“It is a miracle that curiosity survives formal education.” (Albert Einstein; German-born theoretical physicist and 1921 Nobel Prize winner; 1879-1955.)
“Education is what remains after one has forgotten what one has learned in school.” (Albert Einstein; German-born theoretical physicist and 1921 Nobel Prize winner; 1879-1955.)
“Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.” (Albert Einstein; German-born theoretical physicist and 1921 Nobel Prize winner; 1879-1955.)
As indicated in a previous newsletter, I have lung cancer. Like all people, I have a limited lifespan ahead of me. My lifespan will likely be shorter that I had previously expected, but will be longer than that of many people currently living enjoyable, productive lives. I intend to continue enjoying my life, learning, and writing as long as my physical and cognitive capabilities permit this endeavor.
I seem to have recovered fully from the 4-hour surgery I had on my back about six weeks ago. This removed some of the cancer there, and relieved the pressure it was creating on a nerve that went into my left arm. I now have completed ten radiation treatments on that spinal cancer location. Next will come chemo and immuno therapy, and perhaps more radiation treatments on other locations.
This first round of radiation has not been debilitating. However, it made me need to sleep more than usual. The chemo and immuno therapies will undoubtedly be considerably more debilitating—we will see what we will see. My quality of life remains quite good.
As best as current researchers have been able to determine, current humans evolved over a period of more than seven million years from great apes. Such evolution is a long, slow process, likely occurring as the genes of some great apes adjusted to changes in the diets available in the areas where they resided. We share 99-percent of our genes with the current great apes.
However, the “expression” of genes (the actual functioning of genes) can change quite rapidly. This concept of the functioning of genes being changed by (adjusting to) a creature’s environment is relatively new. In recent years, we have gained increased insight into this idea by studying the genetic structure and the functioning of genes in children growing up in abject poverty, and the subsequent children of such children. This field of study is called epigenetics.
Quoting from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention https://www.cdc.gov/genomics/disease/epigenetics.htm:
Your genes play an important role in your health, but so do your behaviors and environment, such as what you eat and how physically active you are. Epigenetics is the study of how your behaviors and environment can cause changes that affect the way your genes work. Unlike genetic changes, epigenetic changes are reversible and do not change your DNA sequence, but they can change how your body reads a DNA sequence.
Gene expression refers to how often or when proteins are created from the instructions within your genes. While genetic changes can alter which protein is made, epigenetic changes affect gene expression to turn genes “on” and “off.” Since your environment and behaviors, such as diet and exercise, can result in epigenetic changes, it is easy to see the connection between your genes and your behaviors and environment.
In brief summary, we now have considerable research-based evidence on how growing up in abject poverty (often with a single parent who is struggling mightily to make ends meet) is related to poor performance in our school system. We also know that such epigenetic changes can be passed on to the children of parents who have grown up in abject poverty.
As indicated in the quote from the CDC, the genes themselves have not been changed. It is how the genes are expressed that has been changed, and this process is reversible.
In previous newsletters, I have stated that I believe that in a country as wealthy as the United States, no child should grow up in such poverty. Some aspects of a decent quality of life in our society relate to the food, clothing, shelter, health care, education, some discretionary funds for personal enjoyment, along with computer, cell phone, and Web access, that our country can well afford to provide to all of its children. Such easily quantifiable contributors to a decent quality of life by no means ensure a good quality of life. But, they can move a person far above the level of abject poverty.
In no sense am I suggesting that all children will succeed equally well in school if we eliminate abject poverty. Schools provide a particular type of environment, and students vary considerably in how well they do in this environment. The combination of my genetic inheritance and my rich academic-oriented home (both of my parents taught mathematics at the University of Oregon) helped me to be very successful in my lifelong career of being a student and teacher.
Here is a different way to look at this situation. There are major genetic differences in children. The genetic makeup of some children fits well with the types of teaching we currently provide and the learning that we expect to occur in our schools. We also know that many students who do not succeed, or who are only moderately successful in our school systems, will live productive, successful adult lives and do well in careers that are not highly dependent on the types of knowledge and skills stressed in our current schools.
During the days while I was recently in the hospital, I did informal research by interviewing a great many of the hospital workers that I came into contact with. I repeatedly encountered people who were very good at the “service” types of jobs they were performing, but asserted that they had found their high school education rather useless. They all had considerable post-high school training and improvement in their people skills that prepared them for the types of service jobs they currently hold. Their training was hands-on, clearly oriented to gaining the knowledge and skills needed to fill a certain type of job.
I also likely to talk with the maintenance personnel, and others who work in the condominium where I live. For the most part, the people working here routinely use knowledge and skills that they learned on the job or through vocational training. To a great extent, they did not prosper in our schools. However, through some combination of their schooling, training, and on their own they have learned to learn—and to be able to deal successfully with new problems and tasks as they arise on the job.
For me, this has been an “aha” realization. Why not change current schools to include a significant emphasis on students deciding for themselves the things that they want to learn about or learn how to do, and provide them with access to help in accomplishing their personally-selected learning tasks? We also can help them learn to self-assess their learning accomplishments. This could be an integral component of schooling at all grade levels.
An important aspect of this proposal is the fact that we now can provide every student with good access to computer-based, highly-interactive, artificially intelligent computer-assisted, multimedia learning aids over a huge range of topic areas. Success in such individualized learning is not measured by the paper-and-pencil traditional and/or standardized tests that guide our current teaching and assessment. You are familiar with the idea of authentic assessment. Do you believe that our current emphasis on closed book, closed notes, timed paper-and-pencil tests constitutes authentic assessment? Outside of this school setting, many people nowadays draw freely on computers and connectivity as an aid to solving the problems and accomplishing the tasks they encounter, both on the job and in their personal lives.
I also want to see our school curriculum modified so that children work in pairs or small groups to routinely decide on a topic or area of mutual interest, and then work together to learn. We now see this occurring routinely outside of school, as children learn from each other how to use a cell phone, other electronic devices, and the Web. Children readily gain the knowledge and skills they deem useful and fun—and are perhaps somewhat amused that their parents and other adults find it difficult to acquire such knowledge and skills, or perhaps do not have them at all.
As I have pointed out repeatedly in my previous writing, out current school systems are not keeping up with the pace of change in computer technology. Students need to be learning to learn and to function in a world that provides routine access to this rapidly expanding and improving computer technology. The traditional paper-and-pencil closed book testing system is archaic relative to the world in which today’s adults are functioning. When was the last time you saw students taking open computer, open Web access tests in the various subject areas they are studying? Doesn’t it seem a little strange to you that there is so much difference between such assessments and the functionalities that are important to adults in our society?
David Moursund is an Emeritus Professor of Education at the University of Oregon, and editor of the IAE Newsletter. His professional career includes founding the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) in 1979, serving as ISTE’s executive officer for 19 years, and establishing ISTE’s flagship publication, Learning and Leading with Technology (now published by ISTE as Empowered Learner). He was the major professor or co-major professor for 82 doctoral students. He has presented hundreds of professional talks and workshops. He has authored or coauthored more than 60 academic books and hundreds of articles.