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Manifesto: The Art and Science of Education (Part 14 of 14)

We are on the cusp of a golden age of education.  

The inner workings of the mind have been physically hidden for most of human history.  For millennia, our insights into these workings have come from artists and philosophers, whose reflections have opened up vast areas of study.  But now, in the last 20-30 years, cognitive scientists and neuroscientists have furthered our understanding, gaining a more literal "in-sight" into the mind’s inner workings, and through this, they have just begun to test, measure, and expand the work of the artists and philosophers before them.
The information we are learning now is flooding what we know about learning itself. And it has reached a critical mass.  Absent this information, teaching has been an act of intuition and adaptation; it has been the work of teaching artists.  In the emerging scientific paradigm, though, discourse has shifted towards teaching as an act directed by hard knowledge about the mechanics of memory, cognition, and thought.  The most fruitful approach, of course, is in the middle.

Now, a partnership ought to be forming between the art of teaching and the science of learning.

Responsive, empathetic teachers--the artists of education--have thrived through intuitive understanding of how their students learn.  They have succeeded through the hard work of engaging and anticipating the human experience of the classroom.  They are holistic, sensitive, deliberate in their work.  

Psychologists, neuroscientists and others, those who study the mind--the scientists of education--have probed the processes of thinking and learning.  They have plumbed what happens inside the black box of the mind to reveal the mechanics of education.  And their work is accelerating.


The current explosion of scientific understanding of how the brain learns is fuel for both artists and scientists alike.  We remember that Whitman, Coleridge, Dali, and countless other artists voraciously consumed science; science is rich fodder for improvisation and interpretation.  It opens novel grounds for new hypotheses.

So it is for educators.  Teachers are and ever will be artists.  But the artistic work of teachers is now commingling with science.

Scientific understanding ought to be part of every teacher’s tool box.  People are people, not processes to be maximized--this is why teaching demands great sensitivity and artistry--but learning is a process, and learning can be maximized.  The better we understand this process, the better we can educate our citizens.  

Let me say this again: people are people, and the act of education is a social, human endeavor, an interaction that involves myriad interpersonal cues.  The act of learning, though, is a process.  It is defined by discrete stages and experiences, and these can be maximized, analyzed.


Perhaps like no other field, education requires a blend of the arts and sciences, of human sensitivity and systematic know-how.  Teachers must be both responsive and methodical, empathetic and firm.  They must hold objective, measurable outcomes in mind while operating in a space charged by the unpredictability of the moods, emotions, vacillations, and sensations that walk into the classroom each day.  

And so, we need to foster both intuition and scientific thinking, improvisation and deliberateness, empathy and discipline.  We need to foster both the art and science of education.  We need teachers, the artists of education, to discover, design, and deploy visions of what can be done in the classroom; we need them to continue to question and engage the human experience and its unpredictable workings in our ever-changing society.  And we need the scientists of education--the cognitive scientists and neuroscientists--to further test, explore, measure, experiment with, and understand the mechanics of the mind.  This, even more than technology, is the necessary blended education in modern times.

For in this day and age, despite its dominance in our global dialog, technology in education remains fairly crude.  It is a giant, eager, and talented-but-galumphing toddler running around us.  It has captured and commanded our attention.  But it has not yet grown.  When educational technology does come of age, it surely will be what helps bring the visions of these artists and scientists to scale and life, in all their fullness, and with the greatest sensitivity--but it is not there yet.

Meanwhile, beneath the surge of this great technological age is an even more important one: the exploding understanding of ourselves.  This self-knowledge is the greatest gain that is coming from blending the intuitive with the empirical, from mixing our artistic and philosophical reflections on our external selves with our growing grasp of the internal workings of the mind.  And the degree to which we reach for this prize, a clearer command of our own cognitive experience--the degree to which we can collective pursue this understanding, which is less flashy but more full of meaning than our infatuation with technology--this will be the degree to which we more fully achieve a sustainable educational program not just for our classrooms, but for our survival as a species.

May this effort, indexed below, be a step towards that goal.


This is the conclusion of fourteen posts in a series about the role cognitive science in education.  
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Cognitive Science, The Next Education Revolution, includes:

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