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The Design Failure in Education Today

When students do poorly in school and end up failing out, educators reflexively pin the problem on the students themselves. Most students don’t really care. Many of them don’t have the discipline it takes to succeed. Some are probably just not smart enough.

Problems with motivation, self-discipline, and intelligence are the three most common diagnoses (in descending order) that educators put on students who fail in school.

That last one is not typically shared outside the private space of teachers’ heads or the lounges where they gather and commiserate. But it must be a diagnostic option, right? What other possibilities are there?

In the field of higher ed, Math is one of those subjects where lots of students do poorly. Passing rates hover right now at under 50 percent, which means that less than half of students currently enrolled in a Math course will make it through. Colleges are scrambling to figure out what’s going on here. Certainly Math is more abstract and analytical than most subjects, making it difficult for students who may not have the “knack” for it.

Not having a strong Math intelligence doesn’t mean that students lack intelligence, however.

Current education theory identifies at least ten distinct types of intelligence, based on the research of psychologist Howard Gardner: logical-mathematical, verbal-linguistic, visual-spatial, musical-rhythmic, bodily-kinesthetic, interpersonal, intrapersonal (intuitive), naturalist, existential, and moral. So a student’s lower-than-average Math intelligence doesn’t mean that he or she is not intelligent in other ways.

It wouldn’t be reasonable, however, for educators to pass off student failure in Math (and other subjects where success rates are low) as an issue with the students themselves, without also looking closely at the system that’s failing students and the possibility of their own complicity as educators in the outcome. I’m not suggesting that blame needs to be shifted now from students to our schools and teachers. Surely there are responsibilities on both sides.

In this post I want to focus on the responsibility of schools and teachers in providing students with the instruction and support that will maximize their opportunities to succeed. Success here refers not merely to making it through the gauntlet of grades and courses, but to the progress in learning that leads to genuine understanding.

My observations are that students are not being adequately prepared for their compulsory ascent from one level to the next.

To get the key ideas into focus, my diagram offers a simplified schematic of a student’s climb through grade or course levels, arriving at the “current” level after having passed through a “former” level, and on his or her way to the “next” level of instruction. Each level (grade or course) is accountable for a portion of the general curriculum that students need to learn before moving on. The green ascending line represents the intended progress of learning, as students build their knowledge, grow in understanding, and are able to apply what they learn in increasingly complex ways.

Before students arrived at the current level, they had to take a class designed to prepare them with the prerequisite knowledge and skills. The angle of that green line depicts what I’m calling the “challenge gradient” elevating students from one level to the next. It goes without saying that students need to learn things they don’t already know, and the difficulty (challenge) of the new material needs to be within what the Soviet psychologist Lev Vygotsky called their “zone of proximal development.” In other words, they need to be prepared and ready for it.

If the challenge gradient is too great (depicted by a red line turned 90° into a vertical wall) students are not able to progress but instead give up in despair. An example from Math would be holding a fifth-grader who is just getting the handle on arithmetic accountable for learning calculus. There’s a good deal of Math competency in between (e.g., algebra) that applies arithmetic in more complex ways and prepares the student for success at the more abstract conceptual levels. For our fifth-grader, the complexity of calculus would be a wall blocking his or her progress in learning Math.

At the other extreme, the challenge gradient might be virtually zero (depicted by a flat grey line). In this case, students get bored quickly with instruction and the material doesn’t engage them. Consequently their learning fails to progress and they can’t move on to the next level.

You should be asking, “But why would the challenge gradient of a given course be set so low? Don’t educators want students to progress in their learning?”

I’ve reflected on this question in other posts, so here my answer will be shockingly straightforward. In recent decades schools and teachers are more interested in getting students through the system than in properly educating them. And they have done this by putting in place an array of accommodations which effectively lower the challenge gradient and make it more likely (even certain) that students will pass from one level to the next.

As a consequence of over-accommodation, students are arriving at course or grade levels under-prepared. They lack the requisite knowledge and skills for successfully meeting the challenge of learning higher-level material. But teachers and schools can’t start holding students back now, since funding and salaries are determined on the basis of student retention, persistence, and graduation rates.

