Saturday, July 11, 2009

Biologically Secondary Knowledge
takes effort to acquire

In his paper:

Instructional Implications of David C. Geary’s Evolutionary Educational Psychology

John Sweller School of Education
University of New South Wales, Australia

David C. Geary’s thesis has the potential to alter our understanding of those aspects of human cognition relevant to instruction. His distinction between biologically primary knowledge that we have evolved to acquire and biologically secondary knowledge that is culturally important, taught in educational institutions and which we have not evolved to acquire in modular form, is critical to instructional design.


Sweller explains that the revival of the constructivist reform math trend can be dated to ideas that originated around J. Bruner's work in 1961. Large amounts of knowledge are acquired "outside of school" with little effort, while in school many things require substantial effort to learn. The flawed idea brought forth from this is that school should be made like "outside school".

While these ideas produced popular trends in education (i.e. Whole Language, Reform Math), the altered instructional design of educational programs around "more like outside school" never produced positive results.

In 2000 a panel of Language Arts experts drove the stake through the heart of Whole Language, declaring that without "Explicit Instruction" there was an insufficient amount of learning happening. Geary believes that finding should be extended to the learning of all biologically secondary knowledge. If that happened the debilitating controversy referred to as the Math Wars would end.

Geary's observations about biologically primary knowledge explain the ease with which we acquire the ability to talk. Reading on the other hand is in evolutionary terms a recent innovation and is classified as biologically secondary knowledge.

For the vast majority of the student population the acquisition of biologically secondary knowledge requires "Explicit Instruction" and effort.

It is interesting to note that at Seattle's Garfield High School, a quotation from the math department head stated that student engagement in some of her classes that were using Interactive Math Program materials had gone from about 20% to 90% . However, from declining test results (WASL 2007 and 2008) of those IMP students and students at Cleveland high school, it could be inferred that math appreciation ideas of talking about math and writing about math are not as effective as doing math if the goal is to learn mathematics. Oddly despite 10 years of widening achievement gap for Black students, the Seattle Schools still choose to continue with debilitating reform math practices.

Message to Seattle Schools about math:
Dr. Geary has it correct and Seattle has it wrong.
Read Dr. Geary's study.
The study, "An Evolutionarily Informed Education Science," was recently published as the target article in a special issue on Evolution and Education in the Educational Psychologist journal. (see link at bottom)

This Study demonstrates the Connection Between Evolution and Classroom Learning. It suggests using more repetition learning in U.S. schools, and fewer 'fun' activities.
It seems that as Vince Lombardi said "Perfect Practice makes perfect" is relevant even off the football field.

The reason it is called school work is that to acquire biologically secondary knowledge requires work.

Sweller's paper states:
For several decades, the dominant theoretical framework of instructional psychologists has been various versions of a discovery learning/constructivist teaching paradigm (Kirschner, Sweller, & Clark, 2006). Although that framework can probably be sourced back to philosophers such as Dewey or even Rousseau, in more recent times, Bruner’s (1961) advocacy of discovery learning can be considered as the origin of the current movement.

If we wish to improve the math skills of the students, decision makers must intelligently apply the mountains of data that show Reform Math is a failed experiment. There is no point in continuing to listen to misinformed instructional psychologists. Let the engineers, scientists, mathematicians and other users of high powered math have their words heeded.

It is well past time to admit that most of the world had this one correct and the USA's different idea "Reform Math" is ineffective and needs to be discarded.
Great work by Matt.....

EdWeek article below includes a link to download a .pdf of the Geary study.
Many thanks to Elizabeth Carson of NYC HOLD that sent me the Press Release issued by University of Missouri on Geary's work.


Anonymous said...

Is this paper available online anywhere?

-- Matt

Anonymous said...

I found a link in an Education Week article:

-- Matt

Anonymous said...

So whenever my principal says we shouldn't be giving the students "drill and kill" exercises on the very out of fashion worksheets, I will close my door and ignore him. I never believed it was drill and kill, but drill and learn.

Anonymous said...