Why Teachers Won’t Listen to Cognitive Science

Here's a picture of the brain, to prove I'm right.

Here’s a picture of the brain, to prove I’m right.

There was a time when everyone in education knew that if you wanted to master a subject, you needed to work hard, practice frequently and memorise large amounts of information. No one has ever forgotten these basic points in practical areas, because to do so would clearly lead to disaster. I’ll never forget how hard my first year flatmates at university had to work. They were studying engineering, and it was like a job! They had to learn loads of stuff, while I loafed about with hardly anything to do on my English degree.

It used to be obvious that if you wanted to master literature or history then similar levels of sustained effort would be required. Then the progressivists came along and ticked off those nasty schoolmasters for filling the children’s heads with facts, and sternly insisting that they learn them thoroughly. The law of effort had been repealed, and we were now going to unleash our natural potential by, to use Walt Whitman’s words, loafing, and inviting our souls at ease.

This revolution was the equivalent of engineers announcing that they had repealed the law of gravity. Now their bridges would not have to follow the tedious rules slavishly obeyed by their forefathers. The results were also comparable and predictable: widespread collapse of the fancy structures erected by those who had defied the laws of nature.

The cognitive scientists who have reminded the world of education of what everyone used to know anyway — that memorisation is necessary, that learning takes effort and repeated practice — are like a physicist coming to spoil the fun of the revolutionary engineers. The physicist would humbly point out to them that the law of gravity cannot be repealed, and that their bridges are likely to collapse if they fail to observe it.

Kind of obvious, you might think. So why won’t educators listen to the cognitive scientists? Why are we not seeing a large scale revival of hard work and subject knowledge mastery through repeated practice?

The barriers are philosophical, and moral. In order to justify his desire to live exactly as he pleases, modern man has concluded that human nature is exempt from any objective law whatsoever. While he fawns upon the scientists who unlock the secrets of external nature (because they make his life so much more comfortable and convenient) he creates a strict barrier around his own nature, and forbids entrance to anyone who would presume to use the methods of reason and logic to arrive at certain conclusions. Philosophy traditionally understood — the search for what is good, true and beautiful — has been abandoned, or marginalised to the point of irrelevance. Modern man’s freedom must be unconstrained, so he must remain in blissful ignorance. He therefore plugs his ears while his impossible constructions, his castles in the air, collapse around him.

Reality bites back, but so many of us have departed so far from it, taking the drugs offered by the Romantics, that we are unlikely to notice its revenge. As far as human affairs are concerned, we simply don’t believe in the existence of objective reality. The scientists can make discoveries until kingdom come, because we know better. Human nature must be a blank canvas on which we can paint whatever we choose. If it turned out not to be, how could we continue doing whatever we liked and refusing to accept that there will be consequences?

The Matrix is a great metaphor for our times. And we need to take a large blue pill before we are going to be able to profit from the discoveries of cognitive science.

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7 thoughts on “Why Teachers Won’t Listen to Cognitive Science

  1. Not sure if I’m allowed to comment after not quite getting it in your last post….

    Do you think the practice of philosophy has too deviated – i.e. the philosophical debates of the 1960s and 1970s were of a different standard or for a different purpose. The way more progressive education philosophers come across to me (I have only studied political philosophy and then as a minor subject) is not really searching for the truth as much as stating their opinion of the kind of utopian ideal we should be trying to manufacture – a heaven on earth as they say.

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    • Philosophy had already disappeared by the 1960s. It was abolished by Nietzsche many years before. It was going down political rabbit holes, supporting ‘values’ but with no conviction of truth, by the sixties. The definitive separation of philosophy from natural science dates from Kant’s ‘Critique of Pure Reason’. Before that, science and philosophy were united in the search for truth about nature, including human nature. After Kant, human nature was removed from the realm of rational inquiry. Progressive education is directly descended from Rousseau via Kant and Nietzsche. Human beings are presumed to create their own truth out of an existential void. Hence the privileging of so-called creativity on the basis of emptiness and ignorance.

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  2. In 1962, in his book “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions,” Thomas Kuhn suggested that scientists would more quickly accept new theories if they were supported by numeric data. The relatively recent measurements of the characteristics of human working memory (especially those published by Nelson Cowan in 2001) offer quantitative proof that during problem solving, the brain must rely almost exclusively on facts and procedures that have been well-memorized. Perhaps faculty in the sciences will be more willing to accept the new cognitive science? One can hope? The work of Cowan and others on the necessity for “automaticity” in recall of memorized facts and procedures is reviewed at http://www.ChemReview.Net/CogSciForChemists.pdf and at the “Chemistry and Cognition” blog.

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Thoughtful and reasonable discussion is always welcome.

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