Posts Tagged ‘neuroscience’

February 2, 2013


Dear Bill,

Stop. Pause at least. In the name of all that you hold dear.  In order to truly and fully realize that which you have spent so much time, energy and money to achieve and advance in the world of education, hear me out.  In order to serve the children of the globe that you some much want to serve, hear me out.

You are a man of great vision.  You see integrated systems for what they are.  You understand and appreciate the integration of disparate elements, the connections that bind these systems together.  Gladwell was wrong, as I’ve told many people: it is NOT the case that any other person who happened to be in your shoes would have made the choices, taken the risks and achieved what you achieved had they just been in your shoes.  You, only you, did what you did.  Gladwell is a jealous hater of people who achieve.  Decades ago you saw and described what the world still does not have but is slowly moving towards: the technologically integrated home.  A home where HVAC systems, refrigerators, stereos, etc all operate with an integrated technology controllable remotely via technology and also operated “smartly” by internal technological monitoring. But one example.

In the sphere of education, of child development, you have given millions of dollars.  Around the world you have helped countless children with medical support.  How you have dedicated your time since stepping down from leading Microsoft to raise the bar for children everywhere, in many ways, is remarkable, praiseworthy, bold and honorable.

But you are misguided, I respectfully submit.  That you seek what best serves children and the world I do not doubt.  That you have missed some essential things, though, boggles my mind.  It’s not possible that you are not aware of them. It’s not possible that the evidence in support of what truly serves children has not been available to you.

The newspaper I read the other day had a story in it about how “Bill Gates says we need to grade teachers”.  Really?  This is the solution to the problems in education?  Even if only a small part of your education reform platform, it’s so far off the mark, so irrelevant to the meaningful first things that need attention that it is misguided.  It’s like saying that the PC of 1985 had some issues and that the first thing to turn our attention to was the design of the mouse.

I am not here coming to the support of school teachers.  I do not write from the perspective of teachers’ unions. To paraphrase Seuss’s The Lorax, “I speak for the children”.

Education needs repair.  That’s an understatement and fails to capture the reality of the situation. It needs overhaul, reform, transformation and evolution.  Education, traditionally defined and understood since the 1850s, got off on the wrong foot. And there it remains, hobbled and failing.  Poorly defined, it has stumbled along, trying to reinvent itself every decade or so, and continuing to underserve children of all ages. As a result it has underserved society as a whole.

We have big problems. We need big solutions.

Education, properly understood, is nothing more than the process of a human being “becoming itself” -from birth to maturity.  It is not about transmitting data or knowledge to the next generation.  It is about guiding a child according to the natural laws of human development.

Airplanes fly because the laws of physics became sufficiently understood to allow a massive hunk of metal (yes, I know that the first planes and flying machines were not made of hunks of metal) to achieve “lift”.  It amazes me that planes fly.  I love them, but it amazes me every time I see a plane in flight that such a thing is possible, yet it most assuredly is.  Planes don’t fly because someone wanted a plane to fly, they fly because they adhere to the laws of physics- which are immutable, unwavering and universal.  The principles which allowed the first plane to fly are the same principles which allow planes to fly today.

Human development also follows principles of growth and development. The best that we can offer all children is to identify and adhere to those principles.  Only then will we be able to serve children in a manner that will meet their needs, and by extension, the needs of society – of humanity.

Mr. Gates, you have it within your power to transform the world.  Do you wish to save children from starvation and war?  Do you wish to stop the killing of youth in the streets of Chicago? Do you wish to support the elevation of children in the villages of Kenya? Do you long for a world where children everywhere have the ability to “become themselves”?  To find that intersection of their talents and their passions, so that they could then offer their personal gifts to the world, contributing those glorious things to the world in which they live?  Of course you do. You are a good man.

The universal laws of child development are not a mystery.  It is not that we lack the insight and tools to discover that which guides life from birth to maturity.  Developmental psychologists, neuroscientists and legions of educators have provided the information that was lacking in 1850.  Today the principles have been identified and codified.  It is called Montessori.

