Thursday, March 19, 2009

Do Our Schools Teach "Cognitive Tools?"

In this age of high-stakes testing, schools focus on telling students WHAT to learn. How well do they teach students HOW to learn? ... not very well in my experience both as a middle-school curriculum developer and as a university science professor. I ran across a review of a new book entitled "The Future of Education. Re-imagining Our Schools from the Ground Up." The book apparently focuses on three goals of education: 1) socialization, 2) mastery of information, and 3) promotion of mental development. The book's author emphasizes a need to re-orient these goals around teaching "cognitive tools." Neuroscience is expected to reveal what those tools are, and it is the job of the school to teach those cognitive tools. Have schools even identified a set of cognitive tools? I know they don't explicitly appear in the national science standards. Communication between neuroscientists and school teachers is limited--they live in two different worlds. Moreover, the educational culture is not amenable to major change, especially one that requires teachers to re-orient their basic approach to teaching.

An example that I have mentioned before is the need to teach students how to memorize more effectively, using for example, the principles in my book. Few teachers teach memorization skills, and many have a prejudice against doing so. Also, it is increasingly clear that teaching students to increase the span of their working memory will raise student IQ and problem-solving skills. Yet I know of no school system or teacher that does that. Memorization skills are not tested on standardized tests and therefore are not taught. Real reform is a long way off. Many politicians and teachers think the solution for school reform is more money. Wrong!

Source: Egan, K. 2008. The Future of Education. Reimagining Our Schools from the Ground Up. Yale University Press. New Have, Ct. 203 p.

Monday, March 02, 2009

The Ethics of Drug Enhancers of Memory

Few people would argue against using drugs like Aricept to help Alzheimer's patients. Few would complain about using propranolol to assist in treatment of post-traumatic stress syndrome. But what about using memory-enhancing drugs for normal people?

For now, the question is moot, because there are no drugs that have been proven to help normal people. But such drugs are on the horizon. Several drug companies are working on such drugs. One drug was recently discovered in animals to have a positive side effect of improving memory. The drug, Fasudil, increases blood flow in the brain of rats and has potential for treating stroke in humans. This drug has now been found by Matthew Huentelman, an investigator at the non-profit Translational Genomics Research Institute in Phoenix, Arizona. to affect a gene that promotes memory, and when tested in 18-month old (middle-aged) rats, enabled the rats to perform better in water-maze learning and memory tests. The older rats performed as well as young rats. I don't know if this work is published yet (it is widely reported in the lay press), and it certainly has not been replicated.

But for the sake of argument, let us assume that it is correct. Are there ethical issues for normal people taking it to improve their memory, to get better performance at work, or for students to get better grades? Some students already take Ritalin or amphetamines to improve their performance. Is this like doping in sports? Or will we come to accept use of such drugs as preventive medicine, forestalling or preventing dementia, Alzheimers's or even normal mental decline with age?