New tools often lead to new paradigms. The invention of the telescope set in motion changes which led to the death of the Geocentric modelof the universe and led inexorably to our current understanding of a universe that does not appear to privilege life or intelligence in any particular way (though the Cosmologists continue to struggle with various iterations of the anthropic principle.) At the other end of the scale, the invention of the microscope led inexorably to the microbe theory of disease and from there to our current increasingly sophisticated understanding of the biochemical, genetic, and physiological underpinnings of life itself. At the moment we remain in the early stages of a paradigm shift in Medicine to Individualized Medicine, a development that unless derailed by politic forces, will lead to an increased quality of life for all and potentially great increases in healthy life span for all.
For many years there has been talk of individualized teaching. The only places individualized teaching has really taken root are in rare classrooms with unique teachers (often at the ends of the bell curve, ie in TAG programs and in programs for the least academically able) and in home schooling, where by definition the children have individualized instruction. This may finally begin to change:
Of all the qualities that distinguish humans from other species, how we learn is one of the most significant. In the July 17, 2009 issue of the journal Science, researchers who are at the forefront of neuroscience, psychology, education, and machine learning have synthesized a new science of learning that is already reshaping how we think about learning and creating opportunities to re-imagine the classroom for the 21st century.
“To understand how children learn and improve our educational system, we need to understand what all of these fields can contribute,” explains Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator Terrence J. Sejnowski, Ph.D., professor and head of the Computational Neurobiology Laboratory at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies and co-director of the Temporal Dynamics of Learning Center (TDLC) at the University of California, San Diego, which is sponsored by the National Science Foundation. “Our brains have evolved to learn and adapt to new environments; if we can create the right environment for a child, magic happens.”
An old science fiction story told of a toy sent from the future which taught children how to think in ways which were impossible for adults to understand or emulate. I don't recall the name of the story (perhaps one of my readers can help here) but the climax occurred when the children who had found the toy used their new knowledge and their new way of understanding the world to transcend our reality into a higher dimension; ie, they disappeared. I do not expect that kind of development anytime soon but as our understanding of learning improves, we will be able to offer our children enhanced ways of learning. For the average child, this will be a wonderful boon. Most children of average intelligence are perfectly capable of learning basic math, science, and literacy. A robot that "understands" how children learn (running software that itself learns from its subjects) should rapidly increase the level of learning of the majority of our children. For the gifted child the leaps in abilities are likely to lead to not only quantitative changes but qualitative changes in their intellectual abilities. That is where the real paradigm shift will occur.
[Neil Stephenson, in his wonderful novel The Diamond Age,explored some of these ideas, although in a more modest, earth-bound, way.]
An argument can be made that until recently (the last 30 years or so) our schools did an adequate job (probably better than any other nation) in maximizing our intellectual capital. Gifted children were identified fairly early and by middle school were often placed in Honors classes where they had opportunities to interact with other children of similar intellectual gifts and were taught by the finest teachers, who often competed to be able to teach such rewarding classes. For the majority of children in non-Honors classes, there was still ample opportunity to excel. Over the last thirty years our public schools have increasingly adopted the "convoy theory" of education, ie teaching to protect the slowest learners. Tag programs have been starved of funding and in many cases phased out and standards for acceptance into existing programs have eroded. At the same time, teaching has become geared toward insuring that the worst students pass, with little time or attention to maximizing the educational attainments of the best and the brightest. Standards have been dumbed down. There are many reasons for this, not least the insistence that all children are equal and therefore any disparities are caused by systemic problems. (This is reflected in the arguments over disparate impact that the Sotomayor hearings highlighted.) With the advent of individualized learning, all such arguments will (eventually) be mooted. (New arguments over the inequality in access to the newest robotic learning will take their place, but upscale parents will make sure that their children will receive state of the art learning, at first in private institutions and later in upscale suburban schools, finally trickling down to the poor in urban schools.)
Recent Neuroscience research supports the idea that our brains remain much more plastic than once thought. During childhood our brains are at their most plastic. We have learned that new exercises can produce structural changes in the brain. For example, the military has discovered that the current generation of soldiers, sailors, and airmen have exceptional dexterity and the ability to adopt new computer technology in ways which make them exponentially more adaptive than our less technologically savvy enemies. For the current generation of drone pilots, flying a drone is as simple to master as controlling an avatar in a computer game. The younger generation of Laporascopic Surgeons have an ease of adoption and technical facility that is the envy of their older colleagues. These kinds of enhanced attributes reflect structural changes in the brain, with new neural networks evolving in response to new demands placed upon the central nervous system. Individualized learning has the capacity to make changes in the direction of increased neural complexity and enhanced intellectual abilities that will dwarf the current findings. Children for whom learning is a computer game, for whom finding and extracting salient information is an unconscious assumption, while growing up with an auxiliary memory, will find their minds and brains developing in ways that maximize their ability to manipulate information. Such children will be smarter and more creative than their parents.
The Singulatarians believe that Super Intelligence created by AI will be a Singularity. Once our children start to interact with smart robots where both can learn from each other while learning how to learn from each other, we will be on an accelerated pathway to Biological Enhanced Intelligence. Long term, human survival may well depend on how quickly our children can attain such capabilities.
While this is a highly speculative post, I do not think it is far from reality. We already have computer games that teach children how to think and react. (Pretty much every computer game includes a learning curve that is maximized for enjoyment, ie learning by another name. In many cases what is being learned is not academic in the strictest sense, but includes problem solving, cooperative learning, social integration, and a host of other skills that are increasingly necessary for success in our modern technological economy.)
The future is going to be here before we know it.