University Education As It Might Be and Ought To Be
Standard education not only fails to teach the philosophy, history, economics, and politics of a free society, but its methods oppress individuality and instead encourage conformity and obedience. It does the opposite of teaching young people how to live as free, autonomous persons. For a detailed look at the collectivist and authoritarian purpose and history of traditional education, especially government-run education, see my chapter “Liberating Education” in the book Common Ground On Common Core.
Of course, many colleges and universities are using all the bells and whistles of the latest physical technology, which makes the world’s knowledge available to their students through Internet-connected classrooms, cool electronic-writing technology, online discussion groups, and handheld quiz machines.
But the more crucial and fundamental psychological and social elements to learning are often still ignored, especially at the university level. Yet, a free future demands more than the dissemination of information; where do free individuals learn how to use it in their lives?
Given what we now know about human development, learning, and motivation, university education is ripe for a revolution in its psychological technology.
Students need an educational program that embodies the ideals of self-sufficient, self-responsible, goal seeking, and autonomous individuals. Furthermore, when freedom and autonomy are directly experienced, students become more engaged, interested, and enthusiastic learners and more often adopt the ideas and values of liberty. Such a system for lower education has been around for more than 100 years.
A Few of the Ingenious Features of the Montessori Method
"When you have solved the problem of controlling the attention of the child, you have solved the entire problem of education.” Maria Montessori
When it comes to attention and learning, Montessori could have been talking about anyone, not just the child. Without attention, there is no learning. Attention is crucial, yet attentional resources (focus) are limited. They must be used well to efficiently learn the most possible.
Further, the developed ability to concentrate on work and goals and to self-maintain interest and focus allow a person to succeed in long-term projects and purposes. In Montessori, Dewey, and Capitalism, Jerry Kirkpatrick calls this “Concentrated Attention.”
In his studies on intensely productive and creative people, University of Chicago research psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi found that certain conditions elevate the ability to pay attention, and concentrate deeply for long periods of time. In his seminal work, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, Csíkszentmihályi outlines his theory that people are happiest when they are in a state of Flow—a state of concentration or complete absorption with the activity at hand and the situation. The idea of flow is identical to the feeling of being in the zoneor in the groove. In an interview with Wired magazine, Csíkszentmihályi described Flow as “being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.”
Csíkszentmihályi also recognized that specially designed practices in Montessori classrooms provide these conditions throughout the school day. His research group, including, Kevin Rathunde, found many exceptional outcomes from these Montessori practices. The classic Montessori Three-Period Lesson ingeniously engages human attention. With small groups of students, teachers (or “Guides” as we prefer to call them in Montessori) demonstrate learning materials specially designed to focus attention on an important concept, such as whole number versus fractions. Objects and materials incorporating shapes, colors sounds, and textures concretely make the idea vivid. These Montessori materials engage the student’s whole intellect, sensory, motor, and conceptual, thereby powerfully imprinting memory.
The lesson’s three parts are Naming, Recognition and Association, and Recall. The Guide gathers one to four students ready for the particular lesson, seats them in front of the materials, and then demonstrates their use with only the essential words, naming the objects. For example, the Guide might use fraction circles to demonstrate the addition of fractions (see picture below).
These are sets of metal, pie-shaped circles cut into different quantities of wedges with little knobs on each wedge. One circle consists of 4 wedges, another of 12, to demonstrate fourths and twelfths while all the circles in the material are the same size, to embody whole number. There are numerous problems possible with these circles, including all the operations of arithmetic. In the most basic, the child can literally see the relationship of different fractional proportions by taking the wedges out of the circles and putting them back in—in different combinations. Each lesson demonstrates one possible use of the materials.
During the lesson, the Guide speaks little, allowing the student to concentratedly observe the demonstrated examples carefully so they recognize the elements and form associations. The Guide encourages questions from the students; she also, models curiosity, and triggers discussion with questions of her own when students are not forthcoming. Truly successful teachers are exceptional at listening to students’ questions, surmising what students need to know, and modeling and encouraging thinking.
After the fraction demonstration, the Guide asks the student to explain what to do with the materials to solve the next problem and moves the materials according to the student’s instructions. Finally, the Guide asks the student to demonstrate the material, turning student into teacher and thereby recalling the elements of the lesson.
After the lesson, the student is free to pursue more problems with the materials right then or use them later to practice when the student feels interested in working on the material, on the principle that one learns best when one is intrinsically motivated. Likewise, the Guide regularly takes notes while observing the children in her class and if she finds a child avoiding some material, she makes it her job to think of a way to interest the child in the work.
The Three-Period Lesson can be fruitfully adapted to many college-level subjects. In fact, some college classes, such as chemistry, often use a version of the Three-Period Lesson, with the experiment as the final student demonstration.
The two most important ingredients of achieving flow are self-motivation and the challenge-skill balance. A key to the Montessori Method’s success is its emphasis on conveying just the right amount of material at one lesson to remain sufficiently interesting but not overwhelming, i.e. exactly the conditions necessary for Flow. More frequent, shorter lessons with follow-up exercises are preferable to one long demonstration. Unfortunately, the stock standard tool of university pedagogy is often ill-designed for Flow—the Holy Grail of learning.
University Lectures in Their Proper Place
Lessons with materials and concrete experiences are not the norm in university education; lectures are the most common format. If organized well, lectures can distill a vast amount of information down to a few principles and key examples. A lecture can be an economical introduction to a subject. The best lectures essentialize the subject matter conveyed by the lecture.
