by Tim Brunson, PhD
As it is applied in the United States, educational theory is severely in need of a major overhaul. Over the past four decades neuroscientists have made startling discoveries regarding how the brain perceives, interprets, and encodes. Additionally, research has continually revealed differences in such learning processes as a person transitions between infancy, early childhood, teenage years, and finally into full adulthood. Thus the currently emphasized two-phase approach should be questioned. It focuses on teaching process skills up to and through the 3rd grade then shifting to content acquisition. However, it fails to recognize the need for long-term process skill improvement and that as the brain continues to develop, there is a need to alter learning techniques so as to take advantage of increased neurological capabilities.
Before I go further, I wish to make a clear distinction between the concepts of education and training. Education, which literally means to draw out, refers to the process of activating already existing potentials. This would include addressing the capabilities a person's brain at various stages of life. Training, on the other hand, is very different. It refers to the acquisition of knowledge (i.e. facts and other data) and skills (i.e. behavioral patterns). If one were to use John Locke's term tabula rasa, the presumption is that everyone is born devoid of built-in mental content, the acquisition of which is the purpose of training. The process of acquiring such content must rely on the effective use of all of the tools at our disposal. Again, as the brain is our major acquisition tool, its use in turning perception into how and why, which we normally refer to as meaning, is crucial. Therefore, education is the act of activating the brain's processes, whereas training refers to the content that is acquired and stored – specifically as long-term memory – in the brain.
During the birth to kindergarten period, the infant/pre-school child's brain is going through its first brain growth spurt. The limbic system, which controls autonomic functions such as hunger and fear, is already fully functional. Although the parietal and temporal lobes are present and ready, initially they are the tabula rasa to which Locke referred. Indeed, they are blank slates waiting to be programmed with patterns of meaning. During this period and especially from birth through the time, which mothers frequently call the "terrible twos," the child's brain is rapidly converting perceptions into meaningful patterns. Parents and other care givers must foster the competence of the child's brain when it comes to recognizing symbols, letters, pictures, words, etc. This time is extremely critical to the emergence of social skills, language acquisition, and the evolution of the process of learning. Most importantly, the development of the young child's pattern processing ability will go with them throughout their life. Insufficient development of this potential at this time will severely limit subsequent learning abilities.
In the American education system, the next several years start out by continuing to foster the student's processing ability while slowly transitioning to a focus that is content-driven. To some degree this makes sense. Increased pattern storage within the temporal and parietal lobes is important – but not at the cost of failing to fully enhance their process capabilities.
Also, at this point the child's frontal cortices are a long way from being fully developed. These substrates provide not only space/time awareness and executive abilities. They also give the growing child healthy inhibition – and thus good judgment – and the ability to begin harnessing their powers of simulation and anticipation, which are another way of referring to directed suggestion and imagination. (Note that most people believe that young children already have highly imaginative abilities. In many ways this view is due to the young child's lack of prefrontal cortex development. That part of the brain allows an increased ability for the child to differentiate between reality and fantasy. It simply does not function well for several years after birth. Also, their lower inhibition capability further strengthens this incorrect belief. What we regard to as a child's imagination is actually a rather unfettered ability to properly assess reality. This is significantly different than the power of selective thinking, which they will experience later in life.)
It is during this second period that one of the biggest mistakes in the practice of education is made. Generally, the focus of the first three years is on process development – meaning education. During this time the emphasis is on enhancing knowledge acquisition tools rather than acquiring knowledge itself. Reading and other literacy components are a major part of this. Content acquisition is subordinated. Then after the 3rd grade, the emphasis changes almost entirely to the learning of facts and mastering techniques. Almost always, if the student's process skills (e.g. reading level) are not adequately developed at this point, they will be doomed to a long-term learning disadvantage.
However, the significant abandonment of process skill development from the 3rd grade on is a mistake. The current misconception is that a student can master learning processes while becoming increasingly overwhelmed with content. As the brain continues to activate additional areas during this and subsequent periods – with frontal cortex capabilities slowly coming available as well – it is unreasonable to assume that life-long learning should be limited to processes more suited to an eight year old brain. Rather, learning techniques should continue to evolve as new brain capabilities become available.
Another mistake made during this period is to base the learning process specifically on a sub-vocal methodology – which is saying words internally while reading. Interestingly, this is an educational legacy that goes back to the 4th century when silent readers first began to show that they could speak the words that they were reading without moving their mouth or using their vocal chords. Since then, this has been considered the most advanced form of reading. This could not be further from the truth. As we learn more about the brain, I fail to see why our reading skills should not be radically modernized.
