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the brain, old and young, and education, college and otherwise

Paul Grobstein's picture

Two interesting recent articles on education that get even more interesting when read in relation to one another and in broader contexts ....

How to train the aging brain, NYTimes Education Life, 29 Dec 2009

"Teaching new facts should not be the focus of adult education ... Instead, continued brain development and a richer form of learning may require that you “bump up against people and ideas” that are different."

"Jack Mezirow, a professor emeritus at Columbia Teachers College, has proposed that adults learn best if presented with what he calls a “disorienting dilemma,” or something that “helps you critically reflect on the assumptions you’ve acquired.”"

Making college 'relevant', NYTimes Education Life, 29 Dec 2009

"What’s the return on investment, especially as the cost of that investment keeps rising?"

I'm bemused by the idea that "Teaching new facts should not be the focus of ADULT education."  For others, its ok for "Teaching new facts ... [to] be the focus of education"?  Maybe its time to recognize that we all learn best, at all times and ages, by bumping up against things that conflict with our existing understandings? (cf Loopiness: conflict, humanness, and the universe and The brain and education: three loops and conflict resolution).  And that getting better at doing so is not only the best way to be prepared for an unpredictable future but also fun?  

If we got that straight,  starting in kindergarten and running through college (at least), maybe we wouldn't need special education for adults, and there would be less mystery about the relevance of college education? 


alesnick's picture

ordering facts

I happened to read "How to Train the Aging Brain" near in time to reading a recent essay in the journal Contemporary Psychoanalysis by Elisabeth Young-Bruehl on "Childism" as a form of prejudice. Together with Paul's post above, they got me thinking about the possible reasons for distinguishing between what "aging brains" and newer brains need/are entitled to in learning.

I suspect that, and Young-Bruehl's essay explains why, a good deal of the control exerted over children by adults in schools is in fact the result of unconscious prejudice against children by adults, for their difference, essentially, from adults and for their living in different worlds from adults (and from the childhood worlds of those adults). In this difference, children as a bloc have a kind of secret knowledge, they are strangers and threats even though they live close by; and they threaten the power structures that stabilize adults' authority with the threat of not respecting/honoring/submitting to this authority. Their difference in a sense enables adult authority at the same time as it threatens it.

I think this element of fear between adults and children confuses the formal education enterprise, such that the "misleading" Paul talks about above is facilitated -- such that adults/experts/authorities split off and reify certain kinds of learning as isolate-able and needing to come first for kids -- or those "young" in a given field or pursuit (we can broaden this to novices at any age in whatever field) -- isolable from the totality of their experiences, their worlds, which are only partially available to "us."

Dewey said that all learning depends on a continuum of experience -- each experience becomes part of the groundwork for each future experience. To use Paul's and Ben's formulation, there is no "second world" in which "knowledge" is isolate-able from experience. In this sense, "rote learning," then, is also experience, on the same plane with asking questions or conducting experiments or symphonies.



Bill Huber's picture

Facts in education

Fair enough: let's keep challenging the idea that education consists of "teaching facts." But could you clarify for us, Paul, how people come to learn facts (and procedures and algorithms and other rote or routine things) and how that process ought to fit into a formal education?

Maybe I should clarify what I'm struggling with. It's wonderful to watch students learn and grow by addressing ideas that conflict with or challenge their understanding, but it seems that there are limits to this, too: sometimes it takes some rote learning just to get to the point where one is capable of understanding an idea, much less incorporating it into one's own thinking. For example, in order to appreciate what it takes to design a computing language, we need to master at least one--and probably several--such languages. I'm guessing you would acknowledge the validity of this point (but please correct me if I'm wrong), but I also suspect you would (if called upon to teach in this subject) design your course to minimize the effort and time expended in learning a computing language. I'm genuinely interested in your pedagogical strategies for accomplishing this.

Happy New Year!