So the broken process continues, and this is the design failure in education today.

How should it work? How can schools and teachers realign themselves with the critical mandate of education, which is to awaken, develop, enlighten and empower students in becoming skilled professionals, responsible citizens, and life-long learners?

Let’s go back to my diagram.

As students begin a “current” level of instruction, the teacher requires them to complete a formative assessment that will identify where each student is as to his or her level of prerequisite understanding. Formative assessments are not about grades, but rather provide instructors with valuable feedback to help them get a clear idea of where students are. Only then can instruction be delivered that will match each student’s zone of proximal development.

It’s imperative, then, that a teacher “level sets” his or her instruction to what students bring to the table.

The ultimate goal of instruction is to “level up” students so they will be course-ready for the next level. The slope of the challenge gradient needs to be calibrated – and frequently adjusted – so that students stay engaged and are stretched to learn. Staying with my earlier example, because not all students in a given Math class are equally proficient in math, a quality teacher will provide the necessary “scaffolding” to support each student’s progress in learning.

It’s important to understand that scaffolding is not an accommodation and does not lower the overall challenge gradient. Instead, it implements the type of personalized support that keeps students engaged and moving forward.

Colleges – particularly community colleges – are presently on a challenge gradient of their own, as they enroll students who come underprepared from high schools that were pressured to continue (and increase) the schedule of accommodations those same students were given in grade school.

Upstream is also back in time, and everyone knows you can’t change the past. These students are products of a broken system, but we don’t have to keep doing things the same way. There is hope for them as well.

The larger and lasting solution can’t rest on the colleges alone. Our education system needs to recover its mandate and renew its purpose in nurturing intelligence, shaping minds, and raising leaders to the new realities of our day.

 
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Posted by on February 7, 2020 in Education

 

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How Schools Make The Problem Worse

In the field of higher education where I work as a manager of instructional support, a priority has been placed on “critical thinking” as the skill-set graduates most need in order to be productive at work. Consequently, it is the one thing that instructors are expected to teach and test for in their students. Just as graduates who can’t think critically presumably won’t be successful in the world, students who can’t demonstrate this ability on standardized assessments aren’t allowed to succeed in school.

Yes, I do mean to say that they aren’t allowed to succeed, since the system either penalizes creative thinking outright or else refuses to recognize it as a legitimate pathway of intellectual development.

My concern here is not over the institutional prejudice in our schools against creative thinking, but rather over the damage that our methods of teaching and testing for critical thinking are actually causing. Despite our stepped-up efforts at inculcating these skills in students, they just aren’t getting it.

The tactic up to this point has been to push even harder: test more frequently, set up interventions and accommodations that will improve test outcomes, and pressure instructors to stay up on new techniques as student academic performance continues to slide in the wrong direction. Everyone is more anxious, and the desired results keep eluding us.

This is what I’m calling “the problem.” It includes not only the fact that success and graduation rates are falling, but the way schools are actually making it worse in their attempts to stop the leak and improve outcomes.

Briefly stated, it is the combined assault of assessment pressures on students and institutional pressures on teachers, along with an increase in accommodations to help students pass and interventions to keep them from failing, that is making the problem worse.

In the bigger picture, which I’ll try to develop here, it is all fueled by a fundamental misunderstanding of critical thinking by the schools themselves, and the various ways they actively undermine the very thing they are demanding from students.

I should say that this misunderstanding is not really about which skills comprise the skill-set of critical thinking, but rather how the skill-set itself depends on a deeper system of other skills not directly addressed in formal education. Schools simply assume that students come to the task with this deeper support in place, and it is this assumption – along with many of the methods, strategies and tactics employed to make critical thinking stronger – that is making the problem worse.

What is this deeper system? My diagram illustrates its components and their relationships in the model of a pyramid. Each layer or stage of the pyramid depends on those underneath, as it provides the necessary support to stages higher up. Critical thinking is indeed at the apex of skills that students need to learn in school, but ignoring and jumping past the other skills on which it depends, in the effort to make it stronger, is predictably having the opposite effect.

