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Will future learning be in tablet form?

Want to do well in the maths test tomorrow? Take a pill.

This could be the future of education if governments continue to focus on pupils' results rather than the acquisition of knowledge, according to Peter Taubman of Brooklyn College in New York.

In a presentation given at the American Educational Research Association conference, Dr Taubman suggested that underachieving pupils could one day be "cured" with pills, in the same way that depressives are currently treated with drugs.

Advances in neuroscience and cognitive science have shown that psychological problems can be treated with pills or cognitive behavioural therapy.

Some university students and sixth-formers already use drugs such as Ritalin to maintain concentration on school work, even if they do not suffer from conditions such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, for which the drugs were originally developed.

Dr Taubman suggested teachers could one day tailor pharmaceutical solutions to pupils, as well as providing cognitive behavioural support. "If we can enhance memory and concentration, and perhaps strengthen areas of the brain associated with basic literacy and numeracy skills ... we may one day be able to pharmacologically ensure learning," he said.

But he questioned whether this brave new world of drugged-up overachievers was desirable. He believes this vision presupposes a narrow view of education in which learning means "something that can be demonstrated, like a skill, or reproduced, like a memorised poem or a correct answer to a question".

He said good education should be less like Prozac and more like long-term psychoanalysis, in which the process is open-ended - a version of education that takes in not only the hard facts of exam questions, but also broader, more existential ones.

As in psychoanalysis, each piece of knowledge is relevant at the moment of acquisition. But knowledge can also develop new, previously unforeseen interpretations as it combines with other, later knowledge. Learning is, therefore, subjective and continuously developing.

He said education unfolds through relationships between pupils and teachers in which both ask questions and acquire knowledge. "Within such a project, learning defined as answers is only a side effect, a by-product of an interminable education," he said.

ptaubman@brooklyn.cuny.edu.

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