Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School

by John Medina

The author, a lecturer, researcher, and molecular biologist, lists twelve major principles that help explain how the brain works: though processes are improved by physical exercise, we pay attention to evolutionarily important things like sex and danger, we need sleep to cogitate properly, repetition is crucial to long-term memory, we learn more through a variety of sensory inputs, gender influences how our brain process certain interactions, and so on. In most of the chapters, he goes on to advocate for the integration of these findings into education, thus revolutionizing the traditional classroom.

This book is widely praised for its clear, lucid prose, but I didn’t come away all that impressed. I felt that Medina took up too much space describing various sections of the brain to no real purpose. Does it really help our understanding of how the brain works to visualize axons and brain sections and cells and neurons as, variously, stomped eggs, a scorpion with an egg on its back, or uprooted trees jammed together horizontally? There’s no relation between its physical structure and how it works, so what’s the point? (In the same vein, I was bemused by his habit of describing nearly every scientist he refers to. I simply don’t care whether a man looks youthful or his head is shaped like an egg; indeed, such dwelling on looks turns me off an author.) I also thought that Medina (using tricks based on principles of attention) relied too much on cutesy and misleading attention-grabbers like “we’ll learn that we each have a Jennifer Aniston neuron” (no, we don’t) or “we’ll learn the difference between bicycles and Social Security numbers” (overly playful and not at all accurate). I find deliberately misleading teasers like that to be insulting rather than enticing. Finally and most importantly, most of these principles are extremely basic. (Is it really cutting-edge news that repetition is important when learning, or that we need sleep, or that some people crumple under stress while others rise to the challenge, or that people need to feel safe in order to learn?) Despite that, Medina several times in the book proposes sweeping, pie-in-the-sky “solutions” to education problems based on this research, such as restructuring the school day into short lessons, the same content repeated three times, and thus stretching the school year into the summer to make room for all the information; or offering an early work- or schoolday as well as a later one to accommodate different sleep cycles; or mandating child care and parent classes to everyone. Some of these aren’t bad ideas; it’s just that they aren’t going to happen any time soon. Some reasonable, easily-implemented changes that could provide some benefit would have been better. It is an interesting, if basic, primer on the brain, and it is told lucidly; I just didn’t feel there was much point to it, let alone help for “surviving and thriving,” as the subtitle boasts.

three stars

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