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The "New Humanism" and education

By John Published: March 8, 2011

David Brooks' latest New York Times column "The New Humanism" contemplates an emerging enlightenment informed by disciplines of the brain and mind, including neuroscience. His sweep is broad:

This growing, dispersed body of research reminds us of a few key insights. First, the unconscious parts of the mind are most of the mind, where many of the most impressive feats of thinking take place. Second, emotion is not opposed to reason; our emotions assign value to things and are the basis of reason. Finally, we are not individuals who form relationships. We are social animals, deeply interpenetrated with one another, who emerge out of relationships.

This body of research suggests the French enlightenment view of human nature, which emphasized individualism and reason, was wrong. The British enlightenment, which emphasized social sentiments, was more accurate about who we are. It suggests we are not divided creatures. We don't only progress as reason dominates the passions. We also thrive as we educate our emotions.

I've been fascinated by the growing field of educational neuroscience : a collaboration of scientists and educators seeking to ground the art of teaching with biologically sound research. Just as biology transformed medicine in the 19th and 20th centuries from an art to a science -  a new science of learning hopes to transform educational practice.  Just as doctors and scientists work together in teaching hospitals to solve specific problems, teachers and scientists are beginning to collaborate in what Kurt Fischer at Harvard has called "research schools."

We're going to hear a lot of heated debate about teacher effectiveness and pay and tenure in the coming days. These debates will be based on intepreting standardized test scores, a practice that has some very limited uses. 

Here's what Fischer, who directs the Mind, Brain and Education program at Harvard's Graduate School of Education, has to say about them:

The narrowness of these assessment tools creates serious problems, however, for determining the effectiveness of learning and teaching; and, it mostly precludes input from teachers and learners into the assessment process.

Could Toyota determine how its cars performed by testing them on a racetrack and ignoring what they do in everyday driving situations? Could Revlon or Avon create effective cosmetics by testing effects only for people gathered into large meeting halls once a year? What education needs is assessments of real school performances that are shaped by researchers, teachers, and students working together to examine the effectiveness of many aspects of learning and teaching in the context of schools (curricula, school arrangements, classroom types, etc.) what Daniel and Poole (2009) call pedagogical ecology.

Here's what cognitive neuroscientist Daniel Willingham has to say about "value-added" measures of teacher peformance and merit pay:



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