Retro-Education: Is Modern Really Better?
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<p>Retro-Education: Is&nbsp; Modern&nbsp; Really Better?<br /> This article discusses the efficacy of modern, conceptual curriculum methods in elementary education in terms of brain function; particularly regarding the neural processes of noise reduction, pathway establishment and memory consolidation.<br /> Nostalgia<br /> Once upon a time subjects in school were divided into discreet categories, enabling students to have a clear expectation of the task at hand. At the risk of oversimplifying: History pertained to what happened in the course of time: e.g. wars, trends, politics, movements, outcomes. Geography referred to the characteristics of places: landscapes, mountain ranges, continents, etc. Meanwhile, English grammar class consisted to learning about parts of speech, punctuation and other language mechanics and math was often divided neatly into adding, subtracting, multiplying, word problems and at higher grade levels, geometry and algebra. It might seem amusing, yet perhaps accurate to refer to this method as the &ldquo;place for everything, everything in its place&rdquo; curriculum. In this system there were no hybrid names such as Language Arts or Social Studies. Math curricula did not include overlapping, conceptual approaches in which the student was expected to assimilate from among simultaneous smidgeons of addition, subtraction, geometry and other math operations. Now of course, modern curricula feature such integrative, conceptual approaches based on the notion that this will enable the child to piece together the puzzle and end up with an enhanced level of proficiency as well as a meta-cognitive &ldquo;grasp&rdquo; of the subject matter.<br /> &nbsp;</p>

<p>Two confounding factors in education theory have prevailed over the past several decades. One is the presumption that increased technology would lead to more skilled, enlightened students. During the 1992 presidential campaign, vice presidential nominee Al Gore said he looked forward to a time when all students would have mega access to Internet-generated information, including the Library of Congress. He was right about the access part, wrong about the search part. Turns out kids did what one would expect kids to do; use the computer as a play object, leading to a generation of students able to type out transformers on the keyboard but unable to spell cat on the blackboard.<br /> The second notion was that the mind of a child is conceptual and capable of understanding concepts even before specific detail-oriented neural pathways are entrenched in the brain to facilitate automaticity.<br /> Judging by most recent results and the number of students identified with special education needs, the latter theory seems not to have panned out. Interestingly, every time student performance declines in the USA a newer, more conceptual and loftier curriculum, arguably beyond the reach of even some students with average intelligence is put in play.<br /> To cope with the cost, as well as the academic frustration inherent in this process, school districts have attempted to address certain aspects of the problem. Making special education eligibility more rigorous has been one. The introduction of RTI &ndash; which, despite the claim that it provides a more normalized alternative to special education, identifies&nbsp; students in much the same way via tier-distinctions, has been another. Meanwhile the curriculum either retains the same circular format is conceptually embellished in an ironic (perhaps even Panglossian) attempt to ensure higher student achievement.<br /> The results have been both predictable and sobering. A report by Harvard University showed that&nbsp; students in Latvia, Chile and Brazil are improving their academic skills at a rate three times as fast as American students. Students in Colombia, Lithuania, Poland and Lichtenstein do so at twice the rate of American students. (2012) Middle school American students are now behind roughly 25 other nations in broad student achievement even as new thinkers are proposing more rigorous academic standards for them. It seems a bit like asking a very short-legged person to overcome his inability to jump over a hurdle by increasing its height. This writer would submit &ndash; less whimsically &ndash; that the true goal of public education is not to win some sort of vaguely defined international competition but to reach as many students along the normal curve as possible so that more can learn basic and necessary skills through which to function as adults. The American education system, which is more quintessentially public and inclusive than any other in the world cannot be elitist and public at one and the same time.<br /> In some ways this reflects a logically flawed argument implicit in the notion of the&nbsp; American Dream. It is the idea that all American students ought to be able to go to college in order to better themselves and increase their living standards. Obviously if that many young people graduated from college, the supply of college grads would exceed demand, resulting in more joblessness and lower pay scales for those graduates.<br /> Thus far the argument has been somewhat pedantic - nothing more than broad-strokes criticism that might be countered by equally persuasive arguments in support of modern education curricula and educational philosophy. To get beyond that, it might help to discuss the development of brain and cognition in early childhood.<br /> &nbsp;</p>

<p>From Categorical to Conceptual<br /> Human brain development is fascinating, because for all the talk among paleo-anthropologists about how large brains define the human species, it is actually a reduction in brain volume that ultimately enhances human cognition. At several stages in early childhood and early adolescence the brain undergoes what is often called a pruning process (Chechik, Gal. et al 1999). During these stages, most notably at approximately 2 years of age, 7 years of age , 11 years of age and 15 years of age, brain tissue is shed. At face value this might seem detrimental to enhanced cognition. In fact the opposite is true. In childhood a great deal of factual details and associations are learned and stored categorically &ndash; these comprised the nuts and bolts of what educators often refer to as automaticity. That is why a young child differentiates between parents and others, why asking a four year to process both his needs and the reactions of others through advanced social-empathic abilities is unrealistic. Their neural wiring runs parallel to that.<br /> Two types of neural columns in the brain arise in brain development. Vertical pathways allow for such categorical processing skills &ndash; and give the child a kind of linear cognitive topography. Since volume-learning is so essential in the early years the pruning process is gradual. In terms of learning style, categorical learning must precede conceptual learning. It is not a function of educational theory but a neurological mandate.