With a general understanding of this structural dynamic among the cognitive skills now in place, let’s begin at the base and work our way up.

We’ll start with what should be obvious: Students are more successful at the academic challenge of higher learning when their brains are optimized (i.e., functioning optimally). Of all the body’s organs, this one is most profoundly implicated in the process of learning new skills and building knowledge. And yet, just as we can’t treat critical thinking in isolation from the other cognitive skills, we can’t ignore the fact that a healthy and optimized brain depends on a healthy body.

If students come to the challenge of learning when they are tired, hungry, in pain or stressed-out, their brains can’t perform well. They won’t be able to concentrate attention and sustain focus. They won’t be able to bundle information and store it in memory for retrieval later when they need it. They won’t be able to discriminate between highly similar concepts or solve complex problems.

A brain that can’t focus, remember, or make judgments is a brain that won’t be able to think critically – no matter how hard we push it. In fact, the harder such a brain is pushed, the more degraded these cognitive abilities become.

The most important thing for students and schools to realize, then, is that the entire business of higher learning is an enterprise scheduled for failure if students – but let’s also include school teachers and administrators! – are not committed to getting the rest, nutrition, exercise, and meditation their bodies and brains require to successfully meet the challenges they face.

Are we teaching this in our schools, from the beginning grades and throughout students’ educational careers? The answer is decidedly “No.”

Students who are tired, hungry, in pain or stressed-out simply cannot learn, or will have difficulty learning. Which begs the question: If they can’t learn and end up getting poor grades on assignments and assessments, what exactly are those grades measuring?

Neuroscience has discovered that a majority of the skills required in learning are located in a highly specialized brain region called the prefrontal cortex (PFC) – behind the forehead and between the eyes. A fully functioning PFC, then, is the virtue of an optimized brain, which in turn is the virtue of a healthy body. Health is the foundation of everything else.

It will help to imagine a student about to engage the work of critical thinking while sitting at a desk in a study with a door. When she first sits down to her work, the door to the study is open to the noise and activity in the hallway outside. Inevitably – and with scientific certainty we can say, predictably – her focus will be attracted away (or distracted) from the work in front of her.

What she needs to do is get up from her desk, walk over to the study door, and close it. That way, she will minimize the risk of getting distracted from her work.

One of the more basic executive functions of the PFC is named impulse inhibition. As a cognitive skill it can be strengthened with practice, just like every other skill. If we think of the student’s study room on the analogy of her brain, then this all-important function serves to suppress or screen out nerve impulses coming to the brain from her body and its environment, in order that attention can be focused where it needs to be.

When the skill of impulse inhibition is strong, the student is able to maintain mental focus, our second (and higher) executive function of the PFC. In addition to her commitment to nurturing a healthy body and brain, her consistent practice of “closing the door” and protecting the mental space of her study will dramatically elevate the likelihood of her success in learning. By directing and holding focus on what needs her attention, the student will be able to engage the work of critical thinking.

As we advance our reflections from the door (impulse inhibition) and the study room itself (mental focus), we come to the “desk” where critical thinking will need to happen. Among the cognitive skills and executive functions of the prefrontal cortex, this is what neuroscience names short-term memory, or more commonly working memory. Think of this as the workspace (hence a desk) where the student collects and manipulates bits of data in her progress towards understanding.

Working memory enables her to hold on average seven bits of information for somewhere between 20 and 30 seconds – just long enough to perform the requisite logical operations involved in critical thinking.

Just as impulse inhibition and mental focus are reciprocally related (each strengthening the other), so are the cognitive skills of concept formation and critical thinking similarly related. A simple way of distinguishing these higher executive functions is to define critical thinking as the performance of logical operations on the concepts it is forming. And so, each skill strengthens the other as concepts are formed, factored, and reconstructed in the process of understanding.