Montessori is not the name of a cult. It is not the name of a theory.  Montessori is simply the name of the woman who turned her eye to identifying what the natural laws of human development are.

Not more did Newton create the law of gravity than did Montessori create the laws of human development.  Both merely looked at nature and wrote down their observations and helped the rest of us understand how something in the world operates.  Gravity isn’t going away and how children develop isn’t about to change any time soon either.

Since the first child appeared on the face of the Earth children have continued to develop according to the same laws of development. That is why they are the laws of development.  The firing of synapses, the process of myelination, the emergence of spoken language, the first smile, the formation of self-esteem, and so on, all happen the same way today, around the globe, as they did 5000 years ago, around the globe.

What Dr. Montessori did for 45 years (1907-1952, the years of her work in education) was to look at the evidence.  In her own words, “I did not invent a method of education, I merely followed the child”.  Spoken like the scientist she was, she served no ulterior motives.  She was not chasing grant money.  She was not answering to corporate or institutional interests.  She was pursuing the truth of how children grow and develop.  She sought one thing: to identify what NATURE has set in motion as to how children universally develop.  And that she did.

No one has written a book, published research or found contrary evidence to show that she was mistaken.

Quite the contrary has occurred.  All of the science of child development has come to support every claim that Dr. Montessori made.  All of her principles of human development have been supported by cognitive and developmental science.  The reason why Montessori has not yet toppled the conventional approach to education is the same as the reason why Copernicus’s ideas took so long to be accepted: they were counter-cultural and touched too many vested interests.  But universal natural truths have a way of abiding.  They do not relent.

The resources exist to find out for yourself.

Mr. Gates, in the name of all that you value, please stop your current focus on changing education.  I appreciate your interests and passion, but you have been misinformed.

The best money you can spend to change education and transform the world, and that is not hyperbole, is to spend it on the first 6 years of life.  Look into the research of the Nobel economist James Heckman at the University of Chicago (http://heckman.uchicago.edu/    and  http://jenni.uchicago.edu/human-inequality/papers/Heckman_final_all_wp_2007-03-22c_jsb.pdf)

Look into the research on self-regulation and executive functions: http://www.devcogneuro.com/AdeleDiamond.html   and  http://www.devcogneuro.com/Publications/Activities_and_Programs_That_Improve_Childrens_Executive_Functions.pdf  and    http://www.goodatdoingthings.com  and   http://youtu.be/faYco1b-IJI  and www.aidtolife.org

Of course, Montessori principles extend beyond the first 6 years of life and have been developed and implemented through the high school level to tremendous success.  I know you know this: your foundation gave money to a Milwaukee public Montessori high school – the most successful of all the high schools you’ve given money to.  Curious?

Thank you for your time.

Mark Berger







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There was a very salient piece in the Huff Post recently.  The author addressed the topic of what she called “life skills”, then later “executive functions”.  I’ve written significantly about these in this space.  They are the “be all and end all” of education as far as I’m concerned.  Without these you cannot live your life successfully.  Full stop.

Why is this so evident to me? Because life requires you to take command of YOUR life, which requires self-control, efficacy, emotional regulation, communication skills, and the like.  This tangent is what will make it or break it for most.  You can have all the academic smarts possible, but if you haven’t developed the above then life will not be a fulfilling and joyful experience.  I think we all know this.  This is not controversial.

The fact that there is research supporting the long-term effects and benefits of early development of these skills (executive functions, self-regulation) surely will help to get some attention, but the fact that they are essential skills should not be questionable.

So where does this leave us?  We need to get serious with retooling education, that’s where.  There are small glimmers of change here and there, but we can fast-forward very effectively and implement a highly successful model now rather than stumble forward ever so slowly and maybe make a bunch of missteps along the way.  We can do this if we look carefully at Montessori schools.  The Montessori model has an integrated approach to developing these essential life skills along with all the academics you could imagine.

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The relatively new field of neuroeducation has made it clear that emotion plays a role in learning. Getting more specific, the field has shown that stress plays a role, a destructive role.

