Reading and the Brain: Time and Place



Hruby, G. G., & Goswami, U. (2011). Neuroscience and Reading: A Review for Reading Education Researchers. Reading Research Quarterly, 46(2), 156–172. doi:10.1598/RRQ.46.2.4

Research follows money.  Where there is funding, researchers flourish and new information is discovered and disseminated.  Funding many times is related to solve problems.  Brain research is no different.  Most brain research deals with abnormalities in brain functioning—dementia, Parkinson’s disease, post-traumatic stress syndrome, attention deficient disorder, and dyslexia to name a few.  However, little has been done to explore the workings of a normal brain at work.

One area where this is less true is neuroscience and reading.  Scientists are trying to uncover the secrets of the brain and language; language is what differentiates humans from other animals.  Thus, a body of work has been created around the issue of reading.

Hruby and Goswami (2011) review a wide variety of research from the neuroscience field, specifically for researchers in reading education.  Researchers are using imaging studies to find what parts of the brain are involved in reading, while others are studying neural activity to establish a detailed seconds-long timeline of what happens during the reading process.


During decoding, brain areas related to hearing, vision, spatial processing and speaking are activated.  In general, many of the reading functions take place on the left side of the brain.  However, children younger than nine years of age use more of the right side of their brain than older children and adults.  It is supposed that normal development accounts for this difference.  Located on the left side of the brain is an area called the Visual Word Form Area (VWFA).  When adults are shown printed words, this area shows activity.  In children, more activity is seen in this area as they become better readers.  Although this area is responsive to any sequence of printed letters, more activity occurs when the string is an actual word.  The brain can distinguish a real word from a nonsense word in less than 1/5 of a second (the average is 170 milliseconds).  In addition to the VWFA, other parts of the brain are dealing with the auditory functions of decoding (left occipitotemporal regions) and the combining of the auditory and visual functions (temporoparietal junction/TPJ).

When reading, children’s brains activate three core areas in sequence.  In early reading instruction, it is assumed that students first pass through a stage where they identify whole words and their meaning (I equate this to sight words).  If this is true, all three core areas are not needed to go from print to meaning.  However, in one study, the children consistently used all three areas.  With further study and replication, this finding may have implications for the way we teach early literacy.


Moving away from decoding, Hruby and Goswami (2011) move to comprehension, beginning with vocabulary learning.  The most prominent study compared learning vocabulary in one of three ways:  spelling and meaning; spelling and pronunciation; pronunciation and meaning.  Later, they were asked to recognize the new words in other contexts.  Brain activation was strongest for the words that had been learned by spelling and meaning.  This could be important for vocabulary learning because the stronger the recognition, the more easily we can recognize it and begin to add related information.

Along with individual words, language comprehension deals with semantics and syntax.  Semantics is the relation of words to each other; syntax is the grammar that creates well-formed sentences.  Research has shown that these three parts of reading comprehension happen in different parts of the brain and in sequence.  First, the brain activates to understand individual words, then the semantics, and last the syntax.  The areas of the brain that handle semantic and syntactic processing develop uniquely in each person, depending on their differing experiences.  Very little neuroscientific research has been done on a reader’s prior knowledge and how that effects his brain processing as he reads.

Strengths and Contributions

This article is well-organized, clearly laying out at the beginning what will be covered, and ordering the studies in a linear pattern that is easy to follow.  Major studies that apply specifically to reading research and instruction were chosen, and they were interesting to learn about.  The authors are brave souls, attempting to bridge a very wide chasm between neuroscience, with its inherent mystery and intimidating vocabulary, with researchers in the reading field.  This is a daunting task, and they have approached their topic with integrity.  While trying not to diminish the work of the scientists, I think they have left the material too difficult for readers from other fields to understand.  Granted, I have not read much on this topic, but I had to read most of the study summaries multiple times, parsing each sentence in order to get a basic understanding.  The material is still inaccessible to many who need to know what is happening in neuroscience that effects education.

