This free Information Age Education
Newsletter is written by Dave
Moursund and Bob Sylwester, and produced by Ken Loge. The newsletter is
one component of the Information Age Education project.
All back issues of the newsletter and subscription information are available online.
In addition, three free books based on the newsletters are
available: Consciousness and
Morality: Recent Research Developments, Creating an Appropriate 21st Century
Education, and Common Core
State Standards for Education in America.
This newsletter is the sixth in a series on complexity, and the
final in a set of three that focus on specific kinds of development
that occur as we come to understand and master complex phenomena. The
process can sometimes begin with a Eureka moment, as the first
article suggested. The second article suggested that some developments
begin with a basic natural capability (such as speech) that then
expands into something far more abstract and complex
(reading). This final article in the set focuses on major cognitive
neuroscience developments that gradually expanded our naive
understanding of brain processes, and how the education profession then
began to incorporate these discoveries into instructional policy
Understanding and Mastering Complexity: Understanding Our Brain and Applying that Knowledge
Emeritus Professor of Education
University of Oregon
The 1910 Flexner Report (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flexner_Report)
decried 19th century medical research and training. It eventually led
to advances that moved medicine from its behavioral orientation in
which doctors with a limited understanding of body systems prescribed
nostrums to patients who had described their symptoms. To be fair
however, what options did doctors have, given the limited biological
understanding at the time?
During the 20th century, medicine dug deeper inside our body in search
of the underlying causes of invasions (such as infectious disease) and
insurrections (such as cancer or asthma). During the 20th century the
percentage of deaths that occurred during childhood dropped from 30% to
1%, and life expectancy expanded 30 years. Infectious diseases are now
reasonably well understood and controlled, and such body insurrections
as cancer are rapidly moving towards effective understanding and
control. Understanding the biology of our body made the difference.
Educational policy and practice had a similar limited perspective when
I began my teaching career in 1949. Behaviorism, the reigning
psychological belief, considered our brain to be a Black Box.
Educators could observe incoming stimuli and outgoing behavior, but
Behaviorists believed that the intervening cognitive activity was too
complex for discovery. Instead, they focused on stimulus and response.
An initially small number of educators begged to disagree, and that
number increased over the years as the brain sciences made startling
discoveries that often made intuitive sense to fascinated teachers.
Much about cognition still awaited discovery, but teachers who work
with students for years functionally understand much of what's going on
within student brains, even if they didn't understand the underlying
Educators made errors along the way as they sought practical
applications of these cognitive neuroscience findings, but most of the
fallacious applications disappeared over time. A new field of
Educational Neuroscience emerged to displace Behaviorism. It has become
a respected scholarly search for legitimate educational applications.
How we got to the current point of understanding our brain and its
cognitive processes is an interesting story.
Primitive humans didn't understand the purpose of our brain and
how cognition was processed. Four thousand years ago, however, some
Egyptians, Greeks, and perhaps others had already begun to think of a
brain as the body's center of decision and action. However,
conventional wisdom still opted for the heart to at least process
emotion. Although we now know much more, we're still mystified about
several central brain and cognition issues, such as the neurobiology
of consciousness and morality (Sylwester & Moursund, 2013), and how
neuronal networks can develop and maintain memories of past events.
We can only speculate about the future, and what roles sleeping and
dreaming play in life.
It became increasingly evident over time that our brain's neuronal and
hormonal systems determine and direct cognitive decisions, but it
wasn't until the late 20th century that the research momentum towards a
reasonably clear understanding of brain and cognition began to develop.
Our brain's awesome complexity was its own barrier to understanding
itself. At the cellular level, our brain's three-pint three-pound mass
is somewhat evenly divided between perhaps 100 billion minuscule
neurons and a trillion much smaller glial support cells. Neurons are
massively interconnected—most to multiple neurons within millimeters,
but others to a muscle as far as a meter away. Any neuron is only a few
neurons away from any other neuron. If that surprises you, realize that
the coding system of the world's five billion phones can quickly
connect any two of them via a sequence of 7-12 digits. Or, consider the
“six degrees of separation” idea that a chain of a friend of a friend
of a friend…(a chain of six friends) links you to almost anyone in the
world. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Six_degrees_of_separation.
Written documents and artifacts from early humans allow us to speculate
about what might have happened as human frontal lobes developed
sufficiently for self-awareness and thoughts about the nature of
existence. Expanded frontal lobes had earlier led to tool-making
capabilities with sticks and rocks, and later to include various
fabrications. The domestication of animals and plants along with
cooperative human relationships allowed individuals to expand their
personal support capabilities. Frontal lobe expansion also led to
increased curiosity about frequently unseen forces, such as seasonal
and weather changes and the causes of illness, birth, and death.
Science eventually emerged to help explain these phenomena.
