Monday, February 01, 2016

Dr. Herman T. Epstein

Boxes progressing nicely
In a paper entitled "The Fourth R, or why Johnny Can't Reason," Dr. Herman T. Epstein, one of the world's foremost brain researchers took education to task for failing to utilize what Jean Piaget taught us about the development of intelligence. He wrote:
From the point of view of schooling, when children typically enter first grade at about age 6 years, only one third are able to use any logical reasoning. That means that they are not ready for much of what is usually taught at that grade. This issue of readiness is a significant one for schooling. Some teachers and principals have estimated for me that about one-third of the matters in junior high school require formal reasoning. Yet, at those ages (12-14 years) no more than 20% have reached that reasoning level.

That means that most of the children cannot understand the most significant matters being taught in junior high school. In essence they are being taught in a foreign language. The result is that such children begin to pay no attention and begin, as is now well known, to consider dropping out of school. When they arrive in senior high school and the lack of understanding continues, drop-out behavior becomes a real alternative.

Teachers surely know that there is a spectrum of ability levels of the children in their classes, but they don't know how to handle it. If teachers were really aware of the data in the table, they would know that significant modifications of their instructional level are needed for these non-ready children. That still wouldn't tell them what to do.
School systems and educational  policy makers have made the assumption that reading readiness is key, when they should instead be looking at reasoning readiness as their guide to planning instruction. But fat chance of that happening anytime soon.

I’ve been reading about the child’s use of symbols and their innate ability to analogize in their use of language. My daughter, for instance, as a very small child would not say think you when we tried to remind her, because a phrase she came up with on her own, “got some,” meant the same thing. It was cute, and while not the same as the expected social convention "Thank you" that she might have parroted without understanding, "Got some" acknowledged the receipt of services and things that she needed or wanted.  Many psychologists from the 19th century were fascinated by the child’s use of language as a window through which to witness their intellectual development. Susan Blow hits the nail on the head when she notes that children readily see the similarities between things but the delineation of differences offers more difficulty. And when analogy arises from within the mind of the child, rather than being imposed from without by the adult world, the child gets it in ways they cannot be taught and that adults do not readily understand.

My own point is that as children progress through Piaget's stages of intellectual development, each builds upon the last level. Arrival at each level is not on a rigid developmental clock, so timing varies for each child and is dependent on both genetic and social reinforcement.  And yet there is an orderly reliance on each stage having fulfilled itself as the next comes into play. For instance the sensory-motor stage prepares the child for the concrete operational stage, and the concrete operational stage prepares older children for the formal operational stage. But what happens when children are confined in seats and their senses are impaired, and they are then restrained from engagement in concrete reality? How can we expect them to become reasoning adults, capable of understanding complex relationships? Is it any wonder that our political parties oversimplify the issues we face, work in sound bites, and avoid the complexities of the modern world in getting votes.

According to tests conducted by scientists researching Piaget's stages of intellectual development, only 32% of all adults reach the formal operational stage, which then plays out well for those who would purposely take advantage of human stupidity in the democratic process. The following is from Epstein:
Only one-third of adults can reason formally. That means that two-thirds of the citizens in a democracy cannot understand the more complex issues facing them both in life and in elections. Unless ways can be found to increase the percentage, operation of democracies will depend on the ability to formulate issues in concrete terms so that voters can grasp the issues. We don't yet know if the percentages can be increased - that will take some enormously difficult and important research that should be specially funded in our democracy. Until that is achieved, if possible, the continued existence of democracies is in question.
 And so what can we do? The way forward from my perspective is clear. Instead of pushing kids so hard to read, write and do math, schools should be the places where kids do art, make music, formulate hypotheses of all kinds and test them in their own hands, and make beautiful and useful objects from wood.

Make, fix, create, and engage in helping others to learn likewise.

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