by Hap Aziz
Advances in modern medicine are really quite amazing, especially when one considers how far medical technology has come in the past few hundred years. What is significant is the level of integration and the significance of the impact of medical technology on the health industry of today. There are fundamental differences in the way medicine is practiced now compared to generations past, and these differences have resulted in obvious, dramatic, and verifiable improvements in health outcomes from the eradication of many diseases to the increase in the human life span.
In looking at the state of education, we don’t see the same degree of changes in the process, and we certainly do not see such increases or significant improvements in learning outcomes. While education has become more available across broad socio-economic groups here in the United States, for example, the argument cannot be made that students learn more quickly or more effectively than did students of generations past.
Consider the advances in medical diagnostic technologies over the centuries; back when the United States was just a collection of colonies, one might have been treated by a barber rather than a highly trained physician. Now, in the early 21st century, we have a multitude of different and impressive ways to examine the operation of the human body, determining the state of health and recommending or performing corrective measures if necessary to achieve optimal health.
Of course, the state of the medical profession wasn’t always like this, and our diagnostic tools and techniques were primarily dependent upon outputs. In other words, to know what was going on inside the body, we could only examine what came out of the body: blood, urine, hair, etc. By examining these outputs, early medical practitioners would come to some conclusions about what was going on inside the body, and then treatment would follow. While examining outputs is still an important technique in the diagnostic arsenal, the medical profession now has the tools to directly examine the functioning of the body itself, down to the component level in many areas. We can view in real-time the organs inside the body, such as the heart, the liver, lungs, and so on. There are even ways to image the brain in action.
So, about the brain in action. When it comes to diagnosing the operation of the brain in the area of learning and cognition, we are still very much in the era of original 13 colonies, figuratively speaking. To measure how an individual is learning or has learned particular content, educators examine the outputs: performance on tests, recitations of material, the composition of thoughts in written or oral form. These are the things that come out of the brain, but they give us little true indication whether or not the mind is functioning optimally. Even more so, we have little in the way of objective measures on what optimal performance is.
Some work, however, does exist, and it is driven primarily by high-stakes pragmatic needs. NASA, for example, has done research on the usefulness of neurofeedback (biofeedback) in facilitating greater focus levels for pilots (see here). Rather than examining the output of the brain in the form of pilot performance, NASA took a direct measure of brain activity and had the pilots work on modifying that activity in order to obtain the desired outcomes. This begs the question: can we actually influence brain activity to obtain better learning results?
In the interest of answering that question, NASA went further with the work. Researchers from NASA’s Langley Research Center and the Eastern Virginia Medical School in Virginia conducted a study to measure the effectiveness of traditional biofeedback techniques as well as biofeedback techniques as applied to video game play. The findings were that both uses of biofeedback resulted in significant improvements in “everyday brain-wave patterns, as well as in tests measuring attention span, impulsiveness, and hyperactivity.” I discuss the topic briefly here. Of great interest, however, is the fact that motivation was much greater among the video game playing test group. Plainly speaking, students would be more likely to participate and follow through with this type of training if it is associated with video game play. That should come as no great surprise.
Let us jump back to the state of education today. As educators, we examine outputs for evidence of learning, but we both lack the ability to directly measure brain operation, and we are unable to provide prescriptive instruction on how to improve brain operation. Nowhere is this demonstrated more keenly to me than when I work with my daughter on her homework. “Focus!” I’ll remind her. And all I have as indicators are the signs of distraction: where her eyes dart, how she sits, the cadence of her voice as she answers questions. So what does “focus” mean to her when I ask her to look at her paper and not dog running past the window? Do I have any assurance that she is optimally focused if she is looking at her paper, sitting up straight, and answering questions promptly? NASA’s research is very exciting in this area, and the findings can be applied to all learners, not just those with varying degrees of learning disabilities.
In his book The Society of Mind (Simon & Schuster, Inc, 1985), MIT Artificial Intelligence researcher Marvin Minsky writes about learning, the mind, thought, and intelligence in a series of essays, often using the field of AI to set up useful comparisons for the respective human attributes. This passage from the essay “Genius” (p. 80) is especially insightful and instructive:
I suspect that genius needs one thing more in order to accumulate outstanding qualities, one needs unusually effective ways to learn. It’s not enough to learn a lot, one also has to manage what one learns. Those masters have, beneath the surface of their mastery, some special knacks of “higher-order” expertise, which help them organize and apply the things they learn. It is those hidden tricks of mental management that produce the systems that create those works of genius. Why do certain people learn so many more and better skills? These all-important differences could begin with early accidents. One child works out clever ways to arrange some blocks in rows and stacks; a second child plays at rearranging how it thinks. Everyone can praise the first child’s castles and towers, but no one can see what the second child has done, and one may even get the false impression of a lack of industry. But if the second child persists in seeking better ways to learn, this can lead to silent growth in which some better ways to learn may lead to better ways to learn to learn. Then, later, we’ll observe an awesome, qualitative change, with no apparent cause–and give to it some empty names like talent, aptitude, or gift.
Consider what Minsky writes. As a foundation to mastery, there are some “special knacks” of expertise. There are “hidden tricks” that produce the systems leading to genius. The differences in learning could be attributed to “early accidents.” Knacks, tricks, and accidents are not words to indicate any real understanding of the learning process. After all, we are looking at outputs (castles and towers), but we have no systematic way in which to measure the silent growth that could ultimately lead to learning better ways to learn to learn. At least not yet.
Consider the amount of time students spend in school in the attempt to master a wide variety of subject areas. Now consider the amount of time our educational system spends in helping students prepare to be in the proper frame of mind for learning, as well as instruction on how to improve their learning strategies. If we are to believe Minsky (as I am inclined to do), we don’t even understand the internal mechanisms of how the brain learns to learn. We educators are the doctors of the 18th century. The path forward will include the development of better diagnostic tools to evaluate the operation and to provide accurate direction for the mind. Biofeedback techniques combined with video game technology is a small step in the right direction of developing a systematic method to improve the way we learn, but we still have a long way to go.