The Science-Education Gap
---Dorothy van den Honert

In industry they are called development engineers. They take theoretical results from the science labs, think up a practical application of new information and turn the idea over to design engineers, who then invent a widget that embodies the scientific information.

In education, they aren't called anything, because there is no such thing. Information from neurological labs stays right where it is, or, which amounts to the same thing in educational circles, is published in a neurological journal that no educator ever reads

In industry the information flow goes both ways. In education, it doesn't flow at all. Neurologists aren't expected to turn their discoveries into teaching techniques. Indeed, their findings are often so fragmented, one finding out one fact, another a related fact, but in a different context, that they seldom have even an inkling that what they are doing might be usable down in the educational trenches.

Similarly, a teacher never sees research neurologists to consult about some promising idea she has. Once in a while, at a National Conference, where the experts zip in for a speech and zip out again, she might try to talk to one after his speech. She is usually lucky if her brush-off is polite. And I have never seen a professional article rewritten from neurological jargon into English.

The gap between attained knowledge and its application is nothing new, of course, and it certainly is not restricted to the field of education. If the gap is allowed to continue in any field, it must be for one or both of two reasons: 1. it doesn't matter, or 2. the application of a piece of knowledge will not be financially profitable to anyone.

We have all seen educational theories come and go, most of them buttressed only by anecdotal evidence or someone's fond hope. In the absence of hard scientific evidence that one technique is better than another, one might argue that it doesn't much matter what teachers do:
some things work for some, other approaches work for others. Unfortunately, today's students are performing so badly in national and international studies that the argument is rapidly unraveling. But there is a lot of money tied up in maintaining the status quo, even if its results are poor. Textbooks are a major source of income for the educators who write them, and who, incidentally, teach the education majors in college to use them. To revamp schooling so that 90% of high school graduates could read, write, spell, compute and think involves a lot of hard thought and hard work. Intellectual inertia is reinforced by the financial rewards of doing nothing. And anyhow, where is the real scientific evidence that we are not training the brain to maximize its potential as a human organism? Isn't the problem really one of poverty, drugs and other nasty social conditions? Why blame teaching techniques?

In one area there is solid evidence from the labs of those who explore the way the brain operates that certain teaching techniques are badly off base and are actually doing harm to the hapless students upon whom they are inflicted. This is the area of reading. The argument over phonics first versus look-say has been raging for years, generating enough heat to threaten global warming. But the evidence is available right now to settle the question. Maybe even save the planet. Here are the facts.

The left hemisphere (with rare exceptions) is specialized for handling both spoken and written language,. Writing is the transcription of linguistic noises into visible squiggles. Environmental noises (doors closing, sneezing, thunder, etc.) are handled by the right hemisphere and need not be transcribed into visible form. The left hemisphere has the capability, starting from infancy, of sorting out specifically linguistic noises from environmental sounds and eventually duplicating the ones that are in its own language. It can be taught to identify the individual vowel and consonant sounds in a word and put their squiggle-equivalents down in the proper order. The left hemisphere can also be taught to look at a lineup of squiggles, produce the equivalent sounds in the proper order and come up with the word. In short, when a person goes through the auditory component of analysis to read or write a word, he is using his left hemisphere to do it.

The right hemisphere, specialized for handling environmental sounds, has no need to transcribe them. If you ask it to identify a printed word, it does not think in terms of sounds, but rather of shapes. If it has been taught the particular shape, it can identify the word-- or at least the concept. Since it does not go through any auditory or phonetic route to get the exact line-up of sounds, it may not come up with the exact word that is on the page. Or, if the word looks somewhat like another one, it may even produce a word with a similar shape but totally different meaning! Thus the right hemisphere might read black for dark, or pony for horse. But it has also been caught, in college kids yet, reading

delinquency for delicacy
bifocals for bivouac
diminished for timid
hammer for hurricane
trapeze for neurosurgeon

and a lot of other horror shows.

The right hemisphere is also a total dolt at grammar and syntax, since the programming to understand these facets of language is built into the left side. Abstract carriers of meaning like punctuation are also mud in the eye of the right side. In short, it is deficient in sound-symbol correspondence, punctuation, grammatical understanding and letter sequencing. More succinctly yet, at reading and spelling, it's no good.

When you train a small child to analyze the sounds in words, to learn which squiggles represent which of those sounds, and to form the shapes of the squiggles on paper, saying the appropriate noises as he goes, you are training him to activate his left hemisphere when he has a language task to do. It is called, in the trade, phonics-first training.

Conversely, when you train a small child to look at the shape of a word and try to remember, or guess at its meaning, by-passing the auditory route and going directly from shape to meaning, you are training him to activate his inept right hemisphere when he has a language task to do. It is called in the trade, the sight method, used both in "Look Say" and "Whole Language."

