A framework for fixing our mind-suppressing education system
I did not direct my life. I didn’t design it. I never made decisions. Things always came up and made them for me. That’s what life is.
More than 2,300 years ago Aristotle began to contemplate the nature of life, and described the various Anima, or souls around him. He viewed plants as having the striving for nourishment and reproduction, animals had the ability of sense perception, and humans had the ability to conceptualize- they had intellect. In the early 1900s psychologists, partly due to the limitations of technology at the time, turned a practical eye to the study of behavior they could perceive rather than the contemplation of the internal mechanism of conceptual thought. In so doing, they discovered patterns and techniques still embraced to this day to manipulate test subjects to desired performances. Among them, B. F. Skinner’s research showed the power of systematic rewards and punishments in the lab — in perhaps his most famous experiment, he placed a rat in his “Skinner Box” and rewarded the rat with food, a perceptual treat, for pressing a lever. In the end, the rat would immediately press the lever when being placed in the box.
The carrot and stick.
Modern education has been shaped for nearly 100 years by the application of the learnings of the behavioral psychologists. Behaviorism-based teaching frameworks are akin to dropping our children into a “Skinner Box” for 7 hours a day. In the modern class room, teachers use various perceptual methods of rewarding children. But applying Skinner’s learnings to our children is handicapping their ability to achieve their greatest potentials. This is a travesty that we need to change.
Perceptual motivators : gold stars, treats, and praise — and punishments: corporal, privilege revoking, harsh words — do not work. The reason they fail to work is simple. Children are not rats. Even children not encouraged in their conceptual health are capable of thinking beyond the perceptual enough to pick up on when they are being manipulated like animals. Their logical mind resentful to be treated like they are unable to understand. A child that realizes this is a stone. Only moved by rational argument.
But the travesty isn’t just the methods by which we attempt to “motivate” or rather, force, children to behave a certain way — it is in the very way we teach children to think. An adult, generally speaking, has achieved some higher level of conceptual thought — but sadly, the ability to perceive the world like a child who requires guidance in integrating disparate percepts to form coherent patterns, or concepts, is difficult. In the modern classroom, where teachers are pressed to cram information in as fast as possible for standardized tests, the result is a series of disparate lesson plans with disintegrated facts. Children are not taught about the overarching patterns of history, but that the Irish revolted because of a thousand different random factors. Multi-choice checklists that they’ll completely forget the day after their exam.
When we inundate children with disconnected precepts that are never combined into concepts, we reinforce a perceptual mode of thinking. The mode of an animal, this primes them to be obsessed with things, group thought (offloaded faux-conception) and creates students resentful of having to use their mind. And who would blame them? They have not been taught how to. If someone demanded me to crochet a scarf, I’d be frustrated, too. And perhaps offload the task by ordering a scarf off of Amazon. In much the same way, frustrated kids are gathering their answers from Google. Without conceptually integrated them, they are clunky middle men who will retain nothing from the task.
When we teach in a purely perceptual framework — with motivators, subjects, and thought itself, divided into percepts — we supress the development of the rational mind in our children. In Figure 1, the horizontal line represents the perceptual level of this framework. Intersecting this line is the average trajectory of rational development for a human being going from child to adulthood. The dotted line is the effect of this framework on the development of that child’s rationality. In this visual, you can see how treating a child like a rat detrimentally effects their mind — from kindergarten to secondary school, a “Skinner Box” method starves the mind. Indeed, a purely behaviorism based teaching paradigm is precisely the kind of travesty that leads to a society addicted to perceptual technology, the immediate impulsive dopamine hits of social media, and an unquestioning mind ready to be radicalized and implanted with ideas.
