping into the emotional and social aspects of learning, could accommodate for multiple learning styles, and would promote creative and critical thinking.


Prince and Felder argue that their research shows that inductive teaching methods improve areas such as “student retention” and “development in thinking.” While I cannot speak to these categories and the criteria by which one quantifies them, I do believe that active, engaged and inquiry-based learning improve the quality of education. My own experience with a liberal education, which utilized both deductive and inductive methods, leads me to believe that students will take more out of their education when they are involved in the learning process. As Paul suggests, perhaps the success of inquiry-based learning stems from its connection to the natural design of the nervous system to learn through experience (see here and here).

Social Implications

I have discussed some of the inadequacies of deductive teaching and mentioned the benefits of inquiry learning, however, the primary question driving this paper remains: should we teach students in ways that will allow them to progress as individuals, or should we teach students to fit an objective standard? I hope to have made it clear that deductive methods of education cater to meeting objective standards of achievement, while inductive methods better serve to promote one’s individual, intellectual growth, one’s progression of mind and therefore of self. While I would like to say the answer to my question is simple, we should educate to promote the growth of the individual, I cannot deny that there are important socio-economic and political issues to consider.


While this section is not yet completed, I have begun to discuss some of the social concerns imbedded in education here:








Childhood Origins of Adult Resistance to Science
Paul Bloom and Deena Skolnick Weisberg, Science 316: 996-997, 2007 (18 May).
See also:

Epistemic Motivation and Conceptual Change.
Boyle, Robert A., Magnusson, Shirley J., Young, Allison J. (1993).

Story-Telling in (At Least) Three Dimensions: An Exploration of Teaching Reading, Writing, and Beyond
Anne Dalke and Paul Grobstein (2006)

Parallel Changes in Thinking about the Brain and about Education
Paul Grobstein (March 2007)

The Brain's Images: Reflecting and Creating Human Understanding
Paul Grobstein,

Science as ‘Getting it Less Wrong’”
Paul Grobstein, December 2000.

Thinking about Science: Fact versus Story Telling
Paul Grobstein, 13 June 2007.

Revisiting Science in Culture: Science as Story Telling and Story Revising
Grobstein, P. (2005). Journal of Research Practice, 1(1), Article M1.

Letter to the Editor, New York Times Book Review
Paul Grobstein, 13 November 1994.

We Feel, Therefore We Learn: The Relevance of Affective and Social Neuroscience to Education
Mary Helen Immordino and Antonio Damsio, Mind, Brain, and Education 1(1): 3-10 (2007).
See also:

The Many Faces of Inductive Teaching
Michael Prince and Richard Felder, Journal of College Science Teaching, March/April 2007, pp 14-20.
See also:

Minisymposium 2007 on K-16 Collaborations: Inquiry Education in Science (and Elsewhere)
Small group reports on “what is inquiry education?”

Bryn Mawr College Summer Institutes for K-12 Teachers


Additional Topics:


Objective standards in the face of individual variability in learning, processing and behavior

The bi-partite and learning



Ron C. de Weijze's picture

Careful with that context, Eugene!

This question should not be either-or. It is not that children should either be taught the creative scientific methodologies for self-study, or the canons that were standardized 50 years ago. The question is and-and. Teach them the canons of today in todays best possible ways. The best teacher I ever had, was Jacob Bronowski, when his series The Ascent Of Man was on tv. When he paused in a sentence, he moved from one place to another, which could mean switching countries, to show what he meant and what really really taught us. That series was made in the 70s and today we can do easily as good because we have computers, simulation programs and all the stuff we need to make good lesson plans and GOOD MATERIALS. That is what lacks. There either is too much distraction from all the countless information sources on tv, the net, communication systems etc, and/or people (students AND teachers) are getting lazier by the day letting technology (computer programs) do the work. My point is, that doesn't mean they CANNOT produce better courses, in the context of justification!

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