John Jensen: Why the US Education System is Basically Wrong

by John Jensen, PhD

To understand the point of the title, we look at 1) what we want from education, and 2) whether the means we use are aligned to achieve it. These two features combine: we want proactive knowledge but use reactive means. In more detail:

Proactive knowledge.  This is knowledge one can think about by one's own intent. When one chooses to think about it, a variety of handholds come to mind, and one can proceed from one end of a subject to another. This may comprise established knowledge, creative angles, ways of analyzing and evaluating, funds of sheer factual data, causality expressed in reasons why effects occur, and the possibility of questioning one's own learning.

A universal example of this is a teacher who has taught the same subject for fifteen years, knows it inside and out, can answer any question about it, and can present it in an interesting way to students. At the college level, we see students achieve this level in seminar courses, and demonstrated in "orals." Teachers arrange for students to express their learning to each other in projects and papers and discussions—online or face to face. The primary subjective indicator of this kind of knowledge is that when one looks inside at it, it comprises an integrated field that one can independently and actively approach from multiple angles. The aim of a course is to form a permanent mental field about a subject.

Are there any aspects of such proactive knowledge that we can do without in K-12 education? Our course design and testing mania suggest that we do not aim for proactive knowledge. What should we expect if we don't lead them to form a mental field, don't enable them to think comprehensively, and don't arrange for them to express their learning to each other?

Reactive means.  We can expect that since no mental field forms in their mind, they get little pleasure from thinking about the subject and little motive to claim it as their own. Everywhere they look inwardly at the fragments of a subject in their mind, they find disconnected pieces they find difficulty in thinking about. Their main goal is not to embarrass themselves in front of their peers, so they may try to "answer the question" correctly. But it still may not cohere intelligibly into a field and so provide them little reason to invest personally it.

They depend on an outer stimulus to draw their pieces of knowledge into the light. An answer provided to someone else's question leaves the internal field reactive instead of proactive. The means of testing (a goad on both teachers and students) tells everyone "Produce this piece when someone else requires it."

While such piece-work production could conceivably produce positive results, numerous factors designed into our system actually prevent the formation of a comprehensive mental field: 1) Courses begin and end by plan. 2) No expressed intent to learn a body of knowledge. The mental field is not expected nor aimed for. 3) No complete hard copy kept permanently. 4) Teaching of small pieces not integrated. 5) Recognition-based tests. 6) Personal interest usually irrelevant. 7) Pretest reviews designed to improve scores. 8) Scheduled tests encourage cramming. 9) "Final" exam declares an end-point to effort. 10) Both learning and non-learning equally dismissed. The unifying intent of these ten Learn and Lose factors is: "Learn this, discard it, and go on."

Proactive means. The critical point that should have been established long ago by learning theorists and researchers is that the formation of a mental field occurs in a simple and inevitable manner, summarized as "Learn-Save."

Learn one point.

Keep it.

Learn another.

Add the two together.

Save both.

Learn a third.

Understand the relationship between them.

Save all three.

Master the chunk.

Start another chunk.

Learn a point, save it, add more.

Learn the set.

It boils down to learn-save. If students simply do not forget quickly what they learn, they will inevitably accumulate a vast body of knowledge by the time they leave school, but their forgetting is guaranteed by present instructional methods

The learn-save model applies to all learning. If you learn something but don't save it, you lose it. Is this not clear? Okay, then. Saving it is a result of intentional activity that does not occur by accident, but once begun, it becomes easier and easier. By saving each piece, you quickly begin to grasp inherent relationships that form the skeleton and sinew of a mental field. Recognizing this principle, my bet is that most college teachers ask themselves at some point, "How much do students have to express their learning in order to develop a mental field with it?' To state the point differently: If they expect students to develop a mental field, they turn their attention to how students express it. They may do papers, they may have class discussions or debates, they may do orals—but they are clear that the level of retention of knowledge will be in direct relationship to the degree to which they have expressed it.

So for yourself: What do you ask students to do in order to master something so that it stays permanently (and does not evaporate forever after the "final"exam)? Count your options. If there is any teacher in the country reading this who tells their students "Please sit quietly and think about the subject," would you contact me? Your results are probably very satisfying, and I would like to learn how you arrange the experience. But other than sitting and thinking, what else? Students can read—obtaining more input—but for what you want them to retain from it in a couple months, at some point they stop reading and must express what they read, writing or speaking in quantity with increasing periodicity, extending back to the beginning of the course and even incorporating prior course work.

Ultimately you can claim to know what you can demonstrate, what you can explain beginning to end.

The key instructional arrangement for achieving this is that you must spend a little time showing students how to assemble a hard copy of their learning, and then express it to each other in partner-pairs. These things are simple to do and easily incorporated into any classroom K-12 if one chooses.

John Jensen is a licensed clinical psychologist and author of the three-volume Practice Makes Permanent series (Rowman and Littlefield). He will send a proof copy of the volumes to anyone on request: [email protected]

John Jensen, Ph.D.
John Jensen is a licensed clinical psychologist and education consultant. His three volume Practice Makes Perfect Series is in publication with Rowman and Littlefield, education publishers. The first of the series due in January is Teaching So Students Work Harder and Enjoy It: Practice Makes Perfect. He welcomes comments sent to him directly at [email protected]
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