Bad for the Brain: Goodbye to Unsustainable Education Models | Edutopia
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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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My Prediction: Within five to ten years in some countries, open Internet access for information acquisition will be available on standardized tests. This access will significantly reduce the quantity of data designated for rote memorization.

Tools and Skills

Before 1994, a student would be expelled from the SAT exams for bringing any type of calculator. Then, starting in 1994, calculators were not only permitted, but were essentially required. The driving factors came from the level of mathematics taught and tested and the availability of graphing calculator technology. This change gave students the appropriate tool for accuracy and efficiency -- it was also the one used by most professionals who used mathematics beyond basic arithmetic. Consider, also, that calculator access for these standardized tests did not reduce the instruction in -- or development of -- real arithmetic skills. Mental access of such facts and procedures as the multiplication tables and manipulation of fractions, without a calculator, remains a valued goal for all students.

We are now in the same nexus of advancement of information and technology to make the equivalent jump for other subjects. Access to the Internet for information acquisition during tests (and learning) is the appropriate response now, just as the calculator access was in mathematics almost two decades ago.

Just the Facts

As technology and globalization exponentially increase the available facts and knowledge base of all subjects and professions, the response in education has been to incorporate more and more information into the requirements for each school year. The current system of "if it's information, teach it and test it" can no longer support the volume of information. Textbooks cannot get much bigger, and the impact of the increasing demands on students to memorize data is increasingly counterproductive.

In the "real world," professionals in all specialties and businesses use the superiority of the web over the human brain to accurately hold and retrieve facts and to keep up. "Facts" change too quickly even for e-books to be current and accurate by the time they are released. Physicians do not rely on memory, or textbooks, or even the latest journals for the most up-to-date information about diagnostic testing, best treatments, and other facts that change daily.

For example, before prescribing medication, physicians often search the Medscape or Epocrates websites for the most current facts that might have significant impact on a patient's reactions to the medication. New information can be critical, even for medications that have been tested; that medication could have just been found to cause problems when taken by patients also taking a different medication for another medical condition. Thanks to the physician having access to that new information before prescribing medications, the risk of potential complications is vastly reduced.

Tests and Stress

Boredom, frustration, negativity, apathy, self-doubt and the behavioral manifestations of these brain stressors have increased in the past decade. As facts increase, as over-packed curriculum expands, and as demands for rote memorization for high stakes testing intensify, the brains of our students have reacted to the increased stress. Stress, including that provoked by sustained or frequent boredom or frustration, detours brain processing away from the higher, rational, prefrontal cortex. In the stress state, the lower, reactive brain is in control. Retrievable memory is not formed, and behavioral responses are limited to involuntary fight/flight/freeze -- seen in the classroom as acting out, zoning out or dropping out.

Student cheating has increased, with decreased remorse when cheaters are caught. They rationalize that they are valued for their test scores, so they do what they can to get higher scores. This ethical compromise has been posed a possible correlate to the increased white-collar crimes committed by young adults who attended school during the past decade of high-stakes testing emphasis.

Teachers have not been spared the stress and compromises that come with overemphasis on memorization of facts for tests. Repeatedly, teachers and administrators are found changing test answers or holding back eligible students from tests to prevent lower test grade averages. With some new systems of evaluating teacher performance (in part) based on percent improvement in their students' test scores over several months, teachers admit to withholding some instruction in the weeks before the baseline test to improve the percent change between the first and second test.

The problem is not primarily teachers or students who, in desperation, resort to cheating, but rather the conditions that drive them to such extremes. These conditions promote even more devastating responses in some cultures where families emphasize children's value relative to test performance. Medical and psychological stress-related conditions, including depression and suicide, have raised awareness of the increasingly large quantity of data that must be memorized for tests. New laws in South Korea ban the pervasive private, after-hours tutoring academies due to the health concerns about sleep-deprived children.

Tomorrow's Workforce

Even if these medical, social, psychological and ethical problems do not promote a change in testing, the economic demands as to what employee skill sets employers want will inevitably topple the factory model of education.

This model of memorizing facts and procedures was developed to prepare for assembly line work, and it cannot keep up with the information age requirements for an educated workforce. With a growing information base, employers in global industries that develop new products or systems already report they are more interested in a potential employees' abilities to respond quickly and successfully to frequent change, and to communicate, lead and collaborate, rather than showing the traditional interest in applicants' life work experience. Desirable employees are those capable of making use of new information and technology to solve new problems and innovate ahead of the competition.

The lives our students will live and the jobs for which they'll compete will not be about answering questions correctly, but about how they use knowledge and respond to changes. Yet currently the time sacrificed to fact memorization and test prep is resulting in more high school dropouts and students graduating from the secondary system without the preparation to succeed in college and employment, or to lead fulfilling lives.