Final Thoughts

Hruby and Goswami (2011) conclude with thoughts concerning the role of neuroscience research and reading research, with which I strongly concur and which reflects conversations in my doctoral classes at Arizona State University.  Neuroscience is an exciting new area of research, which can enlighten classroom practices.  But, it is not the only truth to be considered.  Reading research, whether based on traditional psychology, behaviorialism, or simply what works in the classroom, are equally important.  Each is a lens with which to see a portion of the truth.  Truth is found in the intersection and compilation of all these practices and viewpoints.

Who tells the story? Who makes the change?

There exists a strange dichotomy in ethnographic research.  In order to accurately understand a culture or a people, the researcher needs to be an insider, but to be able to take a new critical perspective, the researcher needs to be an outsider.  My first blog post of this doctoral journey began with:

“Garcia (2013) posits that researchers’ own biographies “greatly influence their values, their research questions, and the knowledge they construct” (p. 41).  A researcher must have credibility (be an “insider”) to be trusted and effective with study participants (p. 43).  The sense of Garcia’s writing is that a researcher can’t really understand the plight of someone who is different and whose life experience is different” (Lippincott, 2014).

Now, a full four weeks later, I have read what seem to be mountains of writings.  I am sure that I will soon look back and realize these readings are just the foothills.  Through this reading, I have breathed in a wide variety of opinions about the role of a researcher.  Rosaldo (1993) makes his point in a humorous way, sharing his ethnographic version of breakfast at his in-laws home, where the doting father became the “reigning patriarch” (p. 47) and the daughters’ expressions of gratitude became the “obligatory ritual praise song” (p. 47).  Luckily for Rosaldo, his future in-laws took this as a humorous parody, which, like much humor, had a grain of truth.  Rosaldo (1993) makes the point that “human subjects have often reacted with bemused puzzlement over the ways they have been depicted in anthropological writings” (p. 49).  So, here we see that an insider can not have the same view of an event as an outsider, someone with a different vantage point.  Is the outsider needed to point out truths that an insider can not see?  Is the outsider needed to translate an intimate experience into a general truth for both outsiders and insiders to consider?

You may be thinking that a perceptive insider can fulfill this function as translator.  Kirkland (2014), a young black male researcher, identifies himself as a part of  the demographic of young black men.  He uses his study of literacy in young black men as an example of ethnography, “a process of paradox, of being near while being far away, of engaging participants and their situations close enough while still retaining the necessary distance to explain them” (p. 185).  Yet, I felt his discomfort with this dynamic also.  In a conversation with a small group of young black males regarding their creation of rap, they stress his otherness:  You “can’t feel my flow…you don’t hear me…you be reading stuff about rap, but that don’t make you a rapper…you don’t live in it like us” (p. 186).  Kirkland’s analysis of this exchange included “As a perceived outsider, I got signified on” (p. 188).  Even as Kirkland is holding his outsider-ness as his identity as a researcher, he uses the youth vernacular to show his insider-ness.

Beyond this perspective of who is to tell the story, is the question of who is to create change?  What will be done with the story?  This is where culture circles and participatory research come in.  In these strategies, the researcher teaches the researched group the techniques and methods so that they can speak and do for themselves.  Perhaps researchers should become teachers of research methods and mentors of the formerly-researched, but now researchers themselves.  Participants can develop critical life skills that help them “consider life’s challenges from multiple perspectives” (Souto-Manning, 2014, p. 218).  This fulfills the two aims of research:  to tell an honest story and to affect change.


Garcia, S.B. & Ortiz, A.A. (2013).  Intersectionality as a framework for transformative research to special education.  Multiple Voices for Ethnically Diverse Exceptional Learners, 13(2), 32-47.

Kirkland, D. (2014). Why I Study Culture, and Why It Matters. In D. Paris & M. Winn (Eds.), Humanizing Research: Decolonizing Qualitative Inquiry with Youth and Communities (p. 179-200). Sage Publications, Inc.