If understanding seemed too complicated to early humans, perhaps
spiritual deities could provide a useful solution. Deities could
control what's good and bad in the world, but they would allow
individual autonomy about what seems personally appropriate and
inappropriate. The concept of deities removed the need to immediately
know how our brain determines and executes decisions. The observation
of behavior and the concept of a disembodied analogical mind
would be sufficient, at least for now. Another widely held position
that robustly continues throughout the world is that early humans
didn't create deities, but rather that deities created humans and the
rest of the universe.
Microscopes and Animals
Biologists first used microscopes in the mid-1600s to optically
enlarge the size of minuscule cells. Electron microscopes that
significantly enhanced cellular resolution emerged in the 1930s. Seehttp://inventors.about.com/od/mstartinventions/a/microscope_2.htm.
The discovery of dyes that selectively stain cells and cell components
allows scientists to visualize only what they want to observe. Brain
scientists use dyes to better understand interneuronal connectivity.
Ethical constraints limited research on human brains. Animals such as
mice provided a useful substitute (although some also consider that to
be unethical). Scientists also compared the autopsied brains of
deceased normal people with those who had various cognitive and motor
impairments. Animal and cadaver research was difficult and principally
inferential, and so scientists needed to go one step further into
direct observation and coding mechanisms.
Genetics and Brain Scans
The 1953 discovery of DNA sparked an unprecedented advance in genetics.
It provided the simple coding system that regulates how our body's
(approximately) 23,000 genes produce the protein scaffolding and
machinery of our body's cells, and this development determines much of
our understanding of our physical and cognitive self. See http://news.discovery.com/human/genetics/human-gene-count.htm. Cellular connections and interactions are central to all body systems, and especially so within our brain.
Neuronal network systems, however, still seemed complex beyond
comprehension, but that is now changing. The recent development of at
least eight kinds of brain imaging technologies that measure and
display variations in chemical composition, blood flow patterns, and
electromagnetic fields opened up the possibility of studying brain
organization and function in ways that were not previously thought
possible. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Neuroimaging.
Mathematicians have also entered the study of brain processing. They're
searching for mathematical formulas that explain our brain's edge of chaos
operation that allows it to quickly shift backward and forward in
determining which of dozens of simultaneous events bombarding our
sensory and thought processes will achieve attentional dominance,
shifting us towards decision and action. See http://theedgeofchaos.org/about.
Educationally-oriented studies related to perception, thought, and
action now typically use Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging machines
(fMRI) in university research centers. fMRI permits scientists to
identify specific regional activity that occurs when the subject is
carrying out a task, such as identifying a picture or reading a text.
Researchers can then, for example, compare regional differences between
two subjects who differ in reading effectiveness.
The Allen Institute for Brain Science (http://www.alleninstitute.org)
decided to go back to the less complicated brain of a mouse in order to
get a complete picture of a brain. They have now produced a complete
imaged atlas of a mouse's brain. Can an equivalent atlas of a human
brain be far behind?
When we realize what we've learned about the neurobiology of our brain
during my professional career and add the career of a graduate who will
now begin a similar career trajectory, one can only think that the past
is but prologue. An expanded understanding of the wet brain inside our
skull and increased technological advances in the dry computerized
brain on the outside will combine to redefine educational policy and
practice in ways that I can't even begin to imagine. The Resources
section below provides information on relevant organizations, websites,
and conferences that combine brain research and educational policy and
Sylwester, R., & Moursund, D., eds. (2013). Consciousness and morality: Recent research developments. Eugene, OR: IAE. http://iae-pedia.org/IAE_Newsletter (available in either Microsoft Word or PDF file form).
Robert Sylwester is an Emeritus Professor of Education at the University of Oregon, and co-editor of the IAE Newsletter. His most recent books are A Child's Brain: The Need for Nurture (Corwin Press, 2010), The Adolescent Brain: Reaching for Autonomy (Corwin Press, 2007), and co-authored with David Moursund: Creating an Appropriate 21st Century Education (IAE, 2012), Common Core State Standards for K-12 Education in America (IAE, 2013), and Consciousness and Morality: Recent Research Developments (IAE, 2013). He wrote a monthly column for the Internet journal Brain Connection during its entire 2000-2009 run. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
We are using the Disqus commenting system to facilitate comments and
discussions pertaining to this newsletter. To use Disqus, please
click the Login link below and sign in.
If you have
questions about how to use Disqus, please refer to this help
Information Age Education is a non-profit organization dedicated
to improving education for learners of all ages throughout the world.
Current IAE activities and free materials include the IAE-pedia at http://iae-pedia.org,
a Website containing free books and articles at http://i-a-e.org/, a Blog at http://i-a-e.org/iae-blog.html,
and the free newsletter you are now reading.