<br /> At various points in development, horizontal neural networks begin to intertwine with horizontal pathways. That intermingling enables various associations to connect with one another. That in turn makes experiential comparisons possible. Visual inputs can mingle with auditory inputs and/or tactile inputs to create multi-sensory thoughts, feelings and linguistic concepts. The child can then begin to gain a gestalt of his world, including the figure-ground perception enabling him to process both his own needs and that of others. As Kohler (1981) and Piaget (1932) have suggested, this gives rise to the proto-conceptual aspects of moral thought.<br /> At the age of seven this begins in small steps. Over time an increase in horizontal-vertical cross-grid innervations will accelerate the pruning mechanism, giving the older child a greater reference point for storing knowledge, that is, a back-up system with greater redundancy and integrative capacities. At that point the child, now approaching adolescence and cognitive brain maturation, no longer needs as much brain tissue to retain memories. Also, due to the cross grid&nbsp; meshing&nbsp; of neurons, the older child can think in terms of relationships and concepts, not just singular categories.&nbsp; <br /> <br /> Yet the brain of an elementary school student is still primarily categorical and will remain so until the latency-early adolescent years when pruning reaches its final stages.Another developmental factor can be considered in advocating for a retro-education approach.&nbsp; It has to do with the establishment and reliance on categorical knowledge as a noise reducing process.<br /> Feed-forward, Memory Consolidation and Automaticity<br /> The mass and volume of the human brain is still vast, despite pruning periods, which means that the establishment and retrieval of skill memories will be subject to noise interference. Even in post-pruning stages, the human brain has roughly 25 billion neural connections, and due to what Lashley (1950) referred to as the mass action-equipotentiality phenomenon much of the brain will be active for each task. Memory retrieval would thus require a superior sifting process, a means of selectively disregarding neural inputs devoted to irrelevant sensations or skill memories. Such a noise-reduction mechanism unfolds in the brain in several ways. One is through the use of categorical language skills, especially self-regulatory language, to guide one&rsquo;s focus. In fact, despite its social and communicative benefits some have argued that the original evolutionary advantage of human language might have been to enhance memory, attention span and selective attention faculties &ndash; in other words as a luck-of-the-draw mutation providing a broad categorical/organizational access in an extraordinarily large, noisy brain. (Vallotin &amp; Ayoub 2011). <br /> Another means of sifting is called the feed-forward or &ldquo;gating&rdquo; response. It entails having an expectation or bias that provides for pre-recognition of what does and does not coincide with relevant input. In some ways this is nothing more than a neural version of Piaget&rsquo;s notion of the scheme; although his concept pertained to previously learned ideas rather than a mechanical pre-set and noise-reducing mechanism.<br /> From Brain to Classroom<br /> The gradual development of the human brain has implications for education theory; one of which is that in elementary grades the old-style, categorical method is more brain-friendly, more likely to lead to automaticity and down the road, to age-appropriate conceptual thinking. Translating that process into a curriculum theory would no doubt over-turn apple carts and invite criticism. On the other hand, since the modern curriculum methods don&rsquo;t seem to be working very well, perhaps it is time for new ideas, particularly those grounded in old ideas that seemed to work better.&nbsp; In a more practical context, a return to a retro-educational approach&nbsp; might entail the following revisions.<br /> 1. That the elementary school curriculum be rigorously categorical from grades 1-5, then gradually conceptualized in grades 6 and 7.<br /> 2. That the actual name of subjects should have a tight and categorical association with the material to be taught. Labels and categories like Geography and History are more categorical and brain friendly and have greater feed forward value than ambiguous terms such as Social Studies or Language Arts. Breaking up language classes into categorical, discreet units such as grammar, spelling, reading, writing etc. would be more learnable at the elementary level. In that context, the teacher would explain to the class exactly what they would be learning from the outset in an information-friendly theme/variations format where the subject&rsquo;s title correlates directly with the material to be learned. Undoubtedly many modern educators, and certainly the theoreticians who espouse the modern methods might be rendered uncomfortable with such a regressive approach. On the other hand the student might find it very comforting. More to the point, they might learn more, memorize more, develop more solid degrees of automaticity in all skill areas and conceivably make less necessary the interventions provided in special education and RTI formats.<br /> 3. A return to a more categorical format would enable teachers to truly understand levels of student achievement in building blocks fashion and perhaps they would see fewer students with double and triple ceilings in their academic performance.<br /> 4. Returning to a categorical method would likely umbrella more students along the normal curve and set the stage for a higher rate of functional skills within the population &ndash; as opposed to establishing ever-higher standards and peeling off even students with potentially average intellectual abilities.<br /> 5. Use of a categorical (old-school&hellip;pardon the pun) teaching method would enable teachers to use time-tested memory-friendly/drill exercises such as rhythm, music, word-spelling formulas such as&hellip; i after e except after c. While some teachers are creative enough to incorporate such mechanics into the modern, conceptual method it is more difficult to employ that kind of associative approach in a conceptual teaching format. In some ways this is simple as saying narrow pathway teaching methods such as repetition, rhyme and recitation are more likely to lead to memory consolidation than the smorgasbord methods currently used in many current elementary classrooms.<br /> 6. When all is said and done, much of what plagues public education might boil down to a curriculum-driven inability among so many to retain what they have ostensibly been taught. The argument here is that some parts of this problem can be addressed via a simple strategy that merely requires teaching in ways that maximize a student&rsquo;s capacity to memorize the material. In this opinion, the old methods did that, the new ones do not.<br /> &nbsp;</p>