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Good Teachers Are Not Taut –

An Alternative Model of Education

 Dennis 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.


Traditional Model

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. 


Students 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 impulses.

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.


The 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 education:

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 Presentation:  Information 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 time.

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 cross-linking capacity. 

3 -  Cross-linking:  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 dreams. 

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 legendary.

(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 linking. 

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 “new” ideas. 

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 subject matter.  

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.


An 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:

Grade:  Ninth  

Subject:  Ancient Egyptians

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:

A paradox:  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.   


The 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 their children. 

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.  


Answer 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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