It turns out that stress prevents the human brain from developing optimally.  It does this by preventing neurogenesis from taking place.  Neurogenesis is our brain’s ability to create new neurons- brain cells.  If you grow up in a healthy and stable environment your brain is able to generate new neurons, which help you to learn.  Provide an enriched environment and you’re off to the races.  Stress takes you in the opposite direction of an enriched environment.

How does this inform the education paradigm-shift position?

Conventional environments create stress in students.  Whether it’s from the fear of failure and mistake making or the upcoming quiz, there are daily stressors for most students in a conventional environment.

The New Education Paradigm removes these stressors.  By placing the learner in greater control of her activities, by encouraging mistakes (in the spirit of risk-taking that is necessary to look for new questions and answers), by shifting to alternate modes of assessment, amongst other things, the new paradigm creates a rich environment that minimizes stress in the student/learner.  The result is a student who is not only motivated to participate and apply themselves fully, but a brain that is there to support them by creating the new neurons that they can then use to learn.

Now, if only we can get the prime movers in “industrial education” (new term) to catch up to  the science of the day, maybe we can begin to help more students sooner.  In the meantime, check out Montessori schools – they’ve understood this implicitly for decades.

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So I have posted to the online magazine Slate.  They have a crowdsourcing project up around the question of what “schools should look like in the 21st Century”.  Below is what I posted.  It’s partly a distillation of what gets posted here.


If we look at what we’ve learned from developmental psychology, neuroscience research and leadership training we’ll see that this is what a school should be like:

  1. mixed-age group environments: it is not chronological age that determines what a student can learns and we all take the time we need to learn. Living things develop in a non-linear process. How long does it take to learn to ride a bike?  The answer is: it takes the time that it takes you and that’s all there is to it.
  2. self-directed, lengthy periods of work to accommodate the fact that intrinsic motivation leads to engagement and meaningful learning. When we work based on interest we invest far more time than anyone could require us to. When a child can choose what to work on based on her interest at the time she is far more likely to find herself productively engaged in the work.
  3. allow for results-oriented assessment and student participation in assessment rather than raw test scores.
  4. allow for exploration and open-ended questioning in order to foster real learning through meaning-making activity rather than focus on “content delivery” from a teacher. Students truly learn when they explore and arrive at conclusions rather than being fed “answers”. In this manner the resulting knowledge will be “owned” by them because they figured it out: that’s called learning.
  5. deliver outcomes that truly prepare students for living their lives effectively and successfully: collaboration, leadership, creativity, adaptability, communication, empathy and resourcefulness. We need a culture of adaptability and creative innovation that will allow students to develop into people who can solve the problems when they do emerge.



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If learning means that you understand something new, it will only come as a result of the learner actively participating in the process of “coming to understand”.

What the above means is that learning is very different from remembering.  This is a common theme in what I write about in this space.  That’s because remembering is just that, it’s simply recall.  We can all remember things, but if those things are not connected to what we previously understand then we’re not building knowledge because we’re not attaching understanding to what we’re “remembering”.

In the process of dealing with new information the learner has to participate, ideally in two forms.  The first is mentally participating, which means considering the new information and seeing how it relates to what is already known.  It means what I mentioned in the last post –  “turning things over” in your mind, etc.  It means not just “receiving” information and trying to retain it in a disconnected way.  Isolated facts and data is not knowledge.  The process of integrating the new information into your self or being requires this active role, which contributes greatly to building understanding.  The other form of participation is some form of doing or discovery.  When the learner participates in a physically active way, not just mentally/cognitively, they are engaging their body in the process, which  has been shown to be effective.

It is only this kind of experience that will create deep understanding, and it is deep understanding that allows creativity to take place.  Only when you really “get” something are you in a position to do something with it.  Only when you truly understand how it operates and what the nuances are can you think about how to reconfigure it, adapt it, make something innovative out of it.  No one ever created or invented something without really understanding what they were dealing with, it’s simply not possible.

So our schools need to be incubators of creativity, which means that they need to operate in a way that not only encourages students to function as active participants in the learning process but requires it by it’s very structure.  This will mean removing the teacher from the front of the room as a “talking head”  who is “teaching”.  This form of teaching is by its very nature counter to the active participant model.

