No Wonder Brain Sciences Get Short Shrift in School

Federal education guidelines stiff psychology and brain sciences

Posted Dec 01, 2011

Now I know why science education in general is so screwed up, especially the brain and behavioral sciences. I just read the science education federal guidebook from the National Research Council of the National Academies. This landmark epistle, A Framework for K-12 Science Education, is intended to be the definitive guide for the states to construct their knowledge and skills school standards. This book advocates the practices, crosscutting concepts and core ideas that students should know at each K-12 grade level.

While I applaud the purpose, I find much to criticize about these recommendations from this body of supposed experts. I won't burden you with the details on everything I find lacking, but one whole category of recommendations seems to have been overlooked. The guidelines say almost nothing about brain and behavior. I am not surprised, In my own K-12 experience as a student many years ago, science teachers always put instruction about the brain at the end of the course, which they never got to because the school year ended before they got there. The same thing happened in college life-science courses.

Nothing has changed. The new guidelines for life science stress cells/tissues/organs, genetics and molecular biology, and ecology/evolution. But brain and behavioral science is conspicuous by its absence. Yet this is the one category of human experience where children especially need guidance and education. Students are humans, and the most distinctive and important feature of being human is the brain and the behavior it controls. K-12 students could care less about DNA transcription, cellular respiration, and other minutia so dear to the hearts of biologists (I am a PhD biologist, by the way). Students live in the world of puberty, sports, social stress, bullying and other forms of abuse, emotional turbulence, and mental confusion. Why don't we require students to understand more about their brain and behavior, particularly as to the relationships to attitudes, emotions, and learning and memory? Given that their brains are in enormous developmental upheaval, why don't we teach them how what they do affects how their brain develops?

In the last several decades, brain scientists have learned a lot about how children learn and remember. Isn't it time we started teaching that science to children? They live in a world where they are expected to learn and remember. Schools tell school children WHAT to learn (much of which is irrelevant to their life at the moment), but not HOW to learn.

Science has also learned a lot about what makes people tick—how attitudes, prejudices, desires, addictions, and various behavioral patterns are formed. We know a lot about how the brain directs choices and behaviors and how people can learn to cope and exhibit more adaptive behavior. But we don't teach it.

U.S. education needs to be rescued from the clutches of the establishment "experts." I checked the background of the people who wrote this unimaginative guide to science education. The design team had only four members. None were scientists. Rather, each was a science-education bureaucrat or an education professor. The life-science members of the steering committee consisted of education professors or administrators and only two scientists. One scientist was a geneticist and the other a forest ecologist. Their science got the most representation.

This is how science education policy is formed in this age of federal control of education. The nation's education problems will not be fixed until policy is made by people who know what they are doing. Meanwhile, incestuous federal government insiders are calling the shots.

Bill Klemm
Author of e-book, Better Grades, Less Effort