Vocalized reading involves several extremely fast parts of the brain and a couple that are surprisingly slow. It starts initially with extremely rapid visual perception, which causes electrical signals to travel instantaneously along the optic nerves and through the thalamus so that they can be almost immediately processed by the ultra fast occipital lobe located at the back of the brain. This substrate then transmits electrical signals to the speech areas in the left temporal lobe. At this point, two specific areas dumb the data and speed down to the point that it can be expressed as spoken words. This is like taking a 4G smart phone signal and slowing it down so that it can be received by an old fashion dial-up modem. Fortunately, the dumbing-down stage is not a requirement for learning. Before sub-vocalized reading was taught, pre-school children were already quite good at rapidly translating symbols into neurological patterns. It is ironic that once they started school they were taught systematically to slow their learning.
The byproduct of this process is that only some of the data is converted to how-why information, which is stored in other areas of the temporal lobe and in the parietal lobe. This is what creates long-term memory and meaning. Unfortunately, this process limits learning to the same speed, which was available during European medieval times. Yes, our education system takes the natural learning skills of the pre-schooler and retards them by installing an ineffective knowledge acquisition system. (This should not be surprising since most of Western education – to include its university systems – has its roots in that period and has never been appropriately modernized.)
The next period is the one that encompasses puberty through early adulthood. During this time the prefrontal cortices continue to develop thus bringing on line several enhancements to the student's executive functions. This is an important transition period.
In our current system, teachers would like to assume that all students have adequately mastered the required 3rd grade learning skills and successfully transitioned from process-oriented education to content-oriented training. I would argue that this significantly reduces their potential learning capabilities. This is especially true if their reading skill significantly employs sub-vocalization techniques.
Emphasis at this point should be on further enhancing the student's ability to acquire knowledge while eliminating interference caused by poor techniques. Actually, reading without using the vocal centers is quite natural. Let's face it. Toddlers do it all the time. The reason that this is possible lies in a few unique abilities of the human brain.
In the 1990's, an Italian research team found that there are special neurons located throughout the brain. These brain cells facilitate the rapid translation of perception into meaning through a very competent pattern-matching process. As this is almost instantaneous, the poor reading habits, which seek to translate all reading perceptions into vocal manifestations, to a large extent prevent this from happening. The continual development of non-sub-vocalized reading skills should start during the pre-school period and continue throughout the other three.
The last period is called adult learning. The presumption should be that adults over the age of 25 have fully developed their core learning competencies – although continued improvement still should be sought. At this point the frontal cortices are believed to be fully developed. This gives the learner full access to the brain's executive functions, which should include enhanced selective thinking. Tragically, many of those whom are conventionally considered effective learners enter this period with inadequately developed process skills. In short, their reading skills are more appropriate for the 3rd grade. They've excelled at knowledge acquisition – such as can be represented by successfully earning a doctorate – yet they continue to process information predominantly using methods taught to them decades earlier.
I have two expectations of learners at this point. First, they should have excellent abilities to rapidly process large amounts of information. In order to do this, their perception-meaning development continuum should be highly developed. 3rd grade level sub-vocalization should not continue to hamper their learning abilities. Secondly, their enhanced ability to use the simulation and anticipation capabilities afforded by their mature prefrontal cortices should provide them the ability to vastly enhance their mental processes. I believe that by using selective thinking (i.e. the purposeful use of suggestion and imagination) information encoding and processing by an adult learner can be vastly improved. As they should be able to process a tremendous amount of information, by employing process skills, which have been steadily developed over decades, the environment is set for advanced synoptic-like thinking.
I am saddened to say our current education system – which unduly focuses on training rather than education – is far from this ideal. It is too mired in medieval learning practices. Our schools must come a long way if they are to take advantage of recent neurological discoveries. High drop out rates and the low literacy talents of our high school graduates are thought of as symbolic of a failure of the application of the current methods. Thus the fallacy is that if our schools fully accomplish what is set out in conventional education theory, then all will be well. Frankly, I'm for a more radical makeover.
Over the past several decades scientists have clearly demonstrated the brain's incredible capacity. Education and training protocols must appropriately reflect and optimize the student's current learning capabilities during each period. While most educators would be proud if their efforts reached the current standards, I believe this represents a failure to reach students' true potential. The shift to a system that seeks to continually improve the learning process throughout a person's entire lifetime will produce superior results.