New Horizons

Basic research has provided educators with new wings;
the time has come to use them

One of the articles in Transforming Education (IC#18)
Originally published in Winter 1988 on page 6
Copyright (c)1988, 1997 by Context Institute


Dee Dickinson is one of our Guest Editors for this issue. She has been an administrator, a teacher on all levels, from pre-school through university, and she has produced several series of programs for education television. In 1980, she founded New Horizons for Learning, an international educational network, and continues as its dynamic coordinator and editor of its newsletter,
On the Beam. She is currently writing a book on the subject of this article.

New Horizons for Learning is organizing a major conference that will include many of the authors in this issue as presenters. "The Coming Education Explosion" will be held at George Mason University, Fairfax, VA, on June 25-29, 1988. For more information on NHFL and this conference, please see "Resources" in this issue or contact NHFL, 4649 Sunnyside North, Seattle, WA 98103 or 206/547-7936.

– Robert Gilman

"Now let’s make the number 52!" The teacher moved around the tables as eight second grade students worked busily and happily with colorful plastic "pop-it" blocks. Most of them eagerly began putting five rows of ten blocks on the blue, left side of the paper on the table before them, and two blocks, or what the teacher called "bops", on the right, white side.

At first, Mary worked busily, but apparently without much understanding of the task. I watched as sometimes the students around the tables helped each other, or as the teacher gently moved Mary’s blocks to show her how to form the correct answer.

"How many have the right answer?" the teacher would ask after each new number had been formed correctly by all eight students. Eight hands, including Mary’s waved in the air. During my brief visit, I saw the students exploring their intelligence visually, kinesthetically, auditorily, in groups as well as independently. All were experiencing success in learning and growing in confidence and speed. These "low achieving" students experienced no humiliation, no frustration, but a happy and solid sense of accomplishment.

It was in a crowded, inner-city public school that I observed this small class of students gaining assurance as successful learners. Integrating many of the strategies you will read about in this issue, Montlake Elementary School in Seattle has been creatively restructured, with no extra funds, through the collaborative efforts of the principal, teachers, parents, and students. It is but one example of a new approach to education that has the potential to meet the challenge raised in the previous article, and more deeply, the challenge of creating an educational system that can meet the needs of the 21st century.

NEW PROGRAMS

A rapidly growing number of schools and informal educational programs are demonstrating the effects of successful teaching and successful learning through expanding and integrating many strategies that actively involve the whole student.

Along with students performing at and above grade level as measured by standardized test scores, these programs are notable in their positive environments, high morale, and shared decision-making and collaboration among students and teachers.

They are different from one another, however, in creating diverse programs to meet the needs of their own students. Most of them demonstrate a unique synthesis and integration of format, structure, and instructional methods from many different sources.

In this issue of IN CONTEXT you will read articles by significant contributors of effective methods of learning as well as those who are applying them in educational settings which attend to the intellectual, emotional, physical, and social needs of their students.

PAST MOVEMENTS

To clarify what is different about this new direction and what distinguishes it from the past, let’s look back over some of the major trends of the last thirty years. Often these were marked pendulum swings in reaction to educational systems perceived as ineffective or worse.

In the fifties there was a great deal of creative experimentation in the name of exploring ways to develop individuality. Sometimes freedom was confused with license, and sometimes chaos and confusion reigned in the name of creativity. Yet often students learned through creative processes that remained with them to use productively throughout their lives. In the midst of much controversy over experimental teaching methods, Sputnik shot into the atmosphere.

Confronted by a real need to catch up with the scholarly and technological successes of other countries, academic pressure mounted. In the early sixties, a new swing back to "Rigor" emphasized content, especially in math and science, and even though various new strategies were developed to teach those subjects more effectively, the testing still focused only on content, i.e., the right answers.

By the seventies, college and high school students as well as humanistically oriented teachers reacted strongly to the pressure, and the result was another pendulum swing to an educational smorgasbord and renewed emphasis on process. An expanded array of innovative and sometimes controversial courses were offered as a means to the discovery of "Self". Test scores began dropping.

The decline in test scores did not result solely from lack of emphasis on basic skills, however. There were other forces at work. During the past two decades, a very different population has entered classrooms, including more non-English speaking children, more students with many kinds of physical, mental, and emotional handicaps mainstreamed into classrooms, more students from fragmented homes, more students passively involved in watching more hours of television than in active pursuits, and students of all ages who are constantly made aware through their own experiences as well as through the media of the insecurities and threats of our time.

The test score news triggered the publication in 1983 of The Nation at Risk, along with hundreds of other reports sharply critical of the current state of education. In the eighties, there has been a marked pendulum swing "back to basics", time on task, and greater emphasis on content. And now the test scores are rising in the basic skills of reading, writing, and mathematics – but not in every respect. Scores in many studies show decline in comprehension, problem solving, and practical application. Many students simply cannot apply what they have learned.