Lippincott, D. (2014) Is Empathy Enough? [Web log]. Retrieved from

Rosaldo, R. (1993). Culture & Truth: The Remaking of Social Analysis. Boston: Beacon Press.

Souto-Manning, M. (2014). Critical for whom? Theoretical and Methodological dilemmas in Critical Approaches to Language Research. In D. Paris & M. Winn (Eds.), Humanizing Research: Decolonizing Qualitative Inquiry with Youth and Communities (p. 201-222). Sage Publications, Inc.

A Brain for Business

Rock, D., & Sctiwartz, J. (2007). The Neuroscience of Leadership, 10–17.


Concentrating on three main parts of the brain:  the prefrontal cortex, the basal ganglia, and the amygdala, Rock and Schwartz (2007) explain some of the functioning of the brain and implications for leaders of change.  The prefrontal cortex is where working memory resides and where new information is processed.  The basal ganglia is used in routine activities that we know how to do well without a lot of conscious thought and links simple behaviors from different parts of the brain.  If someone wants to change a routine or process that is already well-known, he has to concentrate on that change until it is embedded in his memory.  This means he has to override what is stored in his basal ganglia, a low-energy part of the brain, by using his prefrontal cortex, a high-energy part of the brain.  This expenditure of energy and effort causes an actual physical sensation of discomfort.

The brain also has the ability to detect “errors” or patterns that are different from what is expected.  The unexpected input causes the brain to give “strong signals that use a lot of energy, showing up in imaging technology as dramatic bursts of light” (Rock & Schwartz, 2007, p. 12).  These bursts of energy alert the amygdala, which is where the primal emotions of fear and anger are located.  They also take energy away from the prefrontal cortex.  So, when something is different from what we expect, we reduce the energy used for logical thought and increase the energy used for fear or anger.

The implications are that change is truly physically painful as high-energy areas of the brain are at work. Change arouses the basic feelings of anger and fear, which can inhibit learning. Focusing on new behaviors is powerful and can actually change the pathways in the brain, especially if the focus is repeated until the change has moved from the prefrontal cortex (working memory) to the basal ganglia (long-term, automatic memory).

Strengths and critiques

This is a well-organized article that takes a dense subject and makes it understandable.  With the projected audience of business leaders, the authors probably assumed that the readers do not know much, if anything, about brain functioning and research.  The practical, clear advice delineated in each section is supported with brief technical explanations of the workings of the brain.  Everyday examples help exemplify the technical points.

This is a unique contribution to the field of business management because few authors combine the fields of management and neuroscience.  The authors,

Dr. Jeffrey Schwartz, M.D. and Dr. David Rock, are unique because they come from different fields, yet their collaboration is essential for applying the findings of brain research to other fields.  Dr. Schwartz is a psychiatrist who has done research on brain functioning, concentrating mostly on brain imaging and obsessive-compulsive disorder, and Dr. Rock is an international business professor who has written articles and speaks widely about the implications of brain research in business.

The main drawback of this article is that the studies that contributed to this body of knowledge are not identified with in-text citations nor with an end-of-paper bibliography.  Schwartz & Rock are respected in their fields and are reliable sources of information.  The researchers for various studies are noted in the text, but direct reference to a particular journal is not included.  Perhaps Schwartz & Rock did this by design so that the article would be more accessible to the general public and to business professionals who are not academics.


I think this article informs some of the work of Dr. Michelle Jordan.  In our class discussion with Dr. Jordan (2014), she pointed out that uncertainty can be productive and is essential for learning.  However, in a study of uncertainty in a robotics task in fifth grade collaborative groups, one student, Roy, had difficulties with interpersonal skills as part of his group seemed to ignore or chasten him.  Jordan and McDaniel (2010) comment, “So salient was Roy’s need to resolve his relational uncertainty that he seemed unable to attend to the robotics task” (p. 24).  Roy’s brain was reacting to an “error” where what was happening in his group (they were ignoring him) and what he expected were different.  His brain is now using a large amount of energy to relay error messages and to activate the amygdala, the home of primal fear and anger.  This use of energy reduces the ability of the prefrontal cortex to process the higher-order thinking necessary to attend to the engineering problem.