However, the solution to a purely perceptual framework is not its opposite. The teacher who attempts to use high-order reasoning and motivators on children from the start of their journey is unable to meet them half way. Demanding a kindergartener to contemplate the vast patterns of history may not seem nefarious, but without proper groundwork laid, the task is futile. The child’s rational development will be floating in the wind — in so far as they are able to discern and model their teacher, they may come up to reach the framework — but it is not an efficient process. In many cases, the frustrated child will give up entirely. They too, are suppressed. I remember distinctly many unmoored and puzzled classmates as my first high school teacher rambled on like a post-doctoral researcher scouring their own plane of existence.
We need to have authentic empathy for our children — to understand that the process of the development of a child’s rationality requires a shifting scaffold from perceptual to conceptual integration. The conceptual scaffold is the framework we must use to properly enable our children to achieve their highest potential. By assuming a mode of conceptual motivation and teaching that is just outside the ability of our students, we pull them gracefully into increasingly higher-order thinking. They strive to understand and integrate increasing complex ideas. We unlock their rational potential.
We must remember that caring doesn’t just mean compassion for suffering or frustration — it isn’t a method of putting continual band-aids of feel-good unearned grades or praise on children robbed of their conceptual capacities. No Child Left Behind was a disastrous policy for our children for this exact reason — and in a similar way, grading on a curve covers up the failure of teachers to find and teach at the proper level to their students. That said, the way forward is not going to be easy.
As a child’s rational faculty improves, in matching degree, they will require increasingly rational arguments for why they are being treated in any particular way. Adults without the empathy to understand the process happening in their children, or those without the fortitude or ability to rationalize their actions toward their children, often complain of the “Why” stage. However, this stage is vital- and it should be looked at with awe, this is the blossoming of human reason in real-time. The shutdown responses, the appeals to authority, “Because I said so,” or worse “Because your mother/father/teacher said so,” tactics are metal doors slammed on their children’s development. Why is an appeal to role more dangerous than making the statement personal? It instills arbitrary power in a role — priming a child for future social structures based in arbitrary power.
Follow the line of the various capacity slopes of our children is difficult, it requires a deeper understanding of each individual’s existing and potential ability. But we do our selves a great service by assuming the best in our children- and by enabling the best in them, rather then enabling the worst. The future of education, and indeed of society itself, depends on our ability to reform the way we maximize the independent conceptual abilities of our children — whether this means we augment educators with AI that can suggest edits to lesson plans, or create systems that reformulate problems to encourage higher order thinking attuned just outside of their current skill levels — as our classrooms become bigger, and our educators become increasingly overwhelmed, this is problem that we must tackle sooner rather than later. The desire for a more logical way of raising our children into capable, rational adults will be a driving force for change — and if our traditional education systems do not change, we will certainly see new modes of learning solve this problem outside of the existing system. We already see this occurring with many online education platforms — though time will tell how long it will take for these projects to truly compete with the brick and mortar institutions, and how our political and social fabric will react to the incursion.
The pitfalls of perceptual reacting rather than conceptual thinking.
Empathy requires a conceptual mode of thinking. We have to be able to identify with others, with objects not even human — in order to feel connection and responsibility for our actions and their impact. A perceptual mode of thought not only impairs deep thinking, but deep empathy as well. Our “empathy” is converted to a short-shrift version of tribalism — what is immediately a boon to us, in this moment, in our proximity, that is recognized as good. But we cannot begin to understand how people and things far from us, not in our immediate group, could be considered. Our mind is cleaved into a tiny, perceptually operated receptacle, to which only our assigned phenotype can dock. Why care about our actions, if those outside of our group are harmed? As long as we are achieving the goals assigned to us, we will roll over the innocent who do not conform to our perceptual checklist.
We suppress the development of higher rational abilities out of our compassion for the feelings of our students — but we should not be outright dictated by the feelings of those not capable of fully understanding. Preparing them with the proper tool for facing reality is the most caring thing we can do for them. The tool of conceptualization.
The role of the educator is to bring the child up into adulthood, from perceptual chaos to integrated, conceptual understanding — primed and ready for the world.
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