Education as we know it does not accomplish what we believe it does

The more we discover about cognition and the brain, the more we will realize that education as we know it does not accomplish what we believe it does.

It is not my purpose to echo familiar critiques of our schools. My concerns are of a different nature and apply to the full spectrum of education, including our institutions of higher education, which arguably are the finest in the world.

Our understanding of the intersection between genetics and neuroscience (and their behavioral correlates) is still in its infancy. This century will bring forth an explosion of new knowledge on the genetic and environmental determinants of cognition and brain development, on what and how we learn, on the neural basis of human interaction in social and political contexts, and on variability across people.

Are we prepared to transform our educational institutions if new science challenges cherished notions of what and how we learn? As we acquire the ability to trace genetic and environmental influences on the development of the brain, will we as a society be able to agree on what our educational objectives should be?

Since the advent of scientific psychology we have learned a lot about learning. In the years ahead we will learn a lot more that will continue to challenge our current assumptions. We will learn that some things we currently assume are learnable are not (and vice versa), that some things that are learned successfully don't have the impact on future thinking and behavior that we imagine, and that some of the learning that impacts future thinking and behavior is not what we spend time teaching. We might well discover that the developmental time course for optimal learning from infancy through the life span is not reflected in the standard educational time line around which society is organized. As we discover more about the gulf between how we learn and how we teach, hopefully we will also discover ways to redesign our systems — but I suspect that the latter will lag behind the former.

Our institutions of education certify the mastery of spheres of knowledge valued by society. Several questions will become increasingly pressing, and are even pertinent today. How much of this learning persists beyond the time at which acquisition is certified? How does this learning impact the lives of our students? How central is it in shaping the thinking and behavior we would like to see among educated people as they navigate, negotiate and lead in an increasingly complex world?

We know that tests and admissions processes are selection devices that sort people into cohorts on the basis of excellence on various dimensions. We know less about how much even our finest examples of teaching contribute to human development over and above selection and motivation.

Even current knowledge about cognition (specifically, our understanding of active learning, memory, attention, and implicit learning) has not fully penetrated our educational practices, because of inertia as well as a natural lag in the application of basic research. For example, educators recognize that active learning is superior to the passive transmission of knowledge. Yet we have a long way to go to adapt our educational practices to what we already know about active learning.

We know from research on memory that learning trials bunched up in time produce less long term retention than the same learning trials spread over time. Yet we compress learning into discrete packets called courses, we test learning at the end of a course of study, and then we move on. Furthermore, memory for both facts and methods of analytic reasoning are context-dependent. We don't know how much of this learning endures, how well it transfers to contexts different from the ones in which the learning occurred, or how it influences future thinking.

At any given time we attend to only a tiny subset of the information in our brains or impinging on our senses. We know from research on attention that information is processed differently by the brain depending upon whether or not it is attended, and that many factors — endogenous and exogenous — control our attention. Educators have been aware of the role of attention in learning, but we are still far from understanding how to incorporate this knowledge into educational design. Moreover, new information presented in a learning situation is interpreted and encoded in terms of prior knowledge and experience; the increasingly diverse backgrounds of students placed in the same learning contexts implies that the same information may vary in its meaningfulness to different students and may be recalled differently.

Most of our learning is implicit, acquired automatically and unconsciously from interactions with the physical and social environment. Yet language — and hence explicit, declarative or consciously articulated knowledge — is the currency of formal education.

Social psychologists know that what we say about why we think and act as we do is but the tip of a largely unconscious iceberg that drives our attitudes and our behavior. Even as cognitive and social neuroscience reveals the structure of these icebergs under the surface of consciousness (for example, persistent cognitive illusions, decision biases and perceptual biases to which even the best educated can be unwitting victims), it will be less clear how to shape or redirect these knowledge icebergs under the surface of consciousness.

Research in social cognition shows clearly that racial, cultural and other social biases get encoded automatically by internalizing stereotypes and cultural norms. While we might learn about this research in college, we aren't sure how to counteract these factors in the very minds that have acquired this knowledge.

We are well aware of the power of non-verbal auditory and visual information, which when amplified by electronic media capture the attention of our students and sway millions. Future research should give us a better understanding of nuanced non-verbal forms of communication, including their universal and culturally based aspects, as they are manifest in social, political and artistic contexts.

Even the acquisition of declarative knowledge through language — the traditional domain of education — is being usurped by the internet at our finger tips. Our university libraries and publication models are responding to the opportunities and challenges of the information age. But we will need to rethink some of our methods of instruction too. Will our efforts at teaching be drowned out by information from sources more powerful than even the best classroom teacher?

It is only a matter of time before we have brain-related technologies that can alter or supplement cognition, influence what and how we learn, and increase competition for our limited attention. Imagine the challenges for institutions of education in an environment in which these technologies are readily available, for better or worse.

The brain is a complex organ, and we will discover more of this complexity. Our physical, social and information environments are also complex and are becoming more so through globalization and advances in technology. There will be no simple design principles for how we structure education in response to these complexities.

As elite colleges and universities, we see increasing demand for the branding we confer, but we will also see greater scrutiny from society for the education we deliver. Those of us in positions of academic leadership will need wisdom and courage to examine, transform and justify our objectives and methods as educators.