One talk was by a cognitive neuroscientist renowned for his brain imaging studies of memory and perception (how we see, hear, etc.). This particular presentation, though, was about a study he was doing on learning. Learning and motivation have been my primary interests for a long time, and so I was keenly interested in the talk. During the Q&A following the presentation I asked, "Do you have ideas about how this kind of brain research might help us make education better?"
Based on prior experience, I expected one of two answers.
"Yes, I have several ideas about how this might be useful down the road. For example..."
"No, this laboratory work is too preliminary and too far removed from educational practice for me to speculate about that."
His actual answer was far more interesting (and surprising). He said:
"I think we do pretty well in education already. I don't really think it's possible to do much better."
I was taken aback. First, he dismissed my question instead of answering it. But, more importantly – could he really be suggesting that education is about as good as it can possibly be? And that a deeper understanding of the biology and psychology of learning won't lead to better education? At the time it hadn't occurred to me that people - especially people who study learning - could seriously hold that view.
But he got me thinking…
Why should anyone believe that education could be better than it is? And how much room for improvement is there, really?These are quite important questions. After all, if the best-case scenario would be, say, 10% improvement over what we do now, then it probably wouldn’t be worth the extra cost. But if, on the other hand, we could double the return on our educational investment (100% improvement), then that would really be something to get excited about!
How much more efficient could education be?
First, let’s think about educational efficiency. One way to determine that is to compare how long it takes students to master a specific amount of content under different instructional designs. One telling example comes from the SHERLOCK Project, in which cognitive scientists demonstrated that they could replace four years of on-the-job training (in troubleshooting electronics) with 20-25 hours of computer-based training to produce the same expert-level performance. Four years of training compacted into less than three days through the systematic application of Learning Science. The authors of this article point out that “SHERLOCK achieves this stunning result in two ways, by affording the opportunity for extensive practice and by creating educationally effective instructional conditions” (p. 9).
So, based on this example, we can estimate that in at least some domains education could be made not just 10% or even 100% more efficient than it currently is through optimal instructional design, but on the order of 100x – or 10,000% – more efficient!
Wow. I’d say that puts the score at:
Cognitive Neuroscientist: 0
How much more effective could education be?
Now let’s think about educational effectiveness. One way to determine that is to compare levels of student achievement in a subject area like math resulting from different instructional designs. The cognitive scientists behind the RightStart project did just that. In one study, they followed three groups of children for about five years (from preschool through third grade), measuring their math achievement each year.
- Group 1 was a high-resource group – children from middle- and upper-income homes who attended a magnet school with an enriched math curriculum (not specifically informed by Cognitive Science).
- Group 2 was a high-ability group – children from lower-income homes who were identified as having superior math achievement when they arrived at school. They received no special or enriched math instruction.
- Group 3 was the experimental (RightStart) group – typical children from lower-income homes with no special aptitude for math. In addition to their regular school curriculum, these children received about 20 hours of intensive supplementary instruction in “number sense” (the conceptual foundations of math). The special number sense curriculum was explicitly informed by Cognitive Science.
The RightStart group started out with the lowest math achievement of the three. Over the course of five years, however, they reached higher levels of achievement than either the high-resource or the high-ability group. Evidently, optimal instructional design based systematically on Learning Science can take the children who would normally sit at the bottom of the class and reliably put them beyond what is currently the top of the class – and they’ll stay there for years.
Wow again. I’d say that brings the score to:
Cognitive neuroscientist: 0
Cognitive Neuroscience is not Education Science
Based on available evidence, it seems the Cognitive Neuroscientist was just plain wrong in saying that education today is about as good as it gets. But he’s a senior scientist studying learning – so where’s the disconnect?
I think Clarke’s first law applies here:
When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.
What I have further come to understand in the decades since (thanks in no small part to this book by Dewey) is that there is a vast difference between a Cognitive Neuroscientist who studies learning and an Education Scientist who studies education. Much could be said about the differences between them. For now, I’ll simply point out that the former apply systematic methods of inquiry to describe neurological and psychological processes, while the latter apply systematic methods of inquiry to improve educational processes. The difference is analogous to that between the chemical sciences and the medical sciences.
I have spent much of the past two decades helping people produce the learning outcomes they desire (education) by applying systematic methods of inquiry (science). I am an Education Scientist. In retrospect, I think the Cognitive Neuroscientist was not wrong to dismiss my question. I think I was wrong to ask it of him - in the same way you wouldn't ask a chemist (even a brilliant one) to prescribe your medication. That's simply not his area of expertise.
Long experience in the field supported by evidence from programs like SHERLOCK and RightStart have led me to believe that we can make education better across the board. Not a little better - a whole lot better. Imagine, for example, that our schools could produce twice the learning in half the time at a fraction of current cost. I believe this is feasible today, in existing schools, with our current students, teachers, and facilities.
The way we can make education substantially better is with a straightforward three-step process. This process builds on the one applied successfully by the scientists behind both SHERLOCK and RightStart:
- Base educational designs on scientific models of human learning. There's over a century's worth of relevant research (including work in Cognitive Neuroscience) that is hardly being used in educational practice. We need to start using it.
- Use technology to dramatically expand access to high-quality learning experiences while lowering cost. Today, we could basically create for every learner a "personal-tutor-in-a-box." Students could work at their own pace on a personalized curriculum. The system could collect rich data on student performance. Teachers could spend more time actually teaching.
- Stop arguing about what people think will work in education and start
experimentingobserving, acting, and sharing more systematically to determine what actually works. Simply apply scientific thinking to educational processes the same way we do to every other major domain of human endeavor like engineering, medicine, agriculture, and economics.
Wash. Rinse. Repeat.
Today, we have all of the components we need to make education much better. There is definitely a way. The question is, do we have the will to make it happen?