However, as a method, lectures are designed to be easy for the teacher, not the student. They allow the teacher to recount his or her knowledge without feedback or interrupting questions .
For several reasons, students must exert an enormous amount of attentional effort to stay focused on what the speaker says during lectures. Unlike learning methods that make learning easy, the lecture usually does not engage the whole mind and body of the student. A lecture requires the learner to sit still and listen, with usually little to look at, and that, generally, in one place. This paucity of sensory-motor work makes it hard to cement learning in memory.
One of the reasons visual aids such as Microsoft Office PowerPoint, are preferred for use in lectures is because they offer sensory stimulation, providing at least some perceptual imagery to associate with the ideas being conveyed. Although, like books, lectures can have illustrations, the student cannot study the illustrations in a lecture as long as he or she wants.
Human interaction usually helps to increase interest as well as physically engage the student, but during a lecture, there is very little interaction between student and teacher. Often the lecture is aimed at a large or general audience and thus cannot address individual student goals, interests, and comprehension difficulties. Even lectures in small classes are usually not interactive.
A student cannot stop the lecture to ask a question or request a further, clarifying explanation or replay of what the lecturer said. Once confused, the student may find the rest of the lecture very difficult if not impossible to follow. Consequently, students often miss the important points and substantial content of the lecture.
In a lecture format, the best teachers attempt to address human learning needs by weaving their information into a story. Stories incorporate drama, character, values, passion, meaning, purpose, a climax, and resolution—that is, everything that rivet human attention. Winston Churchill was a master at this. This method utilizes human tendencies to search for meaning and purpose, to connect knowledge acquired to personal circumstances, and to remember people, places, and things more easily than abstract ideas.
Excellent lecturers use plenty of real-world illustrations to make the information vivid and connected to the outside world, and to stir the perceptual memory and emotions of the listener. Imaginative work and emotions help the student feel much more engaged in the material. Exceptional lecturer MIT physics professor Walter Lewin spends 30 hours and three practice trials developing each of the lectures for his remarkable classes.
The best learners are active learners. They can gain from almost any lecture; they come to a lecture motivated to learn for their own reasons. They expend extra effort in imagining their own examples in order to concretize the ideas they’re hearing. As they listen, they maintain an internal dialogue of questions with the lecturer, noting what they don’t understand and with what they take issue. They also tend to seek answers to their questions after the lecture.
Many teachers recognize that this kind of student is rare and usually has high intelligence, strong intellectual ambition, and great self-motivation. For the most part, traditional education methods do not nurture internal motivation and inherent interest in acquiring knowledge—qualities essential in the new global economy, which demands the ability to lithely move from job to job, or change careers.
Years at school of drills, memorization, and teaching methods out of tune with learning needs, usually turn most students away from enthusiastic learning in an academic setting. By the time they reach college age, they often are motivated mainly by external rewards. Their pursuit of grades, adult approval, superior social position, and the acquisition of credentials, makes real learning at university increasingly difficult. And then they run into droning lectures delivered to great halls crammed with hundreds.
Unfortunately, lectures are so difficult to pay attention to, and psychologically painful for most students, that students work hard to avoid them. During lectures, young students often goof around; consequently, they learn that they are “bad” and “undisciplined.” They are expected to know how to force their attention on boring material.
Older students attempting to pass their courses seek low-energy ways to fulfill requirements while maximizing grades, such as the use of tape recordings, buying others’ lecture notes, or passing multiple-choice tests without attending lectures.
These students aren’t inherently bad, they are responding to the high psychological costs of traditional education in a psychologically economical way. They can profitably spend their limited attentional resources elsewhere.
Sadly, they often feel guilt, frustration, and anger for failing to live up to the traditional classroom’s expectations, with a nagging disappointment for what they’ve missed—or should have gotten—from education. Many students desperately need help to become “active learners,” interested in the material and in charge of their own education.
Integration—but not the Kind You May Think I Mean
What college graduates do with the information they learn will now, more than ever, determine their competitive edge. Consequently, it is imperative that education teach how to think, create, and integrate what students learn in one subject with what they know from another and with what to do with it to further their lives. Broad knowledge and capability to learn combined with the ability to deftly integrate new material into one’s repertoire is essential to become an adaptable Versatilist, capable of switching careers as the economy demands.
Before valuable information and ideas can be stored in the mind’s subconscious, they have to pass through the conscious mind, which usually can handle only about seven discreet items at any one time (see George A. Miller’s 1956 psychological classic “The Magic Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two: Some Limits on our Capacity for Processing Information“). If you’ve ever wondered why you need a list to remember what you have to do, here’s the reason, and it’s one of the reasons for the limited attentional resources of our conscious minds.
Ideas—abstractions—are the primordial human inventions that circumvent this limitation, because ideas incorporate myriad data into a single audio-visual concrete, a word, or symbol. All instances of babies are integrated into the idea of “baby,” and you can apply what you know about babies to any individual baby you encounter. Voila! You’ve saved a lot of time and energy.
Ultimately, the integration of simple ideas, like those of colors or types of animals, into more abstract groupings like “mammal” make the human mind extremely powerful. Imagination and integration work together to produce the torrent that is human creativity. Integration of information into ideas and actions into skills is the psychologically economical way to use our limited conscious resources when thinking and solving problems.
The person who is a master at the careful, fact-based integration of knowledge, is a highly effective thinker and actor.
This is the reason any good curriculum must emphasize work on subject matter across domains of knowledge, by studying works that integrate epistemology (the theory of knowledge) with poetry, science with history, and, most crucially, philosophy with action, by asking students to relate what is learned in one class and course, with what is learned in another.