Review of Brain, Mind and Education by Blakemore and Frith
As a part of a course I am doing, I have chosen to study a unit called Brain, Mind and Education. I hadn’t really stopped to think much about the anatomy of the brain and its role in education before but am pleased to be learning more now.
This textbook has really helped me to digest some of the dense information surrounding this topic and for this reason I thought I’d write a review for anyone also interested in learning more.
They state their aim: Blakemore and Frith begin by saying their purpose is to bridge the gap that separates brain science and education science. They discuss big topics, like nature and nurture, and position themselves somewhere between the two but leaning towards the latter: ‘the jump from gene to behaviour is much greater than the jump from brain to behaviour’.
They use analogies aplenty: Genetic programming is not enough for normal brain development to occur. In the same way an acorn seed needs the right conditions to grow into a mighty oak, the brain needs this too.
Blakemore and Frith also explain the debate in another way. They say that no matter how much a pale Northern European person lies in the sun they will not achieve a tan. Similarly, no matter how much a darker-skinned African person avoids the sun their skin will not lighten. This makes it seem as though nature is the biggest factor. But take a third person, one with olive skin, who tans very easily if exposed to sunlight. This shows that sometimes when one type of effect is highlighted, say nature, this does not mean the other effect, nurture, is diminished.
Continuing with the nature theme, they describe educators as gardeners who landscape the brain. In the same way an orthodontist might improve teeth, they state that teachers improve brains.
They encourage empathy: ‘Reading for dyslexic students is like having to look up words in the dictionary by going through the alphabet, letter by letter, as opposed to clicking on a word on the computer and immediately seeing its meaning, its sound, and its correct spelling’.
Blakemore and Frith point out that teaching someone with dyslexia to read takes patience. Dyslexics have a serious stumbling block in processing phonemes and relating them to their spelling and cannot be expected to learn in the same way as those without dyslexia. This is because the mappings between symbols and speech have to be learned and this learning has a lasting impact on the brain. Therefore, the brain of someone who is literate differs from someone else’s brain who is illiterate.
They grapple with reasons for and ways to ease developmental disorders: One successful training programme, run by Guinevere Eden, did improve the reading skills of dyslexic people by explicitly teaching the sounds of words and word parts for three hours per day for eight weeks. In brain scans after the training it showed that the right parietal lobe became active during reading, compensating for weak performance of the left parietal lobe.
However, with dyslexia it seems that the ‘practice makes perfect’ method does not work. Some studies have found remedial teaching does improve reading skills for dyslexic students but ultimately there’s no one intervention that has improved reading speed and reduced reading effort.
Similar can be said for people with dyscalculia, as Blakemore and Frith recommend teaching numeracy by slow repetition of foundational elements in a highly practical way. This will take major effort and is not the same as installing the missing intuition and implicit rules, but means the individual with dyscalculia will be able to perform and check basic operations.
They do not shy away from scientific lingo: Interestingly, brain differences in people with dyslexia have been found from even before birth. One neurologist, Al Galaburda, found that small clusters of nerve cells wandered to the top layer of the cortex and were visible as minute scars, most commonly in the medial temporal regions (centre of the reading system and also linked to speech-processing). It is possible that these scars have some role in causing dyslexia and, in addition, visual, auditory and motor impairments.
Another consistent finding is that the layer of white matter (myelin) that lines axons, that are responsible for sending impulses from one neuron to the next, is thinner in the brain’s reading system in dyslexics. This could suggest that there are weaker connections between the three different regions of the reading systems, rather than any specific anatomical abnormalities in the regions themselves.
They are pragmatic about data trends: In 2005 females were, on average, achieving more highly than males in national maths texts at ages 16 and 18. This gender gap still exists today. Neuroscientist, Tina Good, found that brains of males are more voluptuous in the temporal lobe, including the amygdala and hippocampus, whereas in brains of females the anterior cingulate cortex is bigger. This often manifests in women outperforming males on tests of emotional perception and emotion sensibility. Baron-Cohen (Simon, not Sacha) explained that male and female brains may have evolved to take on different roles. We also must remember that whilst many women may have a typically “female” brain and men a typically “male” brain, there is much overlap between the two. There are brain differences between genders but even bigger differences between individuals.
They are positive: ‘Our assumption is that a failing start-up mechanism for fast learning does not prevent learning’
Also, the brain’s plasticity depends critically upon how much it is used. Even the adult brain is flexible and can grow new cells and make new connections, at least in some regions such as the hippocampus (one of the main memory areas of the brain). There is no age limit for learning, you hear me!
They have a message: It’s easy to ignore the brain when talking about a ‘normal’ child’s development but the brain cannot be ignored when discussing developmental disorders. We must not overlook that there could be a subtle genetic programming ‘fault’ that has an effect on brain development and can lead to a variety of learning needs such as ADHD, ASD, dyslexia and dyscalculia.
We do need to be mindful when applying labels though. They say that for one person a diagnosis of a learning need could result in an excuse to be ‘lazy’. In another person, however, it may boost low self-esteem that was the result of a previous lack of explanation for a learning problem.
In summary, there may be some tell-tale signs that this textbook is now 13 years old, the reference to programming a video recorder is one such example, but overall I would recommend this as an enlightening read.