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Alternative Model of Education
B. Kottler, MD
A major problem with
education, from kindergarten through college, is the “one size fits all”
traditional classroom model. This
works well for a limited number of students who become high achievers both
within the educational system and beyond. However,
a larger group of students perform poorly within this system.
These students may suffer from labeling as poor achievers and this
tracking effect may follow them throughout life.
As an alternative to the rigid, traditional model, the author introduces a tri-modal concept of education, which borrows from the theory of cross-links. The author shows how this alternative system embraces the needs of a greater number of students than the traditional model. Furthermore, this educational alternative will enhance the student’s ability to develop new ideas. Students will take the knowledge imparted in the classroom and apply and extend this information into exciting new territory. This creativity-enhancing effect will stay with the student throughout life.
In the traditional model of
education the teacher is the authority.
Standing at the head of the class, the teacher imparts information.
The student is largely a passive listener or note-taker.
For some students passive becomes boring, at worst, soporific.
Information is presented in
a linear and logical sequence, whether the subject is history, mathematics, or a
science. There is some variation in
the form of “labs,” but again, much of the work involves following
directions. Generally the focus is
on one subject at a time, with only token attempts, if any, to interrelate
subjects in an interdisciplinary approach.
Much of the emphasis in traditional education is on memorization rather than understanding. Information will have to be recalled, for tests. Many students will develop a “half-knowledge” of a concept, but this may be good enough to pass or even score highly on a rote exam. The traditional system is essentially pre-formed in its goals, content, and measures of success. There is little flexibility and little allowance for the development of individual creativity.
Who Perform Well in the Traditional Model of Education
Students who possess certain
cognitive and personality traits seem particularly suited to the traditional
model of education. The cognitive
traits leading to success include persistent attention span, ability to focus
and “tune-out” distractions, well-developed ability to process both written
and aurally presented materials, and a good endowment of both short term memory,
including so-called holding memory, and longer term memory.
Personality, or character, traits of this “good” student include the
overwhelming desire to please the teacher, parent, or other person in
“authority,” the ability to defer gratification, and the ability to suppress
What happens to students who are not successful within the traditional system? Frequently they have cognitive styles and personality traits that make it extremely difficult for them to achieve within the traditional system. At the extreme, these students may have attentional and/or hyperactivity problems. Are these students being heavily penalized by a system that does not recognize their special, creative gifts? In fact, sometimes the very inability to think logically and linearly opens up other intellectual possibilities.
Proposed Alternative Model of Education
The alternative model of
education avoids placing primary emphasis on the linear and logical approach to
learning and its emphasis on assimilation and regurgitation.
In fact, it leads to the student discovering knowledge and
developing his own insights.
The alternative model is
tri-modal. The three modes follow,
with only the first mode bearing a resemblance to the traditional model of
1 – Database
of Knowledge: It is necessary to impart some database of knowledge, our
“cultural legacy,” which provides a substrate for the next two modes.
Students often wonder “why am I learning this, I will never use this
information.” The next two
modes develop the process in which the information becomes useful.
2 – Interdisciplinary
should be presented in an interdisciplinary format.
Interaction of information should be a constant point of focus.
For example, what was happening in Europe while Columbus was discovering
America? What was the state of
mathematics at that time? What was
happening in music, art, philosophy, science, and religion?
What were the interactions between these disciplines and how did they
influence the development of each other? One
could take almost any point in this matrix as a starting point to explore all
the interactions. For example, what
was the current technology as employed in Columbus’ ships?
What was the status of workers on the boats?
What was going on in other areas of the world.
The information and
interaction of information spreads out both horizontally
and vertically. The horizontal axis
explores the interrelationships between disciplines at any given point in time.
The vertical axis follows the parallel changes that occur in disciplines over
The interdisciplinary mode
lays the pattern for the next mode. Students
begin to see how knowledge in one area influences knowledge in another area, and
how the whole process is synergistic in the advancement of a society.
The same cross-linking of knowledge that occurs in society will be
encouraged within the mind of the student, in the next mode.
Interdisciplinary learning trains the mind to develop a healthy
The mind finds fascinating interactions in the huge database of
knowledge. Furthermore, this
database will provide the material for the mind to do its own cross-linking, to
connect seemingly disparate bits of information into something conceptually new,
to synthesize “new” knowledge. This
process can occur consciously, unconsciously while awake, and many times in
All “new” knowledge is
the synthesis of bits and pieces of information and ideas.
Even information that at first impression seems “useless” feeds the
process of synthesizing “new” knowledge.
Many of our civilization’s greatest discoveries, perhaps all such
discoveries, can be related to this process.
Usually the actual cross-linking that has taken place remains invisible.
One is usually only aware of the insight that results.
In some cases, with some reflection, an individual can discover the links
of information and ideas that led up to the insight.
There are even examples of situations where the cross-links have become
(One such legendary example
of mental cross-linking is the discovery of the benzene ring, the chemical array
of six carbon atoms with their accompanying hydrogen atoms.
The individual who “discovered” the benzene ring apparently had a
dream in which he visualized animals chasing each other around in a circle, an
image possibly derived from a childhood story.
From this vision he hit upon the notion of electrons chasing each other
around a carbon ring structure, hence the benzene ring.)
Society needs to make this
activity of “cross-linking” an intrinsic part of the educational system.