Paul Grobstein's picture

fitting "facts etc" into learning as creating new understandings

"it takes some rote learning just to get to the point where one is capable of understanding an idea, much less incorporating it into one's own thinking"

Yep, no argument at all.  And I like very much the implicit suggestion that one might equate "facts (and procedures and algorithms ...)" with the hoped for products of "rote learning."  That's not at all to denigrate either; both are essential components of learning processes.  Without them, one can't, as you say, have understandings with which alternate understandings can conflict. 

So, indeed, the problem becomes how to integrate "facts (and procedures and algorithms") into a coherent/practical pedagogical strategy.  I very much wish I had a solution to that problem; my own teaching would be more successful if I did.  Maybe though there's progress in more clearly defining the problem along the lines we have.  Among other things, it at least suggests some general principles that one might start with:

  1. Don't mislead students (or be misled oneself) into believing that the primary classroom task is the acqusition of "facts (and procedures and algorithms)."  Be clear that the primary task for students (and teachers) is to acquire greater skill in themselves challenging their own understandings, wherever and however achieved, and creating new ones.
  2. Don't mislead students (or be misled oneself) into believing that existing "facts (and procedures and algorithms)" will suffice to effectively challenge existing understandings and create new ones.  New observations that don't yet "make sense" to students (including apparently arbitrary "facts (and procedures and algorithms)" are essential grist for the primary task.
  3. In the service of both 1 and 2, choose and make available new observations (including "facts" (and procedures and algorithms) in the context of the primary task.  Be sure students are aware of the problems they have trouble coping with in terms of existing understandings and so experience new observations (including "facts" etc) as tools potentially relevant to their own development of new understandings, rather than as either answers or things to master in their own right.  "facts etc" are actually more effectively assimilated this way than they are by "rote" learning. 

Hmmm.  I've never  tried to make this quite so explicit.  Having done so, its clearer to me how/why my own teaching has been less successful than it might be.  I'm thinking particularly of a class where in fact students needed to acquire some mastery of a computing language and never quite did it to the level needed to work effectively with it.  The problem, now that I think back on it, was that the problems I invited the students to wrestle with didn't immediately motivate acquiring mastery of the language and the time/effort needed to acquire mastery of the language was seen by students as detracting from their wrestling with the problems in other (for them easier? more obvious?) ways.  To be more successful, I would have needed either to scale back  the problems or change to a more readily accessible language (or both).

The bottom line?  Let's not give up either growth by challenge to existing understandings or acquiring/using new information that doesn't yet make sense.  The challenge, it seems to me, is to effectively integrate the two, so that "facts (and procedures and algorithms)" are acquired not "by rote" or as an end in themselves but rather as an integral and natural part of the process of achieving new understandings.  We know it can be done.  That is, of course, how we all learn to speak, to ride a bike, to kayak, and ... to become both effective scientists and effective teachers ourselves (to whatever extent we do).   My guess is that when it doesn't work in a particular classroom context its not because we need not to move to one extreme or the other but rather because we're already to one side or the other of an optimal integration and so need to rethink what we're trying to do.        

Paul Grobstein's picture

being blinded by "the facts"

Accept defeat: the neuroscience of screwing up by Jonah Lehrer in Wired Magazine this month is worth looking at along the lines of the above conversation.  "Although we pretend we’re empiricists — our views dictated by nothing but the facts — we’re actually blinkered ..."   I'm not sure the "neuroscience" is particularly relevant but the characterization of science (inquiry in general?) certainly is.  As is Lehrer's list of ways scientists (students, inquirers in general) can productively approach learning, to wit ....

1 Check Your Assumptions

Ask yourself why this result feels like a failure. What theory does it contradict? Maybe the hypothesis failed, not the experiment.

2 Seek Out the Ignorant

Talk to people who are unfamiliar with your experiment. Explaining your work in simple terms may help you see it in a new light.

3 Encourage Diversity

If everyone working on a problem speaks the same language, then everyone has the same set of assumptions.

4 Beware of Failure-Blindness

It’s normal to filter out information that contradicts our preconceptions. The only way to avoid that bias is to be aware of it.