Meritocracy & Mnemosyne

If you want to be a teacher, I suppose it would help to have a teaching philosophy – and the implicit love of learning about teaching and education that must come with it. Over the last decade, advancements in neuroscience have made our blindfolded guesses about some aspects of education a little clearer. The ramifications of this are simple: 1) we need to upgrade our teaching habits, 2) these practices must be based on cognitive neuroscience, 3) they need to be part of the progressive development and upgrading of the learner’s brain and not work against it.

Here are some simple points related to education then.

Capacity: The human brain has a finite and self-limiting capacity for perception, interaction, content development and memory. When it exceeds this capacity, it will overwrite, transform, or otherwise alter its data structures. In fact, this happens all the time. This is why we now know that eye-witness accounts can never be accurate although they can be extremely precise in detail – the brain has an outstanding ability to manufacture and maintain illusory memories. In another sense, the brain has practically infinite capacity for storing things – it’s only a problem of establishing permanence and recalling specific information which has been established. The same datum can be stored in several different and redundant ways, which are reassembled or reconstructed on demand, and then reproduced in a form that is unique each time.

Content: The brain doesn’t store data in equivalent bits. This might sound strange, but in this age of largely digital information, the tendency is to see data as blocks of uniform chunks (bits, bytes etc). The brain creates holographs, which for a time we had no other way to represent except as ‘pictures’. Hence, there was a well-intentioned but not very useful move towards mind-mapping. The brain really stores content in multidimensional structures with no easily quantifiable chunk size or shape. The structures interlock and change frequently. You cannot say ‘a memory’ usefully when each memory is just a temporary focal spot in a microcosmic universe. Can you remember the number that comes after ‘3’? You can? What do you remember it as? And was there any sidetracking or interference? Did anyone think of pi instead?

Creativity: The brain iterates, reiterates and associates among all its nodes. Sometimes, this is called reverie, or dreaming. Sometimes it is something else. Certain numbers tend to be associated with certain things – patterns, structures, designs. This is because the brain favours symmetry and proportionality, as these take up less ‘space’. The brain respects asymmetry and disproportionality because they require greater processing effort, and hence ‘attract attention’. This is why it automatically creates patterns (and why pattern is comforting to humans), while at the same time, it focuses on what is different. Human creativity therefore is a combination of making things fit in place and making things that don’t fit. It is somewhat analogous to the margin between chaos and void in patterns like the Mandelbrot set.

Conclusions: It is therefore important for an educational system to develop the effective use of the natural modes of the brain. No point excessively stressing linear thought, recall, non-linear thought, verbal expression etc. Rather, if we had to design a system of education from scratch, it should be as broad and random as possible while maintaining a few constraints. You would have to develop ways of teaching which include the following:

1) Give the brain some overarching concept which is visually symmetrical and has enough elements to engage it while not having enough to confuse it. Think of hexagons and triangles and other simple data structures.

2) Show parallels and patterns which share data elements. Obvious examples: {seven dwarfs, seven samurai, seven days of the week, seven colours of the rainbow}, {blackbirds, ravens, crows, jays, rooks, magpies, jackdaws}.

3) Teach learners how to express non-linear data as a linear communication. Conversely, teach learners to unpack linear communications into non-linear structures. The main thing is to train the brain to pack and unpack efficiently and effectively. Examples include poetry writing and poetry analysis.

4) Allow for creativity within strict limits. This sounds odd, but it is the norm – consider sculpture (material and mass limits), painting (chromatic and size limits), music (equipment and harmonic limits) and so on. There is no such thing as lack of creativity; there is only a problem with contexts in which creativity is minimally useful or too diverse to be processed.

5) Develop learner ability to create and define tasks and task sets, weave them into plans, and carry them out. In the long run, letting students decide what homework to do and entrusting the choice to them will prepare them for the real world.

6) Enforce random and gruelling assessment with periods of recovery, rest, and relaxation in between – and equally enforced. This is what most of the world is like!

A philosophy of education would simply have to be a collection of coherent ideas and thoughts developed systematically from these principles and deployed in the service of learning. Future cohorts of teachers should think long and hard about this. Actually, present cohorts of teachers should too.


Original post here.

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