One means of doing this is the emphasis on the interdisciplinary mode
described above, which lays out a prototype for this form of thinking, and
A second technique for
encouraging active mental cross-linking is to encourage brainstorming of new
concepts. Teachers can give
assignments asking students to devise new solutions for common problems. The student exposed to interdisciplinary learning will have a
great advantage in this endeavor. His
mind will be primed to inter-relate all kinds of information to produce
The three modes of learning
presented above are not sequential. They
are presented in sequential format only for the purpose of illustration.
The three modes of learning should be emphasized concurrently across all
The tri-modal alternative educational model is appropriate for all ages from toddler through advanced degrees. All that is required is some adaptation of the system to make it developmentally appropriate.
Example of the Alternative Model of Education in Action
The following scenario
represents an excerpt from a classroom learning activity embodying the three
modes of the alternative model of education:
Information is presented in
interdisciplinary format dealing with the culture of these people, including
their writing, art, science, architecture, and customs.
This constitutes the horizontal dimension of the interdisciplinary mode.
Material is also presented
in historical perspective, the vertical dimension.
For example, the ancient Egyptians, we believe, had no knowledge of the
Pythagorean Theorem which was later discovered by the ancient Greeks.
The architecture, writing and other subjects are also put into historical
perspective. For example, in the
case of architecture, Egyptian post and lintel construction is contrasted with
the later development of arches, first the Roman, then the Gothic.
The historical perspective is extended to the present in the form of
contrasting current customs and technology with that of these ancient people.
Interesting paradoxes are
pointed out, which make the material “stick” in memory:
With modern technology we are able to store endless information on
computer disks. The ancient
Egyptians stored their information by carving it into stone.
Now consider this. The
sphinx is probably about 8000 years old (maybe the pyramids also).
The carved hieroglyphic writing from this ancient period still exists
today! Yet, for all our
modern technology, one strong blast of an electromagnetic pulse can wipe out
much of our stored “writing” in an instant.
The wealth of material
presented in the interdisciplinary matrix would seem to be overwhelming.
However, the opposite is true. Because
of the fascinating connections made between the various subjects and the
historical perspective presented, the material becomes much more interesting and
meaningful. It is also becomes much
more memorable since information storage in our minds is facilitated by
interesting associations (a well known mnemonic trick).
The final mode of the
alternative model of education is the cross-linking.
This has already started to occur as the students process the rich
interdisciplinary material presented. This
linking will continue perhaps for years and re-emerge in some totally unexpected
form of new “synthesized”
knowledge or insight, many years later.
A sample lab exercise:
As an exercise in creative
thinking, students might be presented with a “challenge.”
They are given the problem of designing a pyramid.
They are told that to do this they must lay out a perfect square as the
base, incorporating a perfect right angle at each corner.
If the angles are off, even slightly, the pyramid will not stand
symmetrically erect, and the resulting stresses will cause the pyramid to
collapse at some point, long before thousands of years have passed.
Further instructions are:
“You cannot use the Pythagorean Theorem. You can only use basic counting, and whatever assorted
sticks, branches, rocks, body parts, or whatever else is handy.
The results can be
fascinating and often involve ingenious improvising.
For example, one student cut sticks into equally long segments.
He then figured out, by trial and error, that if he used three sticks end
to end for one leg of a triangle, four sticks for the adjacent leg, and five
sticks for the hypotenuse the resulting triangle appeared to have a perfect
right angle. He guessed that this
was indeed a right angle and designed a pyramid using this method to lay out the
four right angles for the base. He
produced a perfectly symmetrical-looking pyramid.
Perhaps the Egyptians did the same thing.
Many such creative
challenges can be designed around information presented in an educational
session. The challenges will be designed in accord with the
developmental level of the student. It
is fascinating how, years later, a person can recall these projects and how that
memory can trigger much of the related information covered in the session.
In addition to assigned challenges, students are, of course, encouraged to come up with ideas and concepts on their own, to create their own challenges and solutions.
Alternative Educational Model Outside the Classroom
The alternative educational
model by no means needs to be limited to the classroom setting.
Parents should familiarize themselves with the basic concepts involved
and incorporate these concepts in their own instructional interactions with
After a certain point, students will automatically educate themselves according to this new model. They will hungrily absorb all kinds of disparate information and form all kinds of cross-links. This process is encouraged by the use of the internet and its hypertext-linking format.
to: “This Will Cost Too Much!”
The proposed tri-modal
alternative educational model can be implemented gradually and blended with the
traditional model of education. The
educational system should have a basic theoretical conception of this model as
it designs the curriculum. The
curriculum should increasingly incorporate an interdisciplinary approach to
teaching information and gradually introduce exercises that encourage students
to produce “new knowledge” through the process of cross-linking.
An additional cost-saving
measure will revolve around new technology and the increasing use of computers
in the classroom. As mentioned, the
internet is ready made to encourage the formation of mental cross-links.
Society cannot afford to ignore a more flexible educational model, especially with the huge explosion of information. The cost would be too high. The apparent incidence of AD/HD and behavioral problems would increase. Information overload would continue to be an enormous problem. The alternative model of education presents a way of handling this information and harnessing it for the creation of new “synthesized” knowledge through the encouragement of “cross-linking.”
The mind is a giant kaleidoscope. It acquires little bits and pieces of information which are continuously jostled around. Cross-linking occurs between disparate bits of information. Sometimes a pattern of something useful emerges. An executive function of the mind has the ability to recognize the pattern and to develop it further. The alternative educational model should create the perfect environment for a very active and productive mental kaleidoscope.
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