Information Age Education
   Issue Number 46
July, 2010   

This free Information Age Education Newsletter is written by David Moursund and Bob Sylwester, and produced by Ken Loge. The newsletter is one component of the Information Age Education project. See and the end of this newsletter.

Education and Health Care Part 2:
Proactive and Reactive Approaches

I am not a teacher; only a fellow traveler of whom you asked the way. I pointed ahead–ahead of myself as well as of you. (George Bernard Shaw; British dramatist, critic, writer; 1856-1950.)

In the previous issue of this newsletter, we began our exploration of apples and oranges types of arguments and explorations of Education and Health Care. What can procedural and policy strengths and weaknesses in our health care system tell us about possible ways to improve our educational system?

Health Care seeks to cure illness and heal injury, and to limit the occurrence of each. It also enhances the quality of life both during curing and healing times, and when a complete cure or healing isn’t possible.

Education seeks to eliminate the ignorance that exists because we’re born with a very immature brain, one-third its adult size. The goal of informal and formal education is to help students gain the knowledge and skills they need to resolve current and future challenges. Although curing/healing and learning aren’t the same thing, functional relationships exist. For example, our immune system is one of our body’s innate defenses against potential infections, and we can think of learning as an acquired defense against potential challenges.

Proactive and Reactive

Both Education and Health Care can be analyzed in terms of their proactive and reactive activities.

Historically, much health care was reactive. A person was injured or became ill, and then some treatment was attempted. Even 4,000 years ago, however, people were beginning to understand the value of sewage systems as a proactive aid to reducing disease. Water purification and distribution systems are excellent examples of such proactive health care. Vaccines that help prevent or decrease the severity of a variety of diseases are another proactive health care success.

Much of our education system is proactive. We teach students many facts and skills before they need to use them. In some cases this makes sense. It takes a long time to learn to read and write. Students cannot immediately master reading and writing when they have a great need to use these skills. Similarly, if we want students to become bilingual, we need to start when they are young and continue the effort over several years.

However, our educational system also places emphasis on learning to learn and on just-in-time learning. This approach to education is particularly valuable in a rapidly changing world where the totality of information and knowledge available to people is growing very rapidly. Thus, one can view our educational system in terms of a struggle to find an appropriate balance between proactive and reactive (just-in-time) learning.

Meeting the Needs of the Many and the Few

Perhaps you remember the memorable quote from Star Trek III: The Search for Spock.

Spock: The needs of the many outweigh...

Kirk: ...the needs of the few.

Spock: Or the one.

Spock then dies in performing a heroic act that saves many people.

Both education and health care systems face the challenge of trying to meet the needs of the many and the needs of individual students and patients.

One of the great success stories in world health care has been the eradication of small pox through a coordinated worldwide effort. This is an excellent example of meeting the needs of the many—including the needs of people yet to be born. We now see worldwide cooperation in attempting to deal with a variety of other diseases and disease threats.

Starvation or lesser forms of malnutrition have a causal effect both on general health and on ability to learn. Thus, one approach to improving both education and health care is to provide free and/or reduced price lunches (and sometimes breakfasts) to students living in poverty.

Other examples of widespread proactive health care success include: banning lead in gasoline and paints; decreasing environmental pollutants such as mercury, arsenic, and PCB; water purification and sewage treatment systems; seatbelts and airbags in cars; and considerable success in developing vaccines for a variety of diseases.
All of these health care successes also contribute to improving our education system. Poisons such as lead, mercury, arsenic, and PCPs damage neural systems (decrease intelligence) and make learning more difficult. The environmental pollution we call “poor air quality” is both a major health issue and a major education issue.

How about proactive activities specifically targeted at education? Head Start programs provide a good example. Quoting from
Head Start is a national program that promotes school readiness by enhancing the social and cognitive development of children through the provision of educational, health, nutritional, social and other services to enrolled children and families.

The development of reading and writing—and eventually the development of high-speed printing presses and photocopiers—can be thought of as a proactive approach to meeting the education needs of the many. Radio, television, and audio and visual recording and playback devices have helped overcome some of the limitations of print material. In recent years, the Internet (especially the Web) has greatly expanded access to print and multimedia materials.