Further study

This article focuses on the implications for business management and change.  However, the field of education can also benefit from this type of study.  It was a good place to see how neuroscience can inform practices in another field.  Many of the ideas are directly applicable to an educational setting.

Also, I would like to go back and delve in to some of the actual scientific studies mentioned.  The field of neuroscience is still new.  Much of the research is recent and more implications may be found as the research advances.


Jordan, M. E., & Mcdaniel, R. R. (2010). Managing Uncertainty During Collaborative Problem Solving in Elementary School Teams : The Role of Peer Influence in Robotics Engineering Activity, 00(2002).

Rock, D., & Sctiwartz, J. (2007). The Neuroscience of Leadership, 10–17.

The Puzzle of Group Work


Four people completing round puzzle


Learning is social; group work is social.  But, is group work learning?  Teachers think collaboration will enhance their students’ social skills, complex problem-solving skills, and content exploration.  Group work begins as early as first grade, because students will need to work in groups in upper grades.  In upper grades, students work in groups to prepare for college work.  In college, students need to train for “real life,” so group work is essential.  I question how much truly collaborative group work actually takes place in “real life.”

Everyone has been in a group where one person did all the work (as doctoral students, we were probably that student) as others sat back, relaxed and got a good grade.  A college chemistry student was put in a lab group, where collaboration meant assigning sections of the work to individual members.  Every week, as the deadline drew near, the others had not completed the work, so this student would do it.  The next day, a team member quasi-complained that she had done all the work, and he wanted to pull his weight on the team.  He gave her a Starbucks gift card for helping complete the assignment.  After that, he rarely did any work, knowing that if he waited long enough, she would do it.

Teachers want to avoid this scenario, and often tell students to report others in their group who are not fully participating.  However, we teachers need to learn better ways to facilitate groups and teach students how to collaborate.  Too often, the teacher assigns a group task and expects the group-learning to happen independent of any guidance or instruction.  Or, at best, the teacher assigns each student a role, such as discussion leader, secretary, summarizer, questioner, etc.  This gives the group some structure, but still doesn’t teach students the interpersonal skills necessary for real collaboration.

New Research

Into this fray comes new research from Jordan and McDaniel (2010) which, in my opinion, illuminates the need to teach students how to work in groups.  While working on science/engineering projects, groups of 5th grade teams interacted about problem-solving and negotiating uncertain territory.  The researchers closely watched and later dissected the recorded interactions between group members.  They found that group members could give supportive feedback to help solve uncertainties.  This feedback would then lead students to further discussion, brainstorming, and new ideas to try.  On the other hand, students who received unsupportive feedback, such as chastisement or being ignored, either continued with their original strategy, asked repeatedly about their point of uncertainty, or cognitively removed themselves from the task.  I think this clearly points to the need for teachers to instruct students and monitor the way they interact in small groups.  Students must learn and master these essential skills, as their implementation can distinguish between collaboration being a successful learning experience or a failure.

For the girls

A warning to teachers comes in the example of Isabella, who is the only girl in a group of boys.  In her group, Isabella was largely ignored when she first tried to address uncertainties.  She persisted and forced the group to address her uncertainties, but was later described by the boys as “bossy” (Jordan & McDaniel, 2010, p. 27).  Another boy stated that her uncertainty, which was actually reasonable, was because “she just didn’t get it” (Jordan & McDaniel, 2010, p. 23).  Jordan and McDaniel note that “such negative interpretations of female students’ uncertainty are not uncommon for male classmates engaged in science learning” (Jordan & McDaniel, 2010, p. 27).  I have seen this same dynamic play out in a high school physics class, leading the girl to doubt her abilities and to make a career choice away from science and engineering.  Teachers need to be cognizant of this dynamic, and perhaps create single-sex groups in STEM classes or, at the very least, carefully monitor interactions in mixed-sex groups to make sure that this does not happen.