The eight logical operations of critical thinking are:

  1. Analysis: from whole to parts
  2. Synthesis: from parts to whole
  3. Induction: from specific to general
  4. Deduction: from general to specific
  5. Abstraction: from example to idea
  6. Concretion: from idea to example
  7. Inference: from premise to conclusion
  8. Prediction: from cause to outcome

It’s important for students to distinguish these logical operations from the concepts they are trying to learn. Critical thinking is thus “how” their minds work on “what” they are learning. Mastering the eight operations of critical thinking is to possess the ability for constructing meaning at higher levels of complexity. This shows us that critical thinking and creative thinking are not independent of each other after all, but intimately connected and complementary.

Stepping back for the bigger picture again, we can see that critical thinking is not something we can treat in isolation, but is rather nested in a deeper system of cognitive skills. And because cognitive skills correlate directly to the executive functions of the prefrontal cortex, we must eventually return our conversation to the crucial responsibility of schools in helping students appreciate how healthy bodies and brains translate into academic success.

As long as they keep pushing on the problem, schools will just keep making it worse.

 
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Posted by on December 17, 2018 in Education

 

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Quadratic Intelligence

RQBack before the mid-twentieth century, educational psychologists grabbed hold of a notion that human intelligence could be measured. The so-called “intelligence quotient” was hailed as a way of diagnosing an individual’s intellectual aptitude; not just how smart he or she was but how capable the individual was of getting smart.

Inevitably, given the fact that Western science and psychology was riding the Cartesian-Newtonian wave of rationalism and the promise of mathematical reasoning (proving so successful in science, technology, and engineering), the IQ test favored operations of analysis, computation, logical abstraction, and problem solving.

Those who scored high on the IQ test were matched with better education (who wants to waste resources on just average or below-average abilities?), more opportunities, and higher paying jobs. After all, we need smart people running The Show, not mediocre intellects and irrational idiots who will certainly botch things up and send us all hurtling into oblivion. Parents would proudly publish the exceptional IQs of their children on bumper stickers and any chance they got.

In light of more recent discoveries and advances in psychology and neuroscience, I propose that the classical “IQ” be renamed “RQ,” for rational intelligence, since the category really only measures one type of intelligence and not intelligence overall.

EQIn 1995 Daniel Goleman published a theory of “emotional intelligence,” which he claimed underlies these rational-mathematical operations with social and interpersonal competencies that orbit closer to the core of the self. Studies had been going on for some time, researching the benefits of emotion regulation in infants and young children.

These studies convincingly demonstrated the critical importance of emotional intelligence. Goleman made his case that emotional intelligence matters “even more” than IQ when it comes not only to academic success but to a general proficiency in life.

In the meantime, Goleman’s “EQ” (shorthand for emotional quotient) has slowly made its way into the conversation of education theory, resulting in some changes in how teachers teach, how students learn, where the curriculum can be improved, and why an “enriched” learning environment is essential to successful education. Despite these changes – and by no means have they been deep and systemic changes to the dominant paradigm – our schools continue to favor IQ over EQ when it comes down to rendering a diagnosis (called a grade) on individual intelligence.

Because I work in higher education, this whole topic fascinates me. I can see far-reaching implications for a broader notion of intelligence – if only education theorists, school administrators, and classroom instructors are willing to challenge long-standing assumptions. As change is often costly, a major challenge will be identifying new funding sources and resource channels. As far as changes to the public education system are concerned, because state legislatures typically under-support teacher salaries, school facilities, curriculum development, and technology updates, the changes we’re talking about are going to be hard-won.

SQIn 2000 Danah Zohar and Ian Marshall published Spiritual Intelligence: The Ultimate Intelligence, which the authors argued adds a third dimension to the already recognized IQ and EQ. Spiritual intelligence (SQ) gives individuals the ability to transcend the emotional and logical constructs of meaning where our beliefs about reality are held, expanding awareness into higher (and deeper) dimensions of reality as well as creative possibility.

The authors carefully distinguished between spiritual intelligence and religious belief, explaining that while doctrines might be rational descriptions of an experience (i.e., a product of RQ), dogmatically holding and defending them can be evidence in fact that spiritual intelligence is not (or no longer) active.

