Guest Column

Marching to the Beat of Brain Research


From academic treatises to the cover of Time magazine, one of the hottest topics in education news today is the deep insights we’ve gained into the workings of our students’ brains. It is unfortunate that what some have dubbed "the brain revolution" has seldom been identified as essential to the success of school district leadership as well

Recent discoveries in neurology and cognitive science allow us to educate successfully many times the number of young people we’ve reached in the past. Just think how much more significant the enterprise will be if we focus on the research as it applies to school administrators.

For example, a growing number of brain researchers agree that emotions serve as a neurological compass, directing reason and rationality through the deliberative process. If we look at this information as it might support educational leaders, it clearly gives a scientific basis for leadership practices that previously were based on anecdotal evidence. This new understanding provides leaders with a precise vocabulary to describe effective and ineffective administrative behaviors.

A compelling finding from recent research is the brain's constant drive to seek stimulation and new information. In fact, we are hard-wired to pursue knowledge. Consequently, experienced superintendents furnish information to their constituents on a timely and frequent basis and often find it wise to tap into the gossip grapevine to keep track of what people in the organization are thinking. This is a key ingredient of smart leadership and consonant with scientific research about human behavior.

Emotion and Persuasion
The importance of the emotions in decision-making and leadership is profound. In an era of site-based management and democratic decision-making, the ability to persuade is a prerequisite of successful leadership.

Persuasion is predicated on demonstrating one's emotional commitment to an issue and sensing the level of emotional commitment of others. As Gary Wills notes in his book, Certain Trumpets: The Nature of Leadership, successful speakers seldom rely on reasoned argument alone. Instead, they mix emotionally charged symbols with logic to move and persuade their audience.

Although traditional administrator preparation programs emphasize research and the rational behavior of people in organizations, our on-the-job experience tells us that blending emotion and reason is critical to motivation and leadership. School leaders who ignore the prevailing emotional aspect of human nature or are too confident in the power of rational discussion alone to solve problems do so at great risk to their credibility and ultimate success.

Change and Leadership
Brain imaging studies show that the emotional connections in the brain are stronger than cognitive connections. Effective leaders accept this fact and deal respectfully with the emotional concerns of teachers.

During change initiatives, administrators must make teachers feel comfortable by allowing them to practice the innovation in a risk-free environment. If teachers are not supported as they work through their feelings and emotions, change initiatives will not likely succeed.

Biological science has been incorporated into the practice of medicine only in the last 150 years, yet today medical treatment uninformed by biology is inconceivable. In the near future, school administration uninformed by neurological and cognitive science will seem equally preposterous.

Understanding people is a crucial component for successful administrators. New brain research offers compelling insights into why people behave as they do. It is information school superintendents must not ignore.

James McDowelle is chair of educational leadership at East Carolina University, Greenville, NC 27858. E-mail: