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Reflections Upon Education in the New Millennium

For the Conference of Southwest Foundations, Pre-Conference on Educational Reform,
The Hilton Hotel, Santa Fe, New Mexico, 10:30 AM, Tuesday, September 26, 2000

by John H. Lienhard
Mechanical Engineering Department
University of Houston
Houston, TX 77204-4792
jhl [at] (jhl[at]uh[dot]edu)

Classroom of another era Education has certainly taken center stage as a modern issue. Of course if you listen to the elders of any generation you'll hear that education, and the young, are going to hell -- nothing new about that. But in fifty years of teaching I've never seen questions about education as front-and-center as they are today.

Actually, there's good reason for today's rising concern over education. We're in the midst of a stunning communications revolution. The way we talk with one another is being altered more radically than it was five hundred years ago in Gutenberg's wake. All this creates a huge problem in education, and it's a problem you're right to be concerned with.

I'd like suggest three focal points -- three matters that we all need to think about as we struggle to come to grips with the situation. Those foci are

1.) Spatial Visualization and the Manual Arts
2.) Memorization
3.) Pointillism and Standardized Tests

First, Spatial Visualization. I need to stress that this is not exactly what it appears to be. To see why, join me on a visit I made to Yale University two years ago. I'd just given a talk at the medical school. Afterward, my host took me to a graduate student's office. "I think you should meet this man," he said. The student, doing his Ph.D. in genetics, was blind. And one field that depends heavily on graphical information is genetics. You need to see patterns.

So I talked with this blind student about the most important issue in his life, which was visualization. This man had a highly honed ability to visualize. That may seem contradictory, but ask yourself, who does more mental visualization: we sighted people or that student who didn't have the use of his eyes?

bronze elephantHe reminded me that the old fable about the seven blind men and the elephant serves to describe a weakness that we sighted people suffer, not the weakness of blindness itself. For this student was very good at recreating, in his head, the three-dimensional world around him. Try this experiment sometime: Close your eyes and walk around, guiding yourself through your office or your home by recollection and mental reconstruction. One of two things will happen: Either you'll manage to recreate the material world around you in your mind, or you'll end up hopelessly lost in your own room. This idea is central to what I'm saying here. For that blind man stands in stark contrast with what passes for visualization in education today. Think, for a moment, how we visualize in today's world.

Watching TV and computer images can be a splendid experience. Forty years ago we could not have dreamt what we see on screens today. But now the mathematics behind geometry and perspective is built into our machines. Once we used drafting to translate the pictures in our mind into pictures on paper. Now we never see the picture inside our own heads. We see it only after the computer has built it for us on the screen.

Let me tell you something very surprising about Gothic Cathedrals. Did you know that those majestic buildings were erected by masons who did the job with no working drawings? The subtle grace of Gothic cathedrals was a stunning feat. The barrel vaults, Gothic arches, trumpet squinches, and flying buttresses were all concepts that were fully expressed only in the mason's mind before they were actually built.

Masons had no symbolic math. The first ones didn't even read and write. As we comb the rich medieval record, we find no architectural drawings, only the crudest sketches. Yet medieval cathedrals are filled with geometry and proportion, from labyrinths in mosaic floor tiles to the criss-cross ribs that hold the ceiling.

But if the mason had one overriding talent, it was an ability to see in three dimensions. Compare that with our work today. Our computers fairly sing with the ability to show us objects in space. They turn objects around and show them to us from every angle. They place us up close or far away. What the medieval engineer did in his head, the computer does for us. Once the computer has done that, it displays that object on a two-dimensional screen. What once went on inside our heads is now presented to our eyes. And we see the very texture of human thought changing today in ways that are hard for you and me to conceive.

We do less and less mental construction as we call up finished images on two-dimensional screens. And the gains are so great that we forget that they come at a price. The electronic media have left a great vacuum, and we have no idea how to fill it.

So what's the solution? I think that a recent New York Times article gives us an important clue. It tells how New York has long operated vocational high schools. Such schools were common when I was young. But, more than that, vocational training was a part of any high school. You could take drafting, home economics, wood shop, maybe even metal shop, typing, print shop, and more. Those courses have waned in regular high schools. More and more they've been consigned to vocational schools whose students don't expect to go to college. College-bound students no longer expect to hone manual skills. And that has created a crisis in New York.

No one doubts the value of vocational high schools. But who's left to teach in them? In the past eight years, attendance in those schools has dropped less than seven percent. But, during that same time, New York has lost sixty percent of its welding instructors, eighty-three percent of its refrigeration/air conditioning teachers, almost ninety percent of its woodworking instructors, and nobody at all is left to teach machine shop.

The logic of that is painfully obvious. High schools, including vocational schools, want college-educated teachers. But vocational high schools no longer expect to feed students into college. The simple consequence is that few graduates of any college of education are qualified to teach vocational material.