Freedom from excessive rote fact memorization focus means teachers can be creative individually and in professional learning communities. There will be reduction of the "management" problems that currently result from stressed-brain reactive behavior. Educators will be able to develop and use more engaging, relevant and equitable learning experiences to enhance cross-curricular skills and competences. More equitable access to foundational facts, which are not equally acquired by some students with language or learning differences, will mean they are not held back from applying other strengths to build conceptual knowledge and understanding. As students are guided with learning opportunities that develop their executive functions, they will develop understanding beyond just knowing. Their extended neural networks will empower them to transfer knowledge to new applications as we help them build the brains to achieve their greatest creative potentials.

Your Predictions?

This is only the beginning of this conversation. What do you consider important implications of and perhaps preparation for Internet access for learning and testing?

Comments (19)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Denise Gross's picture
Denise Gross
6th grade LA/SS 8th grade SS

To function and think frely some information needs to be memorized. I don't want my doctor following step-by-step direction from hias ipad during surgery. Although some memorized material certainly could be looked up. I think the more important issue is revisiting the role of testing. Are we just collecting points/scores, or are we truly demonstrating skills and knowledge.

Nikolay Brodskiy's picture

I think Google's Project Glass
supports your statement very well. As soon as Google Glasses are publicly sold (in about a year or two) we will have students in our classrooms with information delivered to their eyes according to what the student sees. I can easily imagine a test page that a student is holding being scanned, recognized, processed (by something like and a solution being delivered to the student's eyes before the student turns the page to look at the next problem.

I plan to try giving tests in my Calculus course this fall in a computer classroom with internet available. I would be glad to learn other teachers' experience about giving such tests.

School Science's picture
School Science
Ed.M. in Mind, Brain, and Education at HGSE

Very interesting, thank you. Do you think that this could result in students remembering more facts compared to the rote-memorization environment, since they are now presented in an urgent, relevant context?

Connie Ho's picture
Connie Ho
Tutored child chemically sensitive via online education

I think they are on the right track. As I was Julie's home advocate, tutoring with support from a traditional teacher using the internet vehicle I totally believe we should be transitioning earlier. I also believe that another vital ...aspect of education needs to be addressed. That is the incorporation of vocational, hands on immersion into a subject in which the student wishes to pursue. It does take one parent home as I was but knowing the level of education is not there for most parents this transition will be difficult. I am, and can tutor in most high college level classes. Lawrence was 1st in his countries mathmatics and did his matriculation through Cambridge University in England while he was in grade 13. Few children have this level of tutoring at their 24 hr beck and call. But interestingly enough the online school did make their teachers easily and generously accessible. Ipads and so forth are fantastic for the teachers and kids. Jul's was able to travel and show her danes around the country five days a week and even be in France while doing her work. A three month class could be completed in one month with test completed and always checking in daily first and last thing to see if there were any projects in addition to regular work. The teachers had a fantastic syllabus and provided expected due dates. You were never given a lower grade for working ahead. To me, this is the dream education. Presently all of her college work has been A+ work. Her tests were the regular ACT / SAT and passed the OGT for Ohio with higher % then those who had attended a traditional high school with AP classes.

Kate Petty's picture
Kate Petty
Senior English Teacher, EL Coordinator, Life-Time Learner

You have successfully articulated exactly how I've felt for the past year. I absolutely agree with you on every point. The challenge for educators is to relearn how to teach. We can now teach on a deeper level than ever before by allowing our students to access facts/data with their mobile devices. Our problem as teachers is to search out new learning outcomes and teach students how to utilize their pocket information quickly and successfully.

M. A. Hauck, M.Ed's picture
M. A. Hauck, M.Ed
Life Skills Support Teacher

I suppose it follows a logical thread, Dr. Willis, that after your generation of dumbed-down video gamers have reached a state of cognitive inertia their dopamine addicted brains wouldn't be able to handle any assessment that requires immediate recall of memorized facts.

We must not make anything too hard, should we? Everything must be FAST, EASY, and FUN, right?

S Hamman's picture
S Hamman
Elementary school teacher in Arizona

While taking our last state test I saw a boy in my class, an English language learner, who was obviously upset and struggling over a math question. When I went over to him to see what was wrong, he whispered to me, "I forgot what this word means but I could figure it out if I could look it up on my math website." It saddened me to know that this kid's score would not reflect what was really important---that he knew how to find the answer in the real world! It has always struck me as ridiculous that as teachers, we spend all year teaching students how to find the best information, guiding them in the use of tools to help them become critical thinkers and build their own knowledge, yet at testing time we have to strip down all the posters and take away all the tools and have them rely only on their own memories. I hope you are right about the tests of the future!

Jackson's picture
English, Spanish, ESL teacher pursuing degree in Educational Leadership

This reminds me of English teachers' insistence that students memorize and be tested on the conventions of MLA format. Memorizing MLA format isn't a skill that students need. Memorization of important facts and skills happens naturally when the skills or knowledge are important, interesting, or necessary. Students ought to be assessed on what they can do with information, not their ability to access it.

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