The three previous columns focused on recent proposals about the roles of prediction, intuition, and wisdom in intelligent thought and behavior. This column will focus on the role of formal education in the development of intelligence.
Human consciousness allows us to go beyond the here and now when we confront challenges. Our brain has a complex memory that allows us to learn from previous challenges, and predictive capabilities that allow us to imagine what might occur in various situations. In other words, we can go backward and forward in time in order to survive and thrive in the present.
Intelligence then is predicated on our ability to rapidly ascertain the elements implicit in a challenge, respond with a predictively successful novel or established strategy, and incorporate what we’ve learned through experience into an increasingly successful recognition/response capability that we call wisdom.
Education in a Simple Society
In a simple society, adults use an apprenticeship model to prepare the young for adult challenges. Young people observe and assist their elders at work, and gradually assume greater responsibility as their skills improve. Eventually the apprentice runs the enterprise and the mentor plays the supportive role. It’s an effective means of blending the generational waxing and waning of survival skills.
A central value of this model is that the apprentice becomes intimately aware of all the production stages, and informally observes the mentor’s acquired wisdom in the process. Our brain’s capacity for intelligence (identified above) thus determined the educative apprentice model that emerged.
Education in a Complex Society
In our complex society, many living necessities are produced beyond the immediate neighborhood. Understanding shopping and shipping (rather than production) thus becomes central, and much human interaction is indirect and distant. Many (and especially the young) have no direct awareness of production components and stages. Objects arrive assembled and packaged. The apprentice sharpens the knife so the master can cut or carve. The processed cheese in today’s snack pack is pre-sliced (and the nature and origin of the incomprehensible ingredients are often a mystery).
An informal apprenticeship seemed a less appropriate educational model for an increasingly complex society. The formal school that emerged focused on the skills and knowledge necessary for social interaction rather than on practical production skills. Indeed, curricula that actually produce something (such as the arts) became vulnerable, and assessment focused more on knowing the correct response to a question the school posed than on the cognitive processes the student used to develop the response—or on the student’s ability to identify significant problems.
Cultural and educational models will only work if our brain can comprehend them, and/or create technologies that can extend comprehension and performance beyond our biological limitations. When it thus became culturally advantageous to produce materials in one location for use elsewhere, the efficient movement of information and materials became essential. The development of transportation technologies and a 3 R’s curriculum thus made sense in an era in which folks had to learn how to precisely communicate needs and compute quantities to those who lived elsewhere. Further, folks had to know all about elsewhere if they were going to interact with it.
Education in an Information Society
That traditional school curriculum is still germane to a 21st century curriculum, but a 21st century student will live in an even more complex society than the current one, and so it’s important that the 21st century curricula enhance our innate predictive and intuitive capabilities, with a hope that this can lead us towards adult wisdom.
An example of an emerging issue: Print information is cumbersome, slow, and expensive—and so it must communicate credibility to those who will make the effort to use it. Conversely, electronic information is simpler, faster, and cheaper—and so it’s much easier to develop and distribute. The consumer has thus had to assume an increasing responsibility for determining the credibility of electronic information (such as via talk radio and the Internet).
The 20th century school assumed credibility in the print materials it used. The 21st century school must teach students how to ascertain credibility in an almost Orwellian era replete with misleading statistical information and cynical marketing strategies. Electronic predators of all stripes have emerged.
I don’t know how educators will eventually respond to this incredible challenge, but I’m optimistic that they will. My optimism emerges out of my professional observation of the manner in which educators embraced and explored the then revolutionary concept of multiple intelligences when it emerged full blown a quarter of a century ago.
The interpretations of educators ranged from the insipid to the inspired. The resulting Learning Styles Movement proposed a wide variety of systematic applications, and individual teachers informally explored the concept with their students. What emerged a quarter of a century later hasn’t been all that bad, even if it’s really not all that good. What’s especially good is that few educators today view intelligence as a unitary cognitive property, and most do their best to explore its limits in a much broader sense of curriculum than had existed earlier.
What’s perhaps bad from a teacher’s perspective is that just as teachers are getting closer to the gist of the concept of multiple intelligences, tantalizing new ideas about intelligence emerge, such as those introduced in this series of columns. And like Multiple Intelligences, these perspectives will once again force the education profession to rethink its current beliefs and practices.
How professionally marvelous!