Implications for diversity            

As a teacher in a university-preparation English language program for international students, I will be making practical use of this research.  Many international students have not had experience with working in teams, and it is something that I focus on in my classes.  This gives me a new way to address their work—both how to express uncertainties and how to address the uncertainties of others.  This is essential for these students, because they will surely have many uncertainties with a new language and new subject-area content.

Jordan, M. E., & Mcdaniel, R. R. (2010). Managing Uncertainty During Collaborative Problem Solving in Elementary School Teams : The Role of Peer Influence in Robotics Engineering Activity, 00(2002).

Bridging the Gap: Neuroscientists and Educators

Devonshire, I. M., & Dommett, E. J. (2010). Neuroscience: viable applications in education? The Neuroscientist : A Review Journal Bringing Neurobiology, Neurology and Psychiatry, 16(4), 349–56. doi:10.1177/1073858410370900


The premise of this article is that developments in neuroscience can help the field of education, but they don’t.  The authors explore why this gap exists and give three theoretical barriers and two practical barriers to collaboration.

Theoretical barriers.  The first theoretical barrier is that the two fields have fundamentally different goals and those goals are pursued in different ways.  Neuroscientists are interested in the workings of the brain, the architecture of the mind, and how the two work together.  Educators develop pedagogy.  The second theoretical barrier is that the level on which they investigate is different.  Devonshire and Dommett name five levels of investigation:  individual genes/proteins, neurons, functional circuitry (brain regions and circuits), syndrome (all study related to a disorder), and normal behavior.  Most neuroscientists work on the first three levels, while educators are involved with the last level.  Neuroscience hasn’t made much contribution to the study of normal behavior, since most funding comes to the study of dysfunctions.  The “gold standard” is to do research with healthy humans in suitable environments (page 352).  This is a standard that is difficult to attain when dealing with children, schools, and funders.  The third theoretical barrier is translating the content from one field to another.  Teachers are enthusiatic about learning neuroscientists, but the neuroscientists are “cautious…for fear of seeing their work lost in translation” (page 349).  Also, neuroscience can be used to assess educational theories and practices, but it is difficult to use it to create theories.

Practical barriers.  The first practical barrier is that the two fields use a different working language, which creates a need for people who are bilingual.  It is suggested that neuroscientists need to learn to communicate better with teachers and the general public.  This lack of a common vocabulary means that neuroscientists and teachers have different definitions of such basics as “learning” and “research.”  Research design in the two fields is very different–neuroscientists work in labs where they can isolate individual variables, while educators deal with a variety of variables and accept qualitative research as valid.  Action research lacks the stringent controls that neuroscientists demand.  The second practical barrier is finding time and a suitable environment for teachers and neuroscientists to collaborate.

Strengths and Critiques

This article is very well-organized into two main sections (theoretical and practical barriers), and each of these is divided into sub-sections.  This structure, along with clear headings, makes it easy for the reader to follow the line of reasoning.  However, the conclusion misses some of these points in its summary.  Because the article was published in The Neuroscientist and due to the tone of the writing, the audience is neuroscientists and gives thoughts how to bridge the gap between science and society, in this case, educators.  Unfortunately, it seemed to reinforce stereotypical characterizations of both scientists and educators.  I am not sure if this is the fault of the authors or the reader.  The picture painted is one of the scientist working in a sterile lab, unable and unwilling to communicate with outsiders.  Teachers, on the other hand, lack the ability to understand research from a field as stringent as neuroscience, which is “impossible to understand by educators” (page 353).  “Teachers know very little about the brain, and in some instances, their knowledge was not only poor, but actually incorrect” (page 352).

The article is a good read for contemplating why partnerships are not successful, and gives the reader hope that the gap can be bridged.  There are very specific areas for work.

Relation to other readings

I found this to be an interesting follow-up to our class and readings about communities of practice.  One thing that really stood out for me was the discussion of border practices, explained by Wenger (2000, pages 232-238).  Devonshire and Dommett’s analysis of the barriers leads to the conclusion that something must be done to bridge the two communities of practice.  The article is a step in the right direction, enlightening the two fields of the differences between them. Understanding these differences is the first step towards bridging the gap.

