Peter Kline on Education in the Cognitive Age
Introduciton by Betsy Hill: I learned last Thursday of the death of Peter Kline in mid-December 2020. Peter was an educator known for his ability to inspire students, a thespian known for his practiced pratfalls and patter, and a thinker known for his certainty that things can and should change, especially in education. I have the great good fortune to have been able to consider Peter a friend and mentor.
Peter wrote at least 12 books so many of his ideas are available for the perusing. But, as I looked through various things Peter and I had worked on together, I found some that had never met the light of day. One that I want to share, was inspired by an Op-Ed in the New York Times by David Brooks on “The Cognitive Age.”
Mr. Brooks’ Op-Ed on The Cognitive Age points out some important truths about the world our children and grandchildren will need to compete in. It is also important to recognize that, while the cognitive demands of our society increase, our educational system is designed to guarantee that we continue to fall farther and farther behind.
Until recently almost everyone on earth died in the same cultural milieu he or she was born into. There was no such thing as international trade, no contact between cultures, no need for political correctness. Everything about life was pretty much as it was supposed always to have been – except of course for the mythic past when things were believed to have been much more beautiful than they have ever been since.
Human beings have not evolved for the purpose of changing their ways, because there has never been a need for drastic change.. If you were a hunter-gatherer, you learned skills your ancestors had used exactly as you were supposed to use them, with some incremental improvements. The same if you were a farmer, a merchant, a smith or a member of the nobility. Life had always been more or less the way it was in the current now.
And then the computer was invented and, all of a sudden, things began to change so fast that parents had to learn from their children just to keep up with things that mostly they were sure they would never be able to understand.
With the age of the computer – the information age – came the need for a sudden and very dramatic change in the process of education. Suddenly, in order to earn a decent living, you had to master new information at warp speed. You had to learn about concepts and processes that didn’t even exist a few years before, and you were constantly competing with others who had to learn the same things.
But people still went to school and learned almost exactly the same things their grandparents had been taught in school. School became a means of keeping the status quo, a place where the knowledge being delivered and the skills being taught were no longer sufficient or sometimes even applicable to what was now needed in the workforce. And worse, it failed to develop any understanding or sense that we can all change our brains and our cognitive effectiveness.
Today nobody even knows what people are going to need to know tomorrow. As new concepts keep entering the economy faster and faster, it’s like living in the jungle. You just have to figure out how to stay alive.
Staying alive in the jungle of modern life (the Cognitive Age) requires lots of strong COGNITIVE SKILLS.
Fortunately, the human brain has a characteristic called plasticity. That is, it can change very quickly and learn new skills at any time and any age. All you have to do is have the right kinds of experiences that inspire your brain to figure out how to do all sorts of things it never had to do before.
Unfortunately, cognitive skills have, until very recently, been difficult if not downright impossible to teach in the classroom because they require a series of intense activities individualized for each different brain.
Computers and applied neuroscience change all that. BrainWare SAFARI, for example, develops cognitive skills critical for building learning capacity. It has demonstrated an average of over 4 years of intellectual growth over 11 weeks of use and is delivered like a video game. Other programs are available that develop specific auditory, attention or memory skills.
It is possible today to design video games that are fun to play but that also get your brain to learn all sorts of skills that you’ll need to hold down a job in the Age of Cognitive Skills. If the computer games are good enough, people will get smarter and smarter and smarter, until they’ll all be smart enough to make Einstein and Da Vinci wonder as they look down from Heaven how come everyone on earth is doing stuff that would have been completely beyond them had they been asked to do it.
There are two possible futures for you. One is that you develop huge batches of cognitive skills and have the time of your life creating a world newer and more different from the world that used to be than it ever was before.
The other is that you don’t have any future at all.