2001 : WHAT QUESTIONS HAVE DISAPPEARED?

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Founding Dean, Minerva Schools at the Keck Graduate Institute
How do people differ in the ways they think and learn?

Most Americans, even (or, perhaps, especially) educated Americans, seem to believe that all people are basically the same ‹ we have the same innate abilities and capacities, and only hard work and luck separates those who are highly skilled from those who are not. But this idea is highly implausible. People differ along every other dimension, from the size of their stomachs and shoes to the length of their toes and tibias. They even differ in the sizes of their brains. So, why shouldn't they also differ in their abilities and capacities? Of course, the answer is that they do. It's time to acknowledge this fact and take advantage of it.

In my view, the 21st century is going to be the "Century of Personalization." No more off-the-rack drugs: Gene and proteonomic chips will give readouts for each person, allowing drugs to be tailored to their individual physiologies. No more off-the-rack clothes: For example, you'll stick your feet in a box, lasers will measure every aspect of them, and shoes will be custom-made according to your preferred style. Similarly, no more off-the-rack teaching.

Specifically, the first step is to diagnose individual differences in cognitive abilities and capacities, so we can play to a given person's strengths and avoid falling prey to his or her weaknesses. But in order to characterize these differences, we first need to understand at least the broad outlines of general mechanisms that are common to the species.

All of us have biceps and triceps, but these muscles differ in their strength. So too with our mental muscles. All of us have a short-term memory, for example (in spite of how it may sometimes feel at the end of the day), and all of us are capable storing information in long-term memory. Differences among people in part reflect differences in the efficacy of such mechanisms. For example, there are at least four distinct ways that visual/spatial information can be processed (which I'm not going to go into here), and people differ in their relative abilities on each one. Presenting the same content in different ways will invite different sorts of processing, which will be more or less congenial for a given person.

But there's more to it than specifying mechanisms and figuring out how well people can use them (as daunting as that is). Many of the differences in cognitive abilities and capacities probably reflect how mechanisms work together and when they are recruited. Understanding such differences will tell us how to organize material so that it goes down smoothly. For example, how--for a given person-should examples and general principles be intermixed?

And, yet more. We aren't bloodless brains floating in vats, soaking up information pumped into us. Rather, it's up to us to decide what to pay attention to, and what to think about. Thus, it's no surprise that people learn better when they are motivated. We need to know how a particular student should be led to use the information during learning. For example, some people may "get" physics only when it's taught in the context of auto mechanics.

All of this implies that methods of teaching in the 21st Century will be tightly tied to research in cognitive psychology and cognitive neuroscience. At present, the study of individual differences is almost entirely divorced from research on general mechanisms. Even if this is remedied, it's going to be a challenge to penetrate the educational establishment and have this information put to use. So, the smart move will probably be to do an end-run around this establishment, using computers to tutor children individually outside of school. This in turn raises the specter of another kind of Digital Divide. Some of us may in fact still get off-the-rack education.

Finally, I'll leave aside another set of questions no one seems to be seriously asking: What should be taught? And should the same material be taught to everyone? You can imagine why this second question isn't being asked, but it's high time we seriously considered making the curriculum relevant for the 21st Century.

STEPHEN M. KOSSLYN, a full professor of psychology at Harvard at age 34, is a researcher focusing primarily on the nature of visual mental imagery. His books include Image and Mind, Ghosts in the Mind's Machine, Wet Mind: The New Cognitive Neuroscience, Image and Brain: The Resolution of the Imagery Debate, and Psychology: The Brain, the Person, the World.