One of our favorite cognitive scientists, Daniel Willingham, is introducing a new recurring feature, "Hall of Shame," on the Washington Post's Answer Sheet blog. His point is to debunk the claims made by the marketers of "educational" products, curricula and technologies that are rooted in flawed "science" -- or none at all.
Willingham's first target is eyeQ, an admittedly odd-sounding software program that claims to double reading speed in two weeks of 7-minute daily sessions, by improving eye-brain connectivity. According to the company that produces eyeQ, more than 750 schools are using the program. Willingham makes short work of its claims.
The coup de grace for me is the website’s claim that the left hemisphere is associated with scientific ability and logic, whereas the right brain is associated with intuition and artistic ability. This cartoon characterization of the brain was discredited 30 years ago.
The real question we have is: Why do schools fall for educational products, methods, curricula, and professional development programs based on such dubious/sketchy evidence? There are lots of programs out there like eyeQ, and there's also a growing market in "brain based" professional development for teachers, based on concepts -- teaching to the boy brain/girl brain, teaching to the left brain/right brain, teaching to visual/audio/kinetic learning styles -- that Willingham can also explain are hooey. It's particularly troubling that, in many cases, districts use federal Title I or Title II teacher quality funds to buy dubious products and training programs.
While we don't know the answer, here are two thoughts:
First, educators are particularly susceptible to "brain based" approaches based on sketchy evidence, because neuroscience findings have gotten a lot of press attention in recent years, because the presentation of PET scans and MRIs by marketers gives these products a false patina of "science," and most importantly, because most educators themselves have shockingly little real training and education in actual cognitive science. There is often little connection between education schools and university researchers in departments of psychology, and educators' pre-service coursework includes either very little information or outdated research on the science of learning and child development. This is particularly problematic for future teachers in the PreK-3rd years, when it's particularly important that teachers have a solid understanding of children's development.
Second, the selection of these programs reflects the education field's ongoing search for "quick fixes," programs or tools that will magically solve education problems and produce results, as opposed to the less glamorous, and harder, task of improving instruction at a fundamental level. This is true at both the policy and practice levels. Unfortunately, we've spent a lot of time and money in education on silver bullet solutions that don't produce results. Just think what could be accomplished if some of that energy were instead focused on goals like aligning standards, curriculum, and instruction; monitoring student progress; diagnosing causes of failure to master content; and differentiating instruction to help all students succeed -- in other words, PreK-3rd. Such an approach may take more time and money to implement than quick fixes like eyeQ, but we'd bet dollars to donuts the long term return on investment is much greater.