NEW THEORY AND RESEARCH

Given this past history, it is important to note that the new approach to education discussed in this issue is not simply another swing of the pendulum. It has its roots, not in the changing fashions within education and politics, but in fundamentally new understandings of human intelligence and the process of learning, developed also during the past thirty years.

An explosion of research in the cognitive sciences, human development, and technology has been taking place. Hundreds of researchers in the fields of psychology, biology, physiology, neuroscience, and artificial intelligence have been studying the brain/mind/body system to gain greater understanding of how human beings think, learn, and develop various capacities, and to explore ways to stimulate and nurture such growth. Looking at a sampling of what has been learned begins to form a dramatic picture of what is possible in human development:

  • In relation to the physiology of the brain itself, the research of Dr. Marion Diamond, anatomist and physiologist at Berkeley, shows that the brain can change physiologically in response to learning and experience. Dr. Diamond has discovered that particular conditions foster the development throughout life of new neural connections, which appear to be the "hardware" of intelligence. These conditions include a positive, nurturing, stimulating environment that encourages response, and a healthy cardiovascular and pulmonary system. The connections between mind, body, and spirit are clear; the implications for education at any age are evident.
  • The work of neurosurgeon Joseph Bogen and psychologist Roger Sperry, who won the Nobel Prize for his work in brain lateralization, made clear that we can use different kinds of thinking related to different parts of the brain for different purposes. Today it is understood that it is the integration of many parts of the brain, finely tuned, and orchestrated in harmony, that make it possible for us to do both creative and analytical thinking. Both kinds of thinking are essential, but often are not given equal opportunity to develop in many classrooms.
  • Dr. Paul MacLean, analyzing the brain not only from left to right but top to bottom, offers another kind of understanding about the importance of a collaborative brain. Of equal importance are the primitive, "reptilian" brain, so essential that it controls automatic body processes and habitual behavior, and that its injury can cause death or coma; the emotional, "mammalian" limbic system, so essential that it can either facilitate or inhibit learning; and the cerebral cortex, the "mother of invention and the father of abstract thought." Implications are evident that educational systems must attend not only to "cortical" learning, but equally to the basic physical and emotional needs of students.
  • The brain has plasticity, and so does intelligence according to the work of Dr. Reuven Feuerstein, Israeli cognitive psychologist. Dr. Feuerstein has developed, in the last thirty years, a Theory of Cognitive Modifiability which is revolutionizing the understanding of the development and assessment of intelligence. Over 600 research studies are currently underway among groups ranging from the retarded to the gifted, from early childhood to the elderly, from indigenous people in jungles to corporate officers in skyscrapers, and from elementary to college students.

Feuerstein’s findings indicate that intelligence can be learned; that it is not a static structure that can be measured and given a number which predicts future performance in life, but an open, dynamic system which can continue to develop at any age. His Learning Potential Assessment device, which is also a remediation tool, assesses how much and what kind of intervention is needed to modify the cognitive system, and his Instrumental Enrichment strategies are tools to identify and remediate cognitive deficiencies and help individuals to learn the skills of thinking and learning. The practice of Mediated Learning Experience is an example of dynamic, interactive learning at its best. The implications for educational systems for every age and every ability level throughout the world are unlimited: Everyone can learn to do more with his or her basic intellectual equipment.

