Brain-Based Teaching for All Subjects is an attempt to apply current scientific knowledge of how the human brain/mind functions (i.e., acquires, manipulates, stores and retrieves information) to the practical issue of instruction in everyday educational settings. In the introductory section, Madlon T. Laster explains this goal and narrates the events that have led her to the challenging task of identifying teaching techniques that exploit brain/mind function and that, by doing so, have the potential of ensuring learning across a variety of disciplines. Of course, the idea is not only reasonable but also exciting for educators, always seeking the highest possible level of teaching effectiveness.
Brain-Based Teaching for All Subjects presents multiple examples of unique and creative techniques, consistent with current theories of the functioning of the brain/mind. In essence, the book achieves the goal of illustrating how specific techniques may lead to the desired outcome (i.e., learning). Yet, the desired outcome appears mostly through anecdotal evidence, which, although important, falls short of scientific standards that apply to research evidence, which the author uses to justify her selection of instructional techniques. The most unfortunate consequence of this shortcoming is that the reader does not receive an opportunity to be challenged or even engaged in a deeper understanding of the proposed instructional techniques. As a result, the book reads mostly as a list of ideas, which, according to popular beliefs and uncontrolled testing, should, and probably might, work in classrooms across the country. Unfortunately, this form of reasoning is what the Institute of Educational Sciences under the US Department of Education has attempted to eradicate by offering grants to researchers and educators who could demonstrate the effectiveness of known or newly devised instructional approaches in the very important area of student learning (for additional information, see http://ies.ed.gov/ncer/funding/cognition/index.asp).
In essence, the instructional techniques presented in Brain-Based Teaching for All Subjects have credibility because of their being consistent with knowledge gathered from well-known investigations, driven by sound theories and rigorous methodologies. Yet, a reader might question the rationale of illustrating examples of instructional techniques if their effectiveness is simply a derived conclusion rather than the outcome of direct testing. Technically, the research community could argue that providing educators with knowledge of how the brain/mind works in relation to instruction could lead the educational community to devise their own instructional techniques. Such practical applications might ultimately be quite similar to the ones illustrated in Brain-Based Teaching for All Subjects, but which could be products of the educators' own enterprise expended to specific populations of learners they intend to serve.
The notion of specific populations of learners elucidates another missed opportunity of Brain-Based Teaching for All Subjects, namely, the absence of a discussion of what learning is and how it can be measured. Psychology textbooks generally define learning as an experience-based endeavor leading to a relatively permanent change in behavior or behavioral potentials. Of course, the critical question becomes how to measure "learning" when the processes that underlie this endeavor are not directly observable and when the same behavioral change (i.e., remembering a list of items, understanding a unique piece of poetry, etc.) can result from different processes applied to incoming information by learners with different background knowledge and acquisition strategies. More specifically, the reader may wonder why the author or text neglects to include comprehensive discussion of the desired learning outcomes of specific instructional techniques. Indeed, what the reader sorely misses is a serious discussion of the concept of "learning" that focuses on its different forms (e.g., mere remembering vs. understanding), and/or on the skills (e.g., reasoning, decision-making, etc.) that are an essential component of effective instruction.
Notwithstanding questions that the book leaves unanswered, Brain-Based Teaching for All Subjects is quite an engaging read. Indeed, the writing is so engaging that the reader finds it difficult to abandon a chapter before reading the last sentence. Of course, its writing quality is a testimony to the author's competence in translating the scientific knowledge she has attained in her long professional career into a host of captivating narratives. Not surprisingly, the book forces its reader to examine ways that educators teach and, introspectively, also to explore instructional methods that the reader himself/herself would employ to teach a specific subject matter. Examples of teaching instructions are cleverly organized, and titles of its ten chapters (i.e., nine chapters plus one section devoted to conclusive remarks) are eye-catching.
In sum, Brain-Based Teaching for All Subjects is an interesting, entertaining, and useful resource. The book will certainly prompt readers to consider current and potential teaching methodologies. The book's value is that the text engages its reader's mind. The unaddressed issue becomes whether its content can adequately satisfy a reader of extensive, science-related training who might question the effectiveness of proposed methodologies regarding forms of learning, which they purportedly hope to advance. Of course, the presentation and critical discussion of scientific evidence answering this question appears to be the perfect topic for a follow-up book!
© 2008 Maura Pilotti
Maura Pilotti, Ph.D., Department of Psychology, Hunter College, New York