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What's the brain have to do with influential education research? Not much.

By John Published: January 10, 2012

Rick Hess, an influential education blogger, recently posted his list of influential education scholars on his blog for Education Week called Straight Up.  

I was pleased to see Daniel Willingham make the list at 33 out of 121. Willingham is a cognitive neuroscientist at the University of Virginia who is an important voice in the emerging field of Mind, Brain and Education. I'm surprised to see him on the list, however. 

Here is Hess describing the disciplines he surveyed for his list of influential ed scholars:

The search was conducted on December 20-21, 2011, using the scholar's name under the "author" filter in an advanced search in Google Scholar, with the search limited to the "Business, Administration, Finance, and Economics" and "Social Sciences, Arts, and Humanities" categories.

That's not a knock on his choices so much as a reflection of reality. 
The rankings offer a useful, if imperfect, gauge of the public impact edu-scholars had in 2011, factoring in both long-term and shorter-term contributions. The rubric reflects both a scholar's body of academic work--encompassing books, articles, and the degree to which these are cited--and their 2011 footprint on the public discourse.

As I've noted before, education policy/reform is sadly science-free.

You won't find on this list Mary Helen Immordino-Yang or Antonio Battro or Uta Frith or Kurt Fischer or Bruno Della Chiesa or Helen Neville or Bruce McCandliss or Alvaro Pascual-Leon or Stanislas Dehaene or Daniel Ansari or David Daniel  or the many other neuroscientists, cognitive psychologists and educators who are doing the hard work of figuring out how the brains of students and teachers actually work to produce teaching and learning. (Search this blog for each of their names.)

While science cannot tell policymakers what to do, it surely should have an influence on where we decide to spend money and why. It has been plain for years, for example, that money spent on quality preschool and targeted training before kindergarten can make a big difference in the brains of children.  And the Nobel Prize Winning economist James Heckman has shown that such investment delivers far more bang for the buck then money spent on the back end of education (high school, college and job training). But do our spending priorities reflect this? No, we've got it just about backwards. That's why we teach foreign languages in high school instead of kindergarten or sooner. BTW, I don't see Heckman's name on the list, either.




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