Dear President Bush,
Your father called himself "the education president," and you have promised new educational policies in which "no child is left behind." These affirmations of the centrality of education in a modern democracy are admirable. As our economy comes to depend increasingly on technology, and as modern media present us with unprecedented choices – in our lifestyles, our workplaces, and our political commitments – a child who cannot master an ever-increasing body of skills and knowledge will be left farther and farther behind.
Unfortunately, the goals of the Presidents Bush are not being realized. Most debates about education in this country focus on issues of administration: vouchers, charter schools, class size, teachers’ unions, budgets, high-stakes testing. Fewer have focused on the actual process of education: how events in the classroom affect the minds of the pupils. This is an area in which science – in particular, the sciences of mind – can make crucial contributions.
Your immediate predecessor was enthusiastic about applying research on the brain to education and child development. But as exciting as the field of basic neuroscience is, I suspect it will provide few insights into the process of education. All learning must change the brain, but the changes at the level of brain cells are pretty much the same in all complex organisms -- including mice, which don’t learn to read, write, or add. It is the patterns of changes across billions of neurons that determine the distinctively human forms of learning that face us in the classroom, and to understand them we need to understand how intact human beings perceive, think, and act. These topics are the province of the sciences of mind, particularly cognitive science, psychology, cognitive neuroscience, behavioral genetics, and evolutionary psychology, must be brought to bear on education in a more systematic way than has happened so far.
First and foremost, we must apply a scientific mindset to the educational process. People outside of the educational establishment are often shocked to learn how little in instructional practice has been evaluated using the standard paraphernalia of social science–control groups, random assignment, data collection, statistics. Instead, classroom practice is set by fads, romantic theories, slick packages, and political crusades. We already know that some methods of teaching reading work better than others; we need more of these assessments, and faster implementations of what works into classroom settings.
Second, the sciences of mind can provide a sounder conception of human nature, which ultimately underlies all educational policy. What is the mind of a child inherently good at? What is it bad at? Without answers to such fundamental questions we will be groping at random or plunging headlong in wrong directions. An emerging view is that the human mind is impressively competent at problems that were recurring challenges to our evolutionary ancestors – seeing and moving, speaking and listening, reading emotions and intentions, making friends and influencing people. It is not so good at problems that are far simpler (as gauged by what we can program a computer to do, for example) but which are posed only by a modern way of life: reading and writing, doing mathematical calculations, understanding the world of science or the mechanics of a complex society. If so, this has obvious applications for education, both positive and negative. We should not make false analogies that assume that children can learn to write as easily as they learn to speak, that learning math can be as fun as learning to run and throw, or that children in groups will learn to do science as readily as they learn to exchange gossip. On the other hand we can try to co-opt the mental faculties that work well (such as understanding how objects fall and roll) and get children to apply them to problems for which they lack natural competence.
Third, we can use an understanding of the mind to set priorities in education at all levels. The goal of education should be to provide students with the cognitive tools that are most important for grasping the modern world and that are most unlike the cognitive tools they are born with. Observers from our best science writers to Jay Leno are frequently appalled by the innumeracy, factual ignorance, and scientific illiteracy of typical Americans. This has implications in countless areas of the public and private spheres – for example, when people fall victim to scam artists and irrational exuberance in their investments, when they squander their money and health on medical and nutritional flim-flam, and when they misunderstand the advantages and disadvantages of a market economy in their political decisions. The obvious cure for these fallacies is enhanced education in relatively new fields such as economics, biology, and probability and statistics. Unfortunately, most high-school and college curricula have barely changed since medieval times, and are barely changeable, because no one wants to be the philistine who seems to be saying that it is unimportant to learn a foreign language, or English literature, or trigonometry, or the classics. But no matter how valuable a subject may be, there are only twenty-four hours in a day, and a decision to teach one subject is also a decision not to teach another one. The question is not whether trigonometry is important, but whether it is more important than statistics; not whether an educated person should know the classics, but whether it is more important for an educated person to know the classics than to know elementary economics. In a world whose complexities are constantly challenging our intuitions, these tradeoffs cannot responsibly be avoided.
Peter de Florez Professor of Psychology
Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences
Author of The Language Instinct, How the Mind Works, Words and Rules, and The Blank Slate.