Wenger also points out that for collaboration between communities of practice to occur, there needs to be some common ground, as well as areas of real difference (page 233).  Devonshire and Dommett clearly delineate the areas of difference, but leave the question of common ground unanswered.  They even make a point of taking areas that seem to be common ground (i.e., learning takes place in the brain and mind) and change it into an area of difference (i.e., we disagree on what learning is).

I think Devonshire and Dommett would agree with Wenger when he says that the two communities need to find ways to “translate between repertoires so that experience and competence actually interact” (page 233).

Both articles point to the fact that much work needs to be done in order to have a true collaboration between neuroscientists and educators.

Implications for research

I see many important implicatons for my own research.  First, I will need to learn more about the field of neuroscience, trying to educate myself so that I can see through the lens of the scientists.  I will need to undertake what Devonshire and Dommett deem “impossible,” being an educator who is trying to understand neuroscience.  There is nothing I like more than a challenge!  I am now cognizant that words may have different definitions and connotations in neuroscience than they do in education, and that I will have to understand scientific research methods.

They also point out, through many examples, that information found in teacher magazines and mainstream media may be inaccurate.  Two examples given are the idea that a person is right-brained or left-brained (both hemispheres work together) and the fact that there is no conclusive research about the causes of dyslexia, even though policy-makers and teachers ascribe to certain research-based beliefs, while ignoring other research that validates other ideas.


Wenger, E. (2000). Communities of Practice and Social Learning Systems. Organization, 7(2), 225–246. doi:10.1177/135050840072002



Social Learning and Brain Research

Aimlessly flipping through the channels on my television, I can not find anything interesting to watch.  Ah, here’s Dr. Phil; let’s see what strangeness is going on now.  Soon I find myself caught up in the life-drama of someone I don’t even know, cheering, nodding my head and thinking,  “This lady really knows the answers” (I admit, maybe even say aloud).  This is the same feeling that I had reading Etienne Wenger’s Communities of Practice and Social Learning Systems.  Social learning combines the standards set by the group with each member’s personal experience.  This experience can catalyze the group to further learning and increasing standards.  I cheered as Wegner talked about three elements of the social learning system:  community of practice, boundaries, and identity.

Community of Practice.

The learning that takes place in a community of practice is so strong because it reflects what brain researchers know about how the brain learns.  In communities of practice, learning takes place through “joint enterprise,” working together on a project that builds mutual respect and understanding (Wenger, 2000, p. 229).  The brain also has two ways of learning, which Caine and Caine refer to as spatial memory and rote memory (1990, p. 68).  Rote memory requires practice, but spatial memory are those things that you remember the first time they occur, those instant memories that are sometimes indeliably etched on our brains.  The spatial memory is obviously more efficient.  Communities of practice engage the spatial memory as colleagues work together, negotiating “competence through an experience of direct participation” (Wenger, 2000, p. 229).  This explains why we learn better in study groups or when working through a new software application with a co-worker.

Every community of practice has boundaries, and when different communities touch each other, learning occurs and tensions possibly mount.  We must bridge the boundaries in order to learn from each other (Wenger, 2000, pp. 233–234).  My workplace has two communities of practice—the faculty and the office staff.  We bridge these boundaries so that students have the best experience possible.  The office staff and the faculty have to negotiate the use of the computer system that tracks student scheduling and grades.  Staff should understand how faculty use the system, and the faculty need to know some of the logistics that the staff deals with.  For example, faculty want to have their class rosters several days before classes begin, which is not currently possible.  Staff need time to manually enter each student’s schedule, and this can not be done until language placement testing takes place.  On the other hand, staff need to understand that a four-day lag period, while it seems like a half-week to them, means 10-15% of the entire course for the faculty (we have a 40-day program with classes meeting five days a week).  We recently moved a faculty member into a newly-created position to bridge this boundary.