There is no debate about what makes meaning, what leads to  deep understanding.  Neurologists and developmental psychologists know what it takes.  We need to break the disconnect between what is known and understood there and what passes for education in traditional schools today.

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“Yes, I know that… I just can’t explain it”.  Ever heard this? Ever SAID it?  If you “can’t explain it”, you DON’T know it.  Very simple.  It’s one of the reasons why writing things down in your own words is so valuable: it’s a test of your understanding.  When writing you have to use complete sentences, which are complete thoughts.  If what you are writing about is clear in your mind you can do this fairly easily.  If you have a weak grasp of your material the words will not flow,  or they will be vapid and vague.

There is significant research which delves into this area painstakingly.  It looks into what takes place in our mind, in our psychology, when we “think we know”.  It asks “what is going on in a student’s mind when they study and sense that ‘this is familiar to me’ and so moves on with a sense of knowing and thus being prepared?”  It turns out that familiarity is no indicator of understanding and so leads the learner away from further work on the topic prematurely.  Then you take the test (yes, the test!) and find you didn’t do so well despite “feeling like you knew the material”.  This also helps to begin to explain why there is often such poor ability to apply knowledge: that true test of understanding.

It turns out that in order to build understanding you need to do certain things in your mind: you need to actively think about the material.  This is the key.  Actively thinking means “turning over ideas”, it means “seeing how this content relates to other content”, it means helping your mind to integrate ideas.  THIS is what learning is.  And sadly, our schools do very little of this because they are geared towards memorization and regurgitation- not meaning making.  (You can read further about this claim here).

Once again, it is clear that if education is doing what it needs to do, namely, prepare young people to be able to live their lives successfully and contribute to society, then they need to learn with deep understanding.  We need schools that allow this to take place, which means a lot more than sitting and listening.  We need schools with ACTIVE LEARNERS.

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The latest chatter in traditional education circles is all about getting on the latest technology bus: social media.  Yes indeed.  Taking a 180 degree tack, schools who were only interested in blocking websites are now embracing them, encouraging students and staff to make use of the latest savior of schools: facebook, twitter, digg, and a wide range of sites and online services.

This is clearly reported here: http://www.edweek.org//dd/articles/2010/06/16/03networking.h03.html

You can read about how one teacher “sets up a meeting between classes [in different countries] using Skype. Students prepare a list of questions (What’s the weather like there? How big is your town or city? What continent are you on?) and chat with students in Canada, Finland, New Zealand, and Spain, among a long list of others.”  Yes?  And this is somehow going to make for a rich and meaningful educational experience?  They couldn’t find this information out before?  Somehow talking to other children far away is going to truly shape developing self?

It’s a sad thing to observe the world of traditional education once again grabbing onto the latest “thing” as a fix to all the problems or as something to really improve the educational experience of children.  Here’s statement from a while back “The central and dominant aim of education by [this new technology]” said reformed Benjamin Darrow, “is to bring the world to the classrooms, to make universally available the services of the finest teachers, the inspiration of the greatest leaders and unfolding world events which through [this new medium] may come as a vibrant and challenging textbook of the air”.

Was Mr. Darrow speaking about the internet? NO. What about television? NO.  This was a statement from an education reformer from the early 1920’s… talking about, yes, the brave new world of RADIO and how it would revolutionize education.

We’ve seen that neither radio, nor television, nor the internet has served as an educational golden arrow.  None of these, just as social media today, made a difference worth talking about in how children are effectively prepared for living their lives.  Ultimate prep school: that’s the name of this blog, because education should be about preparing one to live one’s life – that’s the ULTIMATE thing to be “prepped” for.  Why did none of these new technologies make a difference?  Because they are window dressing on a tired, decrepit system that has rotted from the inside out.

Hence, again, the need for FUNDAMENTAL change, fundamental retooling.  A serious reassessment of what education is considered to be and how we go about it is what is required. Nothing less will do and nothing less is what we owe to the millions of children going to “school” every day.

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