This free Information Age Education Newsletter is written by David
Moursund and Bob Sylwester, and produced by Ken Loge. For more
information, see the end of this newsletter.
our newest author, Dr. Robert Sylwester. He is Professor Emeritus,
College of Education, University of Oregon. His primary area of
specialization is Brain Science. You can read more information about
him at http://iae-pedia.org/20/20_Vision_for_2020_Challenges
A large collection of his articles about brain science is available at http://brainconnection.positscience.com/library/?main=talkhome/columnists
Nature, Nurture, and Tools
When considering various ways to improve education, it is helpful to
think in terms of nature, nurture, and tools. Nature, nurture, and
tools overlap and interact. However, sometimes it is helpful to
differentiate among them.
Here is an example. Nature provides
us with a body, and most of us are born with legs and arms. Following
growth patterns laid down in our basic genetics (nature) and through
the nurture of informal and formal practice, adequate food, and so on,
we learn to crawl and then walk.
We have a number of tools
that aid us in locomotion. Examples include shoes, trains, and
bicycles. A key idea about such tools is that they can be mass-produced
and widely used, and they can be substantially improved over time. Here
is a picture of a widely used tool manufactured a hundred years ago. A
hundred years of improvements have certainly helped.
A healthy human brain is natural curious and has tremendous innate
(nature-based) capabilities. An infant’s brain takes 25 years or more
to achieve full maturity. During this time, nature and nurture both
play important roles. We know, for example, that various poisons such
as lead and mercury, or severe malnutrition, can permanently damage a
brain. We know that a “rich” and appropriately challenging learning
environment from earliest childhood onward makes a huge contribution to
a brain’s growing capabilities.
Now, consider the
human-developed tools we call reading and writing. For most people, it
takes many years of formal education, study, and practice to learn to
use these tools reasonably well. Indeed, a person can spend a lifetime
becoming an expert and maintaining this expertise in the effective use
of these tools.
We recognize the capabilities and limitations
of our brains. Since the development of reading and writing more than
5,000 years ago, humans have continued to work on more and better brain
tools. We want to overcome some of our limitations and extend some of
our capabilities. We want to make brain tools that are easier to learn
to use, easier to use, and more powerful or effective than those
developed in the past.
Math provides excellent examples. The
overall discipline of mathematics can be thought of as a
human-developed set of brain tools—aids to the human brain. Perhaps you
are familiar with the famous quote: “God created the natural numbers.
All the rest is the work of man.” (Leopold Kronecker; German
mathematician; 1823-1891.) Math provides quite powerful aids to
representing and solving problems, but it takes many years of
education, training, and experience to become reasonably skilled in the use
of contemporary, widely used tools of mathematics.
And, “there’s the rub.” Each academic
discipline produces tools useful in representing, exploring, and
solving the problems in its discipline. This has led to an information
explosion—most of us suffer from information overload. We suffer from
not having the time to learn the various disciplines of study to the
depth that we would like to.
In summary, nature and nurture
provide humans with very capable brains. Through years of informal and
formal education we get better at making more effective use of our
brains. We have developed quite good aids to our brains. However, many
require a tremendous amount of time and effort to acquire high levels
of skill in their use. Thus, it behooves us to continue to develop
tools that require only a modest amount of time and effort to learn to
use at a level that is personally helpful and satisfying.
A computer is a human-developed tool. It can be built into other tools
in a manner that makes it transparent and so that little informal or
formal education is needed to learn to make use of the computer
component of a tool. We certainly have this situation in modern cars,
which are highly computerized.
However, computer tools are
also embedded into a number of tools that take a lot of time and effort
to learn to use. For example, consider accessing information on the
Web. The assumption is that you can read with understanding and write
well enough to tell the computer what you are looking for. Reading on
the Web is somewhat more complex than reading a book, since the Web is
both interactive and non linear, and very extensive. Thus, it takes
considerable informal and formal education and experience to learn to
make effective use of the Web.
However, there is another
aspect of the computer as a tool. A computer system can solve a great
many different problems all by itself. All that is needed is precise
communication of the problem to the computer. The degree of precision
that is needed is far higher than the degree of precision needed when
one attempts to communicate a problem to another human being through a
combination of oral and written language.
We get a hint of
this difficulty as we study math. The very smallest error in solving a
math problem can lead to an incorrect solution. We get some hint of
this in using a GPS. A tiny error in spelling can lead the GPS system
to providing directions to a place other than where you want to go!
Similarly, a tiny error in responding to a email message sent to a list
can result in responding to the entire list rather than to a specific
Our technology has reached a stage that it can make some changes at
“nature” level of a human being through genetic engineering. And, we
have just begun in such endeavors.
Our educational system and
other aspects of nurture have gradually improved over thousands of
years, and we can expect further gradual improvement.
of tools, the pace of change is torrid and is increasing. It is
overwhelming the nature and nurture components. As an example, it is
easy to claim that “two brains are better than one,” (see http://iae-pedia.org/Two_Brains_Are_Better_Than_One).
However, it is quite hard to design and implement an effective
educational system in which one of these two types of brains is
increasing in capabilities at an exponential rate. At the current time,
our overall educational system seems to think that if we can just do
better in the nurture component—better teachers, higher standards,
longer school days, year around schooling—that this will take care of
the education crisis. It won’t.
About Information Age Education, Inc.
Information Age Education is a non-profit organization dedicated to
improving education for learners of all ages throughout the world. IAE
is a project of the Science Factory, a 501(c)(3) science and technology
museum located in Eugene, Oregon. Current IAE activities include a Wiki
with address http://IAE-pedia.org,
a Website containing free books and articles at http://I-A-E.org, and the free newsletter
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