The identities of individuals are shaped by their experience:  we define ourselves by what we know and don’t know (Wenger, 2000, p. 238).  “Identity needs a place where a person can experience knowing as a form of social competence…their need to develop their competence is also part of their belonging” (Wenger, 2000, p. 241).  This mirrors Caine and Caine’s brain principle that the brain needs familiarity, as well as novelty and complexity.  The familiarity gives stability and anchors the search for meaning from the complex (Caine & Caine, 1990, p. 67).  The community of learning can provide this stability and comfort, as a home where the identity feels competent.  This allows the member to be willing to search for the complex and to expand her own personal experiential learning.

I think Wenger gets it right in his assessment of social learning, in light of both my own personal experience and the brain research highlighted by Caine and Caine.


Caine, R. N., & Caine, G. (1990). Understanding a Brain-Based Approach to Learning and Teaching. Educational Leadership, 66–70.

Wenger, E. (2000). Communities of Practice and Social Learning Systems. Organization, 7(2), 225–246. doi:10.1177/135050840072002

**To learn more about Caine & Caine’s article about brain research, see my blog post “A View from the Past: Bridging Brain Research to the Classroom” from May 30, 2014.

A View from the Past: Bridging Brain Research to the Classroom

Caine, R. & Caine, G. (1990).  Understanding a Brain-Based Approach to Learning and Teaching.  Educational Leadership, pages 66-70.

This article contains twelve principles from brain-based research and the implications for teaching.  These points are synthesized and summarized in the chart.

Source: Lippincott, 2014.

Source: Lippincott, 2014.

The goal of Caine and Caine was to introduce brain research and give practical implications for teaching.  This piece was written in 1990, and is based on sources from the mid-1980’s.  Obviously, this research is outdated for a scholar in 2014;  however, I chose it  as a historical starting point for my scholarly study of brain research and neuroscience.   It is based more on psychology than neurology, and I think it will be interesting to trace the development of this still-fledgling field of study to the present day.

Caine and Caine have written a well-organized article that is clearly divided by headings which help the reader preview and focus on each of the twelve principles.  It is a good article for someone who wants to get an overview of the implications of the then-current research about brain functioning and teaching/learning.  The suggestions for classroom teachers are clear for anyone to read, without having to understand a lot of formal, technical jargon.  This piece helps create the bridge from researchers to practioners.  One weakness of the piece is that it does not explain to a reasonable extent the true workings of the brain or the underpinnings of the principles.  For example, the first principle is that the brain handles many different tasks simultaneously.  But, it does not explain how scientists know this.  It is clear that the authors assume that the reader will trust their compilation of previous knowledge and studies, not giving a picture of what those studies actually are.

Implication for humanizing, equitable education.

This article emphasizes that each person’s brain is unique, shaped by the experiences that he/she has had.  Also, emotions play a large role in learning, as do the conscious and subconscious.  The implication is that teachers need to use a variety of methods in their work.  This is consistent with the ideas of a humanizing, equitable education, helping each person have access to learning that will have an impact on their lives.

Also, Caine and Caine suggest that students learn about their own metacognition and reflect upon their educational experiences.  This will make them better learners.  Any time a person can be given control over their own learning processes, this is an empowering moment.  This empowerment can end marginalization by others and humanize the education of each one.

Thoughts for my area of interest.

            My take-away from this article was two-fold.  First, I thought it contained some sound ideas and concepts for teaching that I would like to try and share with my colleagues.  The part of the article that I felt was the strongest argument was the section about the hippocampus and its role in reaction to threatening environments.  Its strength came from the clear, yet simple, explanation of the hippocampus as the relay center for the brain.  When this center is stressed or threatened, it goes into a different mode and communicates only with the primary areas of the brain.  This means that some areas are actually closed-off to us when we may need them.  As educators, we need to recognize the stresses that our students have: pressures from family, teachers, schools, and peers; internal pressures to do well on assignments and tests; pressure from high-stakes testing that occurs too frequently.  These stresses can trigger a very real physical reaction that students can not control, but which impedes their learning.  Teachers should challenge students in a supportive environment, helping them to feel successful and independent in their learning.

