09/02/2014 12:31 EDT | Updated 11/02/2014 05:59 EST

Educators Need to Embrace Change

Shutterstock / michaeljung

About 200 years ago in Austria, women started to go to the hospital to have their babies instead of having them at home. Surprisingly, the percentage of women dying in childbirth then began to rise. In one Vienna hospital in the 1840's, 20-30 per cent of women were dying in childbirth -- most from puerperal fever. Their doctors, unaware of the existence of germs, routinely went from doing autopsies on pustulant corpses to delivering babies -- without washing their hands in between. As a result, many women developed infections and, in an era without antibiotics, died.

A Hungarian doctor, Ignaz Semmelweis, noted that when midwives delivered babies in the same hospital the death rate was more like 2 per cent. He proposed the theory that puerperal fever was contagious, and started making his doctors wash their hands with an antiseptic solution. Immediately, the hospital saw a sharp drop in the incidence of the deadly fever. However, despite this remarkable success, Dr. Semmelweis' theories were forcefully rejected and ridiculed by his contemporaries and his important discovery was largely ignored by the medical establishment until 1879 when Louis Pasteur proved that many diseases are caused by invisible micro-organisms and Joseph Lister, acting on the Pasteur's research, introduced hygienic methods with great success.

It is always hard to change when new information challenges the existing way of doing things. People like their routines, and change is scary and difficult. Often current practitioners have a vested interest in the status quo.

This is how things stand at present in the world of education. New information is challenging the status quo way of doing things, and education decision-makers are doing their level best to dismiss and ignore the new information.

The current approach to education has its roots in the philosophy of Jean-Jacques Rousseau about 250 years ago. Rousseau believed that the key goal of education was to develop children's character and moral sense, and make them "reasoning men" (higher-order thinkers). He wrote that the educational process should be as close as possible to "natural" learning. Rousseau's precepts were given flesh and blood about 100 years ago by John Dewey, who emphasized hands-on learning, teachers as partners in the learning process, independent discovery of meaning, and the like.

These ideas have been repackaged and renamed many times. The latest iteration is something called "21st-Century Learning", but the basic approach has remained essentially unchanged for more than 100 years. Rousseau's and Dewey's ideas seemed fresh and promising when they were first discussed, but after more than a century of implementation, the results are in. They're not good. Unfortunately, there have been few success stories using this method -- student learning has been disappointing and parents have been disappointed.

For many years there was no educational Louis Pasteur for reformers to rally round, and so educators have been able to cling to their unfortunate philosophies.

This is no longer the case. Researchers in different domains have made huge strides in understanding how the human brain learns. Their findings -- from the fields of cognitive science, neuroscience, pediatrics, and neurology -- have converged. It has now been definitively established that Dewey was wrong. New discoveries about the limits of working memory and how the brain stores and retrieves information point to more effective ways of teaching, which include systematic instruction, the accumulation of knowledge, practice, and memorization.

Unfortunately, many education leaders are ignoring these new findings. Why is that? Dr. Semmelweis could tell you. Resistance to change is a very human impulse, especially when it means admitting error. But it doesn't justify neglecting evidence that could improve learning outcomes for whole generations of students.

It is educators' job to teach the value of scientific thinking. Now it is time for the education community to sit up and take notice of the new science of learning. Who among today's education leaders will be the Joseph Lister of education?


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