These proactive “education for the masses” technologies require varying amount of learning on the parts of their users. Children learn to watch television without the aid of formal schooling. However, it takes many years of instruction and practice for an average student to become reasonably proficient in general reading and writing, and in proficiently using these skills to learn.

Many students do not reach this goal. This affects both our education and health care systems. Our health care system benefits from having educated patients who can learn about health care, do appropriate self-diagnosis and self-treatment, read and follow written sets of directions, and make appropriate decisions about when to seek professional health care help.

Health Care

Consider two major aspects of our health care system:
  • Self and/or layperson diagnosis and treatment.
  • Professional diagnosis, and a combination of professional treatment and treatment carried out by the patient and non-professional caregivers.
Self health care (including self medication) is a routine component of health care throughout the world. Many people self medicate through their choices in areas such as diet, exercise, meditation, smoking, and folk remedies.

The use of folk remedies has been substantially augmented by the development and widespread distribution of a wide variety of health care products. Vitamins provide a good example. Aspirin and other over the counter medicines for pain and fever are powerful (and, potentially dangerous) drugs that are easily and cheaply available. You probably brush your teeth regularly—perhaps with toothpaste containing fluoride, and you may keep a tube of triple antibiotic ointment and some bandages in your medicine cabinet.

Relatively simple technology provides us with health care assessment tools such as a thermometer, and blood pressure meter. More advanced technology has provided us with home pregnancy test and with glucose tests and meters used by diabetics. Many lay people learn to do artificial respiration and the Heimlich maneuver, use an EpiPen, and even to make use of a defibrillator. In addition, many lay people routinely make use of the Web and other resources to learn more about their own medical problems.

Every person faces the educational challenge of learning about health care-related self-diagnosis and self-treatment. For the most part, the informal education components of this education are haphazard. Children learn from their caregivers, peers, advertising, and health care providers. Our schools include some required health care education, and this helps fill in some of the gaps from informal education.


In parallel with the previous section, think of people’s roles in their own education versus roles of professional educators in this endeavor. Humans have a substantial capability to learn on their own. Feedback—from oneself and others—is essential.

Long before children reach school age, they have learned a great deal. For example, they have learned one or more natural languages and quite a bit about the culture and environment in which they live. Feedback comes from whatever is in their environment. A caring childhood environment that is culturally, intellectually and socially “rich” prepares a child for future schooling and a lifetime of other educational challenges.

After formal schooling begins, a child continues to learn a great deal from informal learning opportunities outside of the school setting. Outside of school, learning tends to be self-directed. There is a strong parallel between this type of education and the health care discussion of people learning to self-diagnose and self treat various illnesses and injuries.

In terms of health care, people learn to seek professional health care help when they have a problem that they cannot cope with by themselves or with the aid of their caregivers in their support system.

However, children do not decide to start going to school because they have a personal education problem that may well require help from professional educators. Formal schooling or home schooling is forced upon students for cultural reasons—our society can’t afford uneducated citizens. It typically begins at age five, and continues through our normal cognitive maturation years.

Contemporary schools have many goals. Key goals are to master culturally-selected knowledge and skills, and to become a more independent, efficient, and effective learner. Unfortunately, however, the basic structure of our schooling system tends to teach students to be dependent on teachers both for what they learn and how they learn it.

Your authors consider this to be a major flaw in our education system. Purposeful lifelong education is highly dependent on learners deciding what they want to learn and then seeking resources to aid in this learning. Technological progress has provided us with reading, writing, and books—and more recently, the Web and distance learning.

Students currently tend to gain relatively little knowledge, skill, and practice in posing challenging learning tasks and problems that they then attack on their own. Of course, some teachers make excellent use of project-based learning. In such learning environments, students seek help from the teacher and other professional educators only when they have exhausted the resources of themselves, project team members, and the Web.

In summary, we feel that our educational system should place substantially increased emphasis on helping students to become intrinsically motivated, independent, self-directed learners.

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, a Website containing free books and articles at, and the free newsletter you are now reading.

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