AMBRIDGE, Mass. — The scant mention of
education in President Bush's State of the Union address
suggests that the administration feels its work on the subject
is done, at least for now. Last year's sweeping bill was a
significant achievement, but as with most federal initiatives,
it dealt primarily with administrative issues like financing
and achievement tests. Little attention was given to the
actual process of education: how events in the classroom
affect the minds of the students.
Yet a bit of White House leadership might encourage
educators and scientists to apply a better understanding of
thinking and learning to what happens in the classroom. Bill
Clinton, in fact, did show some enthusiasm for this approach —
particularly research on the brain. But as exciting as
neuroscience is, I suspect it will provide little
enlightenment about education. All learning changes the brain,
but the changes at the level of brain cells are similar in all
complex organisms — including mice, which don't learn to read,
write or add.
Rather, it is the patterns of changes across billions of
neurons that determine the distinctively human forms of
learning in the classroom. To understand these patterns, we
need to apply insights from cognitive science, behavioral
genetics and evolutionary and developmental psychology.
An important place to start might be in working to apply a
scientific mindset to education itself — that is, to determine
as best we can whether various beliefs about educational
effectiveness are true. Classroom practice is often guided by
romantic theories, slick packages and political crusades. Few
practices have been evaluated using the paraphernalia of
social science, such as data collection and control groups. We
already know that some methods of reading instruction work
better than others, yet many schools still use methods proved
ineffective like "whole language" techniques.
The sciences of the mind can also provide a sounder
conception of what the mind of a child is inherently good and
bad at. Our minds are impressively competent at problems that
were challenges to our evolutionary ancestors: speaking and
listening, reading emotions and intentions, making friends and
influencing people. They are not so good at problems that are
far simpler (as gauged by what a computer can do) but which
are posed by modern life: reading and writing, calculation,
understanding how complex societies work. We should not assume
that children can learn to write as easily as they learn to
speak, or that children in groups will learn science as
readily as they learn to exchange gossip. Educators must
figure out how to co-opt the faculties that work effortlessly
and to get children to apply them to problems at which they
lack natural competence.
Finally, a better understanding of the mind can lead to
setting new priorities as to what is taught. The goal of
education should be to provide students with new cognitive
tools for grasping the world. Observers from our best
scientists to Jay Leno are appalled by the scientific
illiteracy of typical Americans. This obliviousness leads
people to squander their health on medical flimflam and to
misunderstand the strengths and weaknesses of a market economy
in their political choices.
The obvious solution is instruction at all levels in
relatively new fields like economics, evolutionary biology and
statistics. Yet most curriculums are set in stone, because no
one wants to be the philistine who seems to be saying that it
is unimportant to learn a foreign language or the classics.
But there are only 24 hours in a day, and a decision to teach
one subject is a decision not to teach another. The question
is not whether trigonometry is important — it is — but whether
it is more important than probability; not whether an educated
person should know the classics, but whether it is more
important to know the classics than elementary economics.
This is not just a question of "relevance" to everyday
life; these fields are as rigorous and fundamental as those in
traditional curriculums. Nor is it a question of tradition
being bad and innovation good — many fad movements are just as
evasive about setting priorities. Even if learning music were
shown to enhance math skills, that doesn't mean it is as
effective as the same number of hours spent learning math.
In a world with complexities that constantly challenge the
abilities nature gave us, serious thinking about trade-offs in
education cannot be responsibly avoided — by scientists,
educators or policy makers.
Steven Pinker, professor of cognitive science at
Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is author of "The Blank
Slate: The Modern Denial of Human