Inside the thinking brain

20th June 1997 at 01:00
John MacBeath says biology may have much to teach us about the capacity to learn.

The Pacific Rim has an irresistible allure for education policy-makers. So they should pay close attention to what was being said at the Seventh International Conference on Thinking in Singapore this month. The Sunday Times headline after the conference, "Singapore tries trendy teaching", was characteristically tendentious, but the truth is that Singapore has discovered a deep fault line in traditional teaching. At the conference some of the world's leading thinkers about thinking - Robert Sternberg, Reuven Feuerstein, Edward de Bono and Howard Gardner - and many of 2,200 delegates from 30 countries, had come to similar conclusions about their own educational systems. They seemed to agree with young people we spoke to in a downtown karaoke bar: "Your whole school life is memorise, memorise, memorise, but afterwards you remember nothing."

Goh Chok Tong, the prime minister of Singapore, launched the challenge to inert ideas. In his opening address he promised a cutback in curriculum content and a greater emphasis on skills. He said: "What is critical is that we fire in our students a passion for learning, instead of them studying for the sake of getting good grades in their examinations. Their knowledge will be fragile, no matter how many A grades they get, unless they have the desire and the aptitude to continue discovering new knowledge well after they leave school. It is the capacity to learn that will define excellence in the future not simply what young people achieve in school."

The experts at the conference were all quick to admit to being only on the edge of understanding the inner magic of the thinking brain. But they supported radical thinking about education. "To pretend that we know more than we do is irresponsible. To look to the worn solutions of the past rather than to the possibilities of the future is a form of insanity," argued Luis Machado, former minister of state for the development of human intelligence in Venezuela. "Governments that won't listen to this message are either ignorant, stupid or criminal because they are wasting the talents of young people," said Machado, who argued that there is a Copernican revolution in the making, the science of learnable intelligence.

The Israeli, Reuven Feuerstein, whose work has achieved dramatic results with children designated as having special needs, offered proof in the form of case study after case study of children who learnt to be intelligent; children who wildly surpassed the expectations of parents, psychologists and teachers, and exceeded the predictions of testing and the limitations of social background.

Oregon's Robert Sylvester used results of the newest brain scanning technology to reject the analogy of the brain as a computer, inherently logical and systematic. He prefers the metaphor of the brain as jungle, an ecosystem with many layers, and believes that the learning environment of the classroom should be one which invites challenge and discovery across domains.

Schools should be less concerned with "imposed skills and imposed categorical systems" and promote jungle navigation, encouraging students to seek individual personal solutions to problems. In much of the so-called problem-solving in classrooms, it is the teachers who present the problems, and often also provide a method for solving them. But the vital step, recognising and defining the problem, is left out.

Edward de Bono, who has worked for many years on teaching thinking directly to schoolchildren, agreed that schools' obsession with answers blinds teachers and students to the really important business of finding good questions. Sternberg, professor of psychology at Yale, despaired of students who arrive bright, well schooled, and examination-smart but are poor jungle navigators, often without what he called the practical, creative and successful intelligences that really matter in life.

Harvard's Howard Gardner revisited his own well-known seven intelligences, and added a further one and a half to the list. He has identified an eighth intelligence which he calls naturalistic (or environmental) intelligence, while the nascent ninth - spiritual or existential intelligence - merits only a half because it has, as yet, no empirical evidence to support it. Despite a growing worldwide acceptance of the idea of multiple intelligences, school practice has, for the most part, ignored this burgeoning field of knowledge. Imagine a school, says Gardner, which really understands and nurtures the unique intelligences profile of each individual child, each with areas of great potential strength and learning difficulties.

Gardner has studied creative, exceptional minds. All of his exceptional minds were singularly deficient in some areas and played to their strengths in one or two others. Many great thinkers and inventors were abysmal failures at school. In the not too far distant future, says Gardner, people will look back on the end of this millennium and laugh at the "uniform school", which thought it could teach the same things to the all children at the same time and in the same way.

Todd Siler, director of the Foundation for Human Potential in Chicago, called for a curriculum that melted the "ice cube" compartmentalisation of knowledge so that learning became fluid, real and exploratory, so that physics, when studied through art and music, could provide the stimulus to mathematical problem-solving.

How tragic that art and music become marginal subjects when they are not subjects at all but crucial components of intellectual and emotional life and play such a significant role in the creation of intelligence.

The unsuspecting foetus born with an inherent capacity to speak 3,000 languages knows little yet of the pruning which will take place to fit its prospective cultural and scholastic procrustean bed. At this moment, said Machado, it is midnight in Moscow and a couple are making love. The spermatozoa fighting its way to survival is already thinking: "When I grow up I am going to be a bullfighter." Little does she know, yet, that she is living in Moscow.

Professor John MacBeath is director of the Quality in Education Centre at Strathclyde University.

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