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Understanding Why Education Must Change

by Renate Nummela Caine and Geoffrey Caine

Why do people continue to say that education has to change? And just exactly does "change" mean? Some voices tell us that we need to go back to the basics. After all, reading, writing and arithmetic have always been essential and continue to be just that. Other voices call on us to make learning more flexible - to include various learning styles for example, and make learning more experiential and collaborative. Still others want both, and we count ourselves in that third group.

The perspective that we bring to bear on the issue is shaped by the emerging brain research and by what is happening to society as it moves into the era where working with communication, rather than working in factories, will be the future for most of the students we teach. And the real truth is that at this moment very few people know what schooling should look like in the communications era. In addition, the process of moving from one model of schooling to another that is as yet unknown is causing both chaos and confusion as well as immense opportunity and new possibilities.

The entire journey looks something like this:

The question is how to get there from here? In Education on the Edge of Possibility we argued that we need to understand the underlying process by means of which new systems and ways of doing things emerge. More specifically, we suggest that a set of very basic beliefs actually gave rise to the current system of education.

We expressed that set of beliefs in the following way:

Only experts create knowledge.

Teachers deliver knowledge in the form of information.

Children are graded on how much of the information they have stored.

If teachers and educators can take the time to reflect on their own assumptions and beliefs, they will find that at the heart of almost everything that is now taken for granted about education is a belief in the three statements above. One implication, for instance, is that teachers, administrators and some others are in charge of knowledge and how it reaches students. Thus they are in charge of dividing knowledge, on topics ranging from the Egyptians to the Solar System, into appropriate "chunks" of information given to students within appropriate time slots. All this is done in ?fairy sterile buildings and rooms that house large numbers of students, and the entire enterprise is monitored and motivated by testing and grades.

Now the brain research doesn't say that this approach is necessarily wrong. It just reveals that this kind of approach is not compatible with how the brain learns best. And the brain research does provide a foundation for understanding ways to teach that help students learn better and become healthier, happier learners for life. For instance we now know that the brain processes parts and wholes simultaneously, that we are all innately motivated to search for meaning, that the search for meaning occurs through patterning and is profoundly influenced by emotions, that we have different forms of memory, that each brain is uniquely organized and more. When the brain is fully engaged then students acquire more than memorized surface knowledge. They acquire knowledge that is dynamic - the sort of knowledge that is naturally and spontaneously invoked in authentic interactions in the the real world.

Also, if we consider what technology in the information era makes available to children and students, we find that trying to control knowledge the way we are used to is beginning to look like holding water in our hands. Information is available everywhere and in multiple forms, from complex software to 500 television channels to the world wide web. Not all children have access to everyone of these, but not having access is already handicapping children now in school and will continue to do severe damage to their futures as the school years progress. This massive flow and availability of information, together with our new appreciation of just how interconnected the human brain is, will be for education to become much more complex. And that is precisely what is needed if we are to teach for dynamic rather than surface knowledge.

We can not know exactly how things will turn out. But we have to ground what we do on the best of what is known about how people learn and how systems function. For those who work with education extensively, a great deal of learning is needed. In addition, one element is absolutely indispensable if the new forms of education are to be available for all children, and that is that the community as a whole needs to have an appropriate set of fundamental assumptions about the nature of learning itself. The systems that emerge will be the product of those assumptions.

So what does all this mean? We suggest that if the three assumptions described above are changed, and if we take an appropriate set of new assumptions seriously, then society will get the system that it needs, even if we do not now know what it will look like. Here, then, is our suggestion for new assumptions that can guide us in the next century.


Dynamic knowledge ( the sort of knowledge that is naturally and spontaneously invoked in authentic interactions in the the real world) requires individual meaning making based upon multiple sources of information;

The role of educators is to facilitate the making of dynamic knowledge;

Dynamic knowledge is revealed through real world performance.

The change involves everyone, and as yet (or perhaps never again) no one has the exact answers. The world we are entering is one of multiple answers and infinite possibilities. It looks "messy" and trial and error is essential. But we must learn how to live in that world. Because our children have no choice.

About the Authors

Renate Nummela Caine, Ph.D., is professor of education at California State University, San Bernardino, CA. You can reach the Caines at P O Box 1847, Idyllwild, CA 92549.

Geoffrey Caine, LL.M., is the national director of the MindBrain Network of the American Society for Training and Development.

Copyright © July 1997

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