But that's only a symptom of a greater problem. For one thing, it is in these manual courses that spatial ability is inevitably shaped. I don't believe that anyone who's never handled tools can call himself or herself educated. Our culture rests upon manufactured things -- beds, chairs, TVs, cars, thermostats, window panes. It rests upon the highly honed and complex technology of making books. The idea that we can serve our society, vote, and expand our culture without the elemental knowledge of making things is wrong. For one thing, we wind up talking about things we don't understand.

But we also lose a basic dimension of abstract thinking. To make solid three-dimensional things we have to expand our vision into 3-D. I can't make a table leg, a radio, or a working drawing of a real object without venturing into an abstract mental world. That world will stay hidden as long as I gaze only at two-dimensional paper or at a flat screen.

We come to this pass in our educational system through simplistic straight-line thinking. It goes like this: Leaders are people who know literature and economics; leaders don't operate lathes. Therefore, to produce leaders, forget lathes and drill presses. Forget drafting! Forget music and art!

We need to remember that Thomas Jefferson loved to work with his hands. He was a fine draftsman and an excellent violinist. Ben Franklin constantly designed and built things. Jimmy Carter and Barry Goldwater both spent their lives working with their hands. George Washington worked as a surveyor. The young Teddy Roosevelt worked as a rancher. Herbert Hoover was once America's leading mining engineer. We need to remember that manual skills are what really shaped America.

So, Item One, Spatial Visualization. It's badly deteriorated. And I suspect that the way to save it will be to resurrect the many manual and physical arts -- shop, music, art, and drawing.

Next, Item Two: Memorization. Here's another place where we've sacrificed more than we realize. Plato once warned that writing would harm thought. He felt that we abdicated our mental powers when we reduced the demand for memory and placed our ideas in an external medium.

The Platonist world of medieval Europe was one in which the clergy could read, and a few could even write. But it was not a world where we shared and leveled human experience with written words the way you and I do. To say merely that we shared ideas and relayed news by word of mouth makes a molehill out of a mountain of human ingenuity. Suppose that you wanted to spread news of a war -- something that would've taken ten pages of written text. Writing was easily forged. No one trusted a written document, and very few people could read one.

To give a message validity you delivered it orally. A class of people called troubadours prepared oral texts, and jongleurs recited them. These people did what newspapers would do later. Words were set to verse because that made them easier to memorize. A good jongleur could hear several hundred lines of verse three times, and he'd have them committed to memory. Of course his presentation made similar demands on his audience. After all, they'd hear it only once. There was no going back to reread a paragraph.

So our medieval ancestors lived in a sea of mnemonic devices. Drama is one powerful aid to memory. To help the audience remember, jongleurs made their recitations repetitive and emotional. The jongleurs also had a marvelous arsenal of tricks of association. One was to walk mentally through a familiar building, associating lines of text with interior features.

Reading itself was still an oral activity. The few people who could read in silence were seen as eerie and frightening. When St. Anselm said of reading, "Chew the honeycomb of [God's] words," he reminds us that reading was done aloud.

Still, Plato's warning that writing destroys the art of memory was fulfilled. Writing really did detach knowledge from memory. That process is all too complete today. How many of us can recite even our driver's license number from memory? But the real assault on memorization came after WW-II. We systematically began downplaying memorization. Public schools said that students won't understand anything if they only memorize. We want them to learn concepts, not just facts. For a generation, memory fell out of fashion.

All that once suited me fine. But looking closely at invention, and at the nature of concepts, has changed my mind. Now I tell students to memorize! Memorize everything in sight, batting averages, poetry, dates, lyrics, and melodies!

Another movement that gained momentum after WW-II was Montessori education for children. Maria Montessori believed that creativity is a matter of association. She said:

What we call [creativity] is in reality a composition -- a construction raised on material of the mind, which must be collected by the senses. We are unable to "imagine" things that don't actually present themselves to our senses.

Montessori heaped sense data on children -- games, apparatus, things, experience. She steered them away from fantasy. She didn't speak the forbidden word, memorization -- but she gave her students much to remember.

Now I've said before that creativity is recognition. It's recognizing an idea that turns up in an unexpected context. Montessori's creative construction may have been based on sense data, but it was ultimately built from material of the mind. We don't just experience the world around us. We also experience our own knowledge -- of numbers, dates, faces of friends, melody, and poetry. Invention is what occurs when we connect data from two unrelated pages of our mind. To do that, we have to make a habit of conscious recollection.

Why were Leonardo, Newton, and Franklin so clever? They all had voracious appetites for knowledge, but they also had a prodigious habit of retaining knowledge. They had huge contexts of remembered fact to connect and expand their ideas. Creative thinking means pulling a large and diverse array of knowledge up into our frontal lobes where we can manipulate it. Then the trick is to forge connections among seemingly unrelated ideas. And that's precisely where computers put creativity itself under assault.