Second, at this point, I am just beginning to look into brain research and its implications for teaching and learning.  Critiquing this article helps me see my path a little more clearly: I am going to focus more on actual brain functions and how those affect our behavior and learning, rather than a more psychological view.

Is Empathy Enough?

Garcia (2013) posits that researchers’ own biographies “greatly influence their values, their research questions, and the knowledge they construct” (p. 41).  A researcher must have credibility (be an “insider”) to be trusted and effective with study participants (Garcia, 2013).  The sense of Garcia’s writing is that a researcher can’t really understand the plight of someone who is different and whose life experience is different. Because a researcher’s identity is intertwined with his research, he may (or should) exclude some groups, but this, in turn, renders them invisible and marginalizes them (Garcia, 2013).  This marginalization may occur even as the researcher is trying to help the subjects of a study.

Medicine Stories (Levin-Morales, 1998) also discusses the marginalization of groups by colonizing powers who try to help those they deem inferior by educating their young.  Levin-Morales states that “colonizing powers take over the transmission of culture to the young” (p. 23) in the guise of helping them.  Culture has always been the glue that holds a society together, and children are inculcated into the society and government by schools.  My own daughter started her school years in Argentina, where we lived as part of an exchange program.  Her assignments were often to draw the flag, create art representing the country, and sing songs about the motherland.  One day, her father said to her, “That’s what Argentines do.”  She furiously informed him that she was an Argentine, although we knew her to be an Anglo-American Caucasian.  Seeing this through Levin-Morales’ eyes enlightened me to a different view of these practices.

Levin-Morales (1998) also includes a thought-provoking essay about “good English.”  She feels that editors have tried to strip away part of her identity by changing her writing in the name of correcting her English to a standard that is not representative of the many Englishes spoken and written throughout the world.  This article touches on a hotly-discussed issue in linguistic circles:  world Englishes.  Who does English belong to?  British?  Americans?  Or the millions of other English-speakers?  The paradox is that, as an English as a Second Language teacher, I must teach my students something that equates to correctness.  At one level, this is English to help them communicate ideas, which must follow some set of basic norms (for example, using past tense to talk about the past, pronunciation that is distinguishable to the listener, or word order in sentences that is clear enough to express an idea).  As the fluency of English rises, my students are preparing to study in American universities, where the English used is probably the English of stuffy, white male professors.  However, if the student is to compete in this playing field, he/she must know these rules, which I teach.  Am I harming my students’ identities by trying to strip away their brand of English to replace it with one that will serve them well in an academic setting?

Pondering the ideas of Garcia & Ortiz (2013) and Levin-Morales’ Medicine Stories (1998) worried me:  can I  teach students of color if I am not a teacher of color? am I doing a disservice to the identities of my students by teaching an academically-acceptable brand of English?  These concerns were  somewhat allayed by Howard’s “Culturally Relevant Pedagogy.”  According to Howard (2003), teachers must first believe that all students can succeed and make sure that their actions don’t reinforce prejudice.  They should view different cultures and the way they learn as an asset in the process and use a wide variety of teaching practices which change with the students’ strengths and weaknesses.  This left me hopeful that I can do justice to my students and be helpful to them within their own context.  I need to spend more time getting to know them individually and not labeling them with one-dimensional descriptions.  Through on-going critical self-reflection, I can confront my own learned prejudices in order to overcome them and move forward.

Garcia, S.B. & Ortiz, A.A. (2013).  Intersectionality as a framework for transformative research to special education.  Multiple Voices for Ethnically Diverse Exceptional Learners, 13(2), 32-47.

Howard, T. C. (2003).  Culturally Relevant Pedagogy:  Ingredients for critical teacher reflection, 42(3), 195-202.

Levins-Morales, A. (1998).  Medicine Stories: History, Culture, and the Politics of Identity.  Cambridge: South End Press.