Bad for the Brain: Goodbye to Unsustainable Education Models

June 13, 2012

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?

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