Computers detach memory from our minds. Children once memorized spelling. Now word processors remember how to spell for us. We once knew how to remember numbers while we did arithmetic in our heads. Now, why should we remember numbers, words, or anything else?

The effect is palpable in our classes. Smart students are losing the habits that support memory. They have more and more trouble making the connections that constitute understanding. Memorization is drudgery only until we forge the habit of association -- of recognition. That's why, when students ask me, "Will I have to remember formulas in this course? Will I have to remember dates?" I smile and say, "Oh yes, indeed, you will."

So, Item Two, Memorization. First it was under ideological assault; now the computer leaves us wondering how to save it if we choose to do so. The answer, I think, is to formulate situations in which the practice of associative memory provides students with rewards. That can be done, but we have to be clever to carry it off.

Finally, Item Three: Pointillism and Standardized Tests. Now, understand, I like pointillism -- Seurat's paintings, newspaper photos emerging from clouds of tiny black dots. But what happens when the whole fails to emerge, and we're left with only dots?

The reduction of an image into 'dots'

That's the trap that the new computers set for us. Our students are falling into the trap of unmerged dots. The new computer search engines are powerful. They lead us only to the precise title or text we seek. We no longer need to read the whole article or book to find what we want. We quit reading the nearby words in a dictionary. We lose context. As we do so, knowledge becomes sterile. Serendipity evaporates.

We have to recognize relations among points in space. Even as I type pointillist letters into my computer, a cat twists in my lap. The sensate three-dimensional beast cranes his neck, sniffing the depth of the room. "Don't let your computer oversimplify the near-infinite reach of reality," he seems to say.

Twenty-six years ago I sat in an outdoor cafe with four colleagues. We wondered aloud whether or not we should let students use pocket calculators when they took tests. How would they ever learn to use their slide rules?

An engineering slide rule

That sounds so foolish today. A few years later slide rules went the way of dinosaurs. As we sat in that cafe, their death was as certain as yours and mine, and it was far more imminent. But now our worry doesn't look quite so silly. You had to do mental arithmetic when you used a slide rule. You had to place the decimal point in your head. You were given a mental picture of logarithmic, exponential, and trigonometric variations.

Our students today are smart, make no mistake. And many can work wonders with their computers. But they have far more trouble estimating numbers. They have trouble in a graphical world. As they're robbed of context, they have more and more trouble negotiating the empty space between the dots.

Still, there never was any real hope of keeping slide rules. And there can be no question that we have to fully and rapidly embrace the computer today. Our job as teachers is to give our students the multi-dimensional, multi-textured context that they lost when they left slide rules and paper graphs behind.

When we're careless, we let computers give us only dots. Our job is to display the mosaic and to connect the dots. It is to bring knowledge all the way back from the computer to sensate reality.

But pointillism enters our schools in another more insidious way. It is the terrible mistake of reducing education to points of knowledge -- what the education people sometimes call learning units. As we become more and more concerned with the trouble that students are having, we focus ever more tightly on the points alone. (This was a point that Linda Clark stressed in different terms when she spoke earlier at this conference.)

Education cannot be reduced to a bin of facts. Education means equipping students to deal with ambiguity. Education means learning how to cope with open-ended questions. Education means understanding that each dot connects up with all the other dots.

The single worst outcome of this attempt to rescue education from change, too rapid to contain, is what politicians call accountability. Let's ask what that means. Now, I do not refer to accountability in the sense that Dr. Winnick carefully defined it when he spoke here. I refer to the way the concept of accountability has been degraded in practice.

To make teaching accountable, we try to create standardized tests. And to make all those tests gradable, all complexity and subtlety is eliminated in favor of objective multiple-choice answers. During my last years of teaching I've had to watch the math and science abilities of incoming engineering students go down the toilet. Education has been brushed aside in favor of preparing students for standardized multiple-choice tests. I cannot overemphasize the damage that has been done by these programs.

And this brings us back to memorization. For the way to pass these tests is by a form of memorization that's been robbed of context. And, of course, teachers who are let off the hook when their students pass the tests need no longer be accountable to anyone.

So, Item Three, Pointillism. It is surmountable, but for that we need teachers who are clever enough to surround students with questions. Questions that are owned by the students, and pursued for the joy of it, will inevitably lead them to see things whole.

We need teachers who track the students' answers and then show how those answers open into larger questions. For learning ends when questions are answered. Learning ends when a student checks block a, b, c, or d.

Montessori had it right when she told us that we have to learn from our students. Students to whom we have told the questions and then given the answers have learned nothing, and neither have we.


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