Long campaign has suppressed teaching kids at their own speed

The 1960s are often considered a productive era of fresh educational ideas. This enthusiasm was begun after the post-Sputnik panic about failures in education, especially in mathematics and science education, combined with the Vietnam situation. At the forefront for finding ways to correct those problems was a vigorous debate about nature vs. nurture. As a student at Teachers College Columbia University between 1960 and 1966, I was there in the middle of the debate, engaged in its replication study of Piaget’s theories.

I became engrossed in reviewing Piaget’s research. His findings supported the proposition that intellectual development is governed by an individual’s unique genetic code (nature) and developmentally inappropriate experiences (nurture) can diminish full elaboration at each developmental stage. Identical twins or triplets have been found to share their genetic codes, but everyone else has a uniquely different one.

In 1960, Jerome Bruner of Harvard reportedly summarized the conclusions of a conference of scientists and mathematicians in a book entitled “The Process of Education.” Convinced of the supremacy of nurture over nature, they concluded that THE legitimate structures of subject matter could be taught to any and all children through techniques of behavior modification. Incidental reference was given to the position of Jean Piaget regarding developmental processes for acquiring knowledge.

A recent film was aired on CNN depicting the lifetime experiences of identical triplets who were separated at birth and placed in selected homes that represented different socioeconomic situations, as part of a research study to lend insight into the nature vs. nurture arguments.

A genetic code was shared by the triplets who were identical in appearance and personal traits, but their lives were significantly different, attributable to the environment in which they were placed that apparently affected each differently and often in detrimental ways.

Some commentary, especially from big business, concluded that nurture must therefore be more important than nature in shaping the lives of these and other individuals.

Perhaps due to ethical or legal considerations, results of the study have not been released; they are locked in storage at Yale until 2066. Apparently persons in power positions did not want this information to be released to the public.

Behaviorism was emboldened by the belief that all students can be taught or nurtured in acquiring subject matter through the application of behavior modification techniques. In case the point is missed, that is the position that governs the standardization movement. Go online and review the New York state learning standards, and see how this statement is validated, especially at primary school levels.

Piaget and other developmental advocates support individualized education due to differences in readiness for learning. Some students mature more quickly than others. Those differences are described in a sequence of development unrelated to age or grade level. The possible consequences for business interests, if individualized learning procedures were to happen, prompted an immediate reaction from those who advocated the supremacy of nurture over nature.

With backing from business interests, a relentless campaign to discredit Piaget’s research techniques and findings was launched. That effort was so successful developmental theory went underground for nearly 40 years, with only a brief episode reappearing in the 1990s called the constructionist movement. The behaviorist position and business interests won out in early 2000 with government support, beginning with the No Child Left Behind legislation. “Project based” approaches are now reappearing as an alternative.

What is to be learned from this series of events that might clarify today’s issues of educational reform? In a nutshell, Piaget’s position regarding the sequence for development of capabilities for logical thinking describes what youngsters can know about the world in which they live that is different at each level of development. These differences cannot be appropriately accommodated by mass instruction regarding predefined, compartmentalized content, nor by standardized teaching procedures and standardized testing. The dismal results of tests administered in grades 3 through 8, in math and language arts, speaks to this assertion.

Developmentally appropriate experiences are those that facilitate enhancement of the intellectual capabilities at each level in the biological sequence of growth. That sequence begins with automatic motor responses to sensory input. The next level is pre-logical or pre-operational responses to experiences. Next is concrete operations, marking the beginning of logical thinking, but only with regard to direct/concrete experiences. The level of formal operations follows wherein an individual is able to mentally process, with logic, hypothetical and abstract ideas extracted from such experiences as found in the language of pre-defined instructional modules and standardized tests. Formal operations is required to meaningfully process those experiences, and it does not usually emerge until the teenage years. What happens to those at or below concrete operations?

Developmentally inappropriate experiences are those that require intellectual capabilities that are well above the level of the learner, or are below those capabilities. Vygotsky described developmentally appropriate experiences and good teaching as occurring within the “zone of proximal development.”

The bottom line is this: Genetics control the biological development of intellectual capabilities that cannot be accelerated by instruction. Appropriate experiences are those that enhance the capabilities at each stage of development. Developmentally inappropriate experiences, out of sync with the levels of development, can damage learners psychologically for the rest of their lives. This was likely demonstrated by the “triplet” research. No wonder its findings are locked up.

Robert L. Arnold lives in Willsboro and is a professor emeritus of education at SUNY Plattsburgh.