  • Dr. David Perkins, psychologist and Co-Chairman of Project Zero at Harvard University, suggests that there are three basic components of intelligence: power (based on genetic makeup and early experiences), strategies (the tools we use to learn), and content. He points out that the vast majority of class time is spent on content, but considering the great gamut of differences in ability, it is critically important to help students equip themselves with effective learning strategies, recognizing that these are essential basic skills.
  • Dr. Howard Gardner, psychologist and the other Co-Chairman of Project Zero, has developed a theory of multiple intelligences which he describes in his book Frames of Mind. These include verbal, logical/mathematical, visual/spatial, body/kinesthetic, musical, interpersonal, and intrapersonal intelligence. Each is independent and requires its own nurturing and development. Unfortunately, as he points out, school systems which reflect our culture teach, test, reinforce, and reward primarily only two of these intelligences: verbal and logical/mathematical. While these are, of course, essential for effective functioning in an information society, all of these intelligences are important. Not only are the other five the kinds of intelligence that have been highly developed by gifted graphic artists, dancers, musicians, and writers, they may also be pathways to learning for many poorly achieving students who do not learn in traditional ways. For everyone, the opportunity to explore and expand these intelligences develops creativity, flexibility of thinking, and broad cultural and humanitarian backgrounds that enrich living.
  • Dr. Robert Sternberg, psychologist at Yale University, examines intelligence through yet another set of lenses. He suggests three kinds of intelligence: componential, which is the kind of intelligence that is assessed by many traditional tests in use today; contextual, which is the source of creative insight, and experiential, which is the "street smarts" of intelligence. The latter two do not often show up on traditional tests, and are not always highly valued in many classrooms, since curious and creative students and those who learn by doing can take up more time and attention. They are indeed valued in the adult world, however, as creative thinkers and process-oriented employees often affect the bottom line in productive ways.
  • Dr. Arthur Costa’s book, Developing Minds, offers a comprehensive overview of the many researchers and practitioners involved in the Thinking Skills Movement, clearly related to the work of all the foregoing researchers.
  • Other ways of identifying and considering individual differences, so important because of the diversity of students in today’s classrooms, are characteristic of the Learning Styles Movement. Theorists and practitioners include Drs. Bernice McCarthy and David Kolb, Tony Gregorc, Kenneth and Rita Dunn, Walter Barbe, and Raymond Swassig. Dr. Patricia Guild has written a comprehensive overview of the work and its implications in her book Marching to Different Drummers.
  • The importance of attending to the emotional context of learning and the emotional needs of students has been underscored by psychologists Abraham Maslow and Carl Rogers. Drs. William Gray and Paul LaViolette describe the process of "emotional coding" in learning, emphasizing the critical effects of emotions and the emotional environment on the learner.
  • The effects of the physical environment on learning are being described by architects Ann Taylor, University of New Mexico and George Vlastos, Casper, Wyoming, and new learning environments are being developed in the "Architecture for Children" project. Interactive learning environments, such as those created by Ann Lewin at the National Children’s Museum in Washington, D.C. and by Richard Lewis, Director of the Touchstone Center in New York, provide further examples of utilizing the environment for learning experiences within and beyond the classroom.
  • Technology in education is becoming increasingly important as equipment and training become more available. Pioneer Seymour Papert created new possibilities for the use of technology with the computer language Logo. Since then, the combination of the computer and video with the development of the videodisc, the CD-ROM, and magnetic data bases offer even more possibilities and involve more kinds of intelligence. Other developments, such as interactive electronic field trips, vitalize learning for both students and teachers. The increasing accessibility of such systems opens new creative roles for teachers and new worlds for their students.

THEORY INTO PRACTICE

Considering the past movements and current state of education in the light of this rapidly growing research on human development surely must suggest to many of us the need for a new direction beyond the swings of the past decades. The new direction described in this issue is one of synthesis and integration based, not on compromise, but on a broader understanding. Never before have we had the possibility of integrating the new and the old, the leading-edge and the traditional in such a dynamic way.

In this issue you will read articles by some of the foregoing researchers and practitioners and others who have developed strategies for applying this research – strategies that stimulate and develop many kinds of intelligence and that recognize and utilize individual differences in learning.

This growing body of research and experience does not offer any easy or simple solutions to the complex educational problems of our time, but it does provide a rich and substantial foundation on which genuine solutions can be built. In this respect it is so important that it should become working knowledge for all educators. In many ways it affirms what teachers throughout history have known intuitively.

The chief insight from it all is that everyone can learn at every age and ability level, and there are many ways to help everyone to do so. The effective strategies include the creative arts and thinking skills as well as traditional techniques. These strategies are not "extras". They need to be taught as basic skills, to teachers as well as students, and are important for both the content and the process they offer. A growing number of schools are teaching these strategies, both as separate subjects and by integrating them throughout the curriculum to facilitate and enhance the learning of all subjects.

In order to make it possible to teach learning strategies as well as cover subject matter, it is likely that teachers will not be able to devote as much class time to factual information. It will become essential to plan an effective balance of learning skills and subject content. However, this need not mean any actual loss of useful learned content, since what is taught and learned more effectively will have greater lasting value and better transference to practical applications.

The different but complementary theories of intelligence offer insights into understanding the great variety of individual differences that exist among students in every classroom. In order to meet the needs of these students it becomes essential for teachers to 1) recognize those differences, 2) broaden their array of teaching strategies so that at least part of the time students are learning in ways that are compatible with their kinds of intelligence, and the rest of the time they are stretching into new ways of thinking and learning, and 3) keep in mind that teaching at its best is a dynamic, interactive process which considers the whole student, and that successful learning is a correspondingly dynamic process which engages the whole student.

Since almost all of the information in the foregoing section has been developed in areas outside of education, it has been slow to become incorporated into instructional theory and practice. In the last two years, however, numerous research projects have been assessing the results of classroom application. As an example, the Key School in Indianapolis, created by eight teachers, has built a whole curriculum around Gardner’s Theory of Multiple Intelligences and evaluation is underway. Also in progress are school research projects on the work of Drs. Perkins, Sternberg, Feuerstein, MacLean, Gray, and McCarthy, as well as on the new developments in educational technology.

The growing success of these schools and programs assures us that this direction works. Our challenge now is to make this kind of learning more readily available to the hundreds of millions of students who will soon be deciding the fate of the earth. Surely, their decisions will be more intelligent, humane and foresighted if they are given better opportunities now to develop as whole people. The articles in this issue provide a glimpse of what is possible, but it will be up to all of us to make this vision real.

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