Rational intelligence, even when balanced and enriched by emotional intelligence, can still be very much about short-term and proximate values, while spiritual intelligence opens awareness to the Big Picture and Long View where we can contemplate our existence and the consequences of our actions on a much larger scale.

Zohar and Marshall proposed that the addition of SQ to EQ and IQ made for a complete and comprehensive model of human intelligence. But something still seems to be missing. What about the autonomic nervous system, which is continuously regulating our body’s internal state and matching it to the ever-changing life situations unfolding around us? What about what we commonly call “gut responses” and our animal intuition? The drives and reflexes of instinct, though carrying on below the threshold of conscious intention or control, certainly represent a distinct type of intelligence.

VQ

Our visceral intelligence – what I’ll name VQ – is much deeper and more ancient than the three others. It manages our underlying mood, our rest and arousal, the tonal energy state of our internal organs, muscles, and skin. It is the survival and evolutionary intelligence of our animal nature.

Coming back to education, it is clear that the internal states of students and teachers – whether they are calm, present, and grounded, or agitated, anxious, or bored – will have predictable consequences on learning as it rises into conscious feelings (EQ) and articulate thoughts (RQ). Much of present-day education is focused on the transfer of rational knowledge and skills from experts (teachers) to novices (students), for the most part disregarding the quality of EQ rapport between both or the VQ internal state of each.

So let’s put it all together, in what we might call the “quadratic intelligence” of human beings (from quad, meaning four). Our greater system of intelligence, then, is four-dimensional, and each type (VQ, EQ, RQ, and SQ) engages us with reality in a unique and special way.

Quadratic Intelligence

In the model above, a human brain is facing you, which means that the right and left hemispheres are opposite to yours. Popular theory identifies autonomic processes (VQ) with the brainstem, emotional feeling (EQ) with the “right brain,” and rational thinking (RQ) with the “left brain” – which isn’t altogether wrong, just too simplistic to be useful in any rigorous sense. Our brain is more a nested hierarchy of neural projections, circuits, and networks, having evolved through distinct stages of development represented in the brainstem (a “reptilian” stage), an outlying limbic system (the “old mammalian” stage), and a cerebral cortex with its distinct lobes of specialized processing.

My model suggests that EQ and RQ (which actually develop and come online in that order) are deeply reliant on VQ for the supportive internal state they need to function effectively. And, as Goleman says, since RQ is at its best when EQ is operating empathically underneath and alongside it, we are getting the sense that these first three intelligences are profoundly interdependent.

By telling stories and concocting theories (RQ) we can alter how we feel about ourselves and the world around us (EQ), effecting deep changes in our prevailing mood (VQ). On the balance, however, most of the time our passions (EQ) and reasons (RQ) are taking their cues from the energetic tone of our nervous state (VQ) and composing interpretations of reality that match it.

But where does spiritual intelligence (SQ) fit into the model? Should we simply follow the trajectory of development from VQ through EQ to RQ and assume that SQ is just a further extension of our rational intelligence? Since RQ is about organizing symbols in meaningful patterns, we might expect that SQ will capitalize on this propensity for constructing meaning and “talk about” spiritual (i.e., metaphysical) things like gods, souls, heaven and hell.

But not so.

SQ is positioned in my model between and above EQ and RQ, transcending both passion and reason to a point of higher awareness where a larger and longer horizon is beheld all at once. This is the perspective of wisdom. I agree wholeheartedly with Zohar and Marshall that spiritual intelligence is not to be identified with an individual’s religious commitment or theological fluency. Instead of getting tangled up with religiosity, SQ is what gives one the ability to see past our idols, myths, doctrines, and beliefs to the present mystery of reality (or Real Presence of Mystery).

By grounding us in being-itself – most immediately by a meditative practice of some kind that calms the body (VQ) and opens a clearing at the center of awareness – our spiritual intelligence enables us to rise above and break past the convictions that the religions frequently exploit to their advantage by compelling conversion, pushing membership, persuading donations, organizing crusades and justifying terrorist campaigns in God’s name.

We realize in an instant that All is One, that we’re in this together, that a shared and hopeful future ordains us with the responsibility of living for the good of the whole.

 

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