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Literacy scholar focuses on brain research

As brain research has grown, it has given rise to a new research field – educational neuroscience. Researchers are starting to use knowledge gained through brain research to rethink how to improve student learning.

Among the voices in this emerging body of knowledge is Dr. George Hruby, who is an associate professor of literacy education at the University of Kentucky College of Education, and director of Kentucky’s Collaborative Center for Literacy Development, based at the college.

Q: As someone who has been involved in literacy his entire career, how did the field of neuroscience enter your work?
A: It was during my doctoral program at the University of Georgia, back in the 1990s. Back then the emerging brain imaging research was starting to get a lot of attention in the popular press. So was evolutionary psychology, genetics, research on chimps using tools and sign language and so on. The science behind these studies sounded fascinating, but the public’s interest was a little worrisome. There has been a long history that still echoes today where life science ideas are misused by non-scientists to justify bigotry. Racism, eugenics, women’s subordination have all been rationalized in the past with pseudo-biological claims. And you could find that starting to reemerge in newspaper editorials in the 1990s, which concerned me. Brain-based education, kind of neuroscience lite, was getting started then, too, even though no one had actually done any brain research on education. So I thought this would be a hot-button area to investigate. Not many literacy scholars were paying attention.
It was a good bet. In the 20 years since I took all those graduate courses in neuroscience and related fields, the neurosciences have grown exponentially. From a small research community, graduate programs sprang up and neuroscience has skyrocketed. The imaging technology has grown more sophisticated, there’s a greater awareness of the dangers of data manipulation and misinterpretation. And yet, few people in literacy education understand this research. Which has allowed me to publish some nicely cited analyses.

 Q: What intrigues you about the brain and learning, especially as it applies to literacy?
A: Well, I think a more bio-ecological view of literacy development is crucial to understanding both language learning and learning to read, as well as for deeper theories of comprehension and motivation. We have a lot of research on the ecological part of that view, now we need the biological part.
And there’s a lot of work to be done. There’s about as many neurological studies that relate directly to literacy education as you can count on the fingers of one hand, all small subject sets and correlational. There was early work on dyslexia, but done without baseline data on normal neural development in children, so its interpretations were premature. The thing is, neuroscientists study the brain, neurons, neural chemistry and genetics. They don’t study education. Educational researchers do. We need better communication and collaboration between these two communities. That’s what educational neuroscience is trying to do.

Q: Why have literacy researchers been slow to take up work in educational neuroscience?
A: Several reasons. Literacy researchers have had other perfectly good and productive lines of research to pursue. You know, in education we usually focus on contexts and outcomes, an echo from mid-20th century conditioning theory. We forget that the outcomes are symptoms of changes in the underlying biological systems responsible for them. We can do descriptive work on how student outcomes change in response to instruction or environment, and that’s important work. But it is not a full explanation. It’s important to understand the biological nature of learning, memory, agency and how and why these things change in response to experience, neurologically, genetically, systemically. That’s what’s responsible for the changes in outcomes we can observe. Anything we can educate a child to do, we do by way of that child’s biology, whether we are aware of it or not. But this isn’t a new idea for education. It was central to the theoretical work of John Dewey back at the dawn of the 20th century.
Q:  As this body of knowledge grows, how should educators keep it in perspective?  For instance, should we be cautious about overestimating the extent to which innovations based on neuroscience can be applied in the real-world setting?
 A: Absolutely. There are a lot of over-exuberant claims about the brain and learning out there right now, especially in the so-called brain-based booklets on education. You know, as opposed to liver-based education. But seriously, folks… (ba-ding!). For one thing, just because biology underlies our ability to learn, it does not follow that learning is nothing but biology. Contrary to what some authors claim, it is not the brain that reads. You do. Yes, your brain makes reading possible, but, then, your teeth make chewing possible. Do you ever say: “my teeth had breakfast this morning?” Of course not. That’d be what philosophers call a category error. And even though you hear people say your brain learns or your brain reads, just because you need your brain to do so, you never hear anyone say: “my brain went shopping last weekend,” or “my brain went nuts at the Wildcats game,” even though we need it for those activities, too. When people who have never read a neuroscience study in their lives makes claims about how the “brain” reads and learns, they’re really using the word “brain” as a stand-in for something else: the essence of our ability to think. We used to call it the mind. Before that, the psyche. Before that, the human spirit. Before that, the soul. Now it’s the brain. That’s just a placeholder for processes we still don’t understand very well, which is why we need more serious attention to the research, or we won’t really be talking about the brain at all. Knowing how brains make learning and reading possible might helpfully focus literacy practice and policy For instance? Learning is literally a growth process. Teaching is literally nurturance. Variance among students is natural, necessary, and beautiful.