Using Brain Scans To Track Students? Let’s Not Go There
Elena Gooray, who blogs for the Center for Neuroscience & Society at the University of Pennsylvania, writes about a study published this month in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The study looks at the brain and reading ability—a skill, Gooray notes, that is “often used to sort children into groups at school”:
“The researchers reported a correlation between white matter development in children aged 7-12 and their performance on standardized reading assessments. On the one hand, this is an interesting addition to the growing body of research on child brain development that may relate to and even benefit education. If this study can shed light on when to start reading interventions, or which cognitive processes interventions should target, that could be good news for educators.
On the other hand, much like with studies of brain anatomy and race, these results could be fodder for careless misinterpretations—e.g., deciding that brains scans will tell you whether or not a child should be in the advanced reading class for the rest of her time in school. The difference between those interpretations lies in an appreciation of nuance and an avoidance of pre-existing stereotypes (which in this case might include, say, the belief that ‘low-performing’ students can never improve).” Read more here.
When “neuroscience takes on group differences,” Gooray concludes, “nuance and open-mindedness are crucial.”
Amen to that. As we find out more about the neural underpinnings of skills like reading, there will inevitably be the temptation to use this information to sort and classify. We must also keep in mind another insight from neuroscience: that the brain is plastic and amenable to change and growth.