So why hasn't this piece of vital information been passed from the neurologists to teachers? Because there is nobody to pass it. No "development engineer" exists who is paid to link the two. Who will benefit financially from having children learn their phonics first? Practically nobody, because phonics is so cheap to teach, requiring almost no outlay for the workbooks, teacher's manuals, textbooks, and other paraphernalia of reading programs, that there is no money in promoting it. Well then, why doesn't someone write up the information for an educational journal which teachers will read? People do, but the peer reviewers for the journals are the same professors from teachers' colleges who sell all that expensive "Whole Language" material they invented. Naturally they aren't interested in telling the world that they are not only wrong, but probably doing damage to the average American student.

It goes without saying that a teacher who devises a phonics-first method that delivers spectacular improvement in her pupils' reading scores will not get paid a penny extra for her success. Indeed, she may find herself on the carpet because she wasn't using the material that the school system required. By and large, teachers are paid to get to page 23 by the 3rd of October in the textbook that the School Board has approved.

But the national price of sloppy, inadequate reading is incalculable.

Most of us SPED teacher with dyslectic pupils are already using some form of alphabetic phonics, because that is the only thing that works on a dyslectic pupil, so one might assume that we aren't affected by the gap. Not so. A dyslectic reader also uses his right hemisphere for language processing, but it is used by default, partly because his left side is not normally constructed. The more phonics, sequencing, and grammar you can pump into his head, the more you stir up that languid left hemisphere.

But the process is painfully slow, requires individual tutoring, and is very expensive. There is a much quicker, more efficient method which not only improves reading but sends comprehension skyrocketing and enhances verbal memory. Called "Enhanced Lateralization," it is based on two facts that have come out of neurological labs. One is the need for left-hemisphere processing; the other is the fact that the corpus callosum, a heavy bridge of neural tissue that connects the two hemispheres, is defective in dyslexia. One function of the CC is to allocate appropriate neural space (left or right) to a job and enable sustained attention during cognitive processing. We know that allocation of neural space is out of whack in dyslectics, or they wouldn't be using the right hemisphere all the time when they try to read or spell, and heaven knows that nobody has to tell a SPED teacher about the lack of sustained attention!

Enhanced Lateralization, end-runs these two problems by the simple device of putting stereo headphones on the student, sending a phonics task into the left hemisphere (via the right ear, since things criss-cross in the brain) and simultaneously shipping music into the right hemisphere, which effectively keeps it out of the verbal action. This trick also by-passes the CC, enabling you to mechanically solve the problem of allocation of neural space and force the sustained attention that the CC isn't providing. It works like gangbusters.

Isn't that wonderful? Why isn't everybody in the world doing it? Because talk is cheap, and so far, I have only told you it works. It's that gap again. Neurologists have shown clearly that a dyslectic individual does not use his angular gyrus when reading. But no one has yet done a functional MRI study on a dyslectic showing that he is not using his angular gyrus in the left hemisphere, then trained him with Enhanced Lateralization and re-fMRI'd him after a few months to see whether he is making greater use of the angular gyrus, or whether there have been any other changes in his cerebral patterns during reading. No graduate student has set up a controlled study comparing EL with plain old Orton Gillingham on a large number of matched students. No private school wants some outsider to come in, set up a study and prove that the job could be done far more quickly and better than they have been doing it. What would all those parents say? And how about the egos of the Leaders in the Field who have masterminded the school's current methods and curriculum?

In short, there is no "development engineer" who is paid to develop applications. In business, the money is in using new technologies to make better products. In education, the money is in keeping things the way they are. But the sad thing is that however ingenious and brilliant a piece of science may be, it is useless until it is applied. Application in the field of education consists of turning knowledge into teaching strategies. Perhaps if all education majors had been required to take a course in the physiology of the brain instead of some of the fluff currently required, they wouldn't have fallen like dominoes for something as clearly foolish as Whole Language. It doesn't seem unreasonable to require that people whose lives are spent molding and training the human brain, be required to know something about how it works.

At a higher level, the obvious educational analogue of the development engineer is the professor in teachers' colleges. A good first step in bridging the gap would be to require full year courses in both neurophysiology and neurolinguistics for all candidates for advanced degrees in education!

Here's a good start. I propose that we persuade industry, now
crying foul at the expense of providing remedial programs for high school graduates, to put some of that money into exemplary phonics-first programs in inner-city schools, and to put some more of it into subsidizing a few brain scans for dyslectic pupils. The cost of EL is about a third that of SPED. It is surely cheaper to put money into the beginning of the pipeline than to finance elaborate, usually unsuccessful dropout programs for gang leaders or to pay the enormous cost to society of having 20% of its members grow up functionally illiterate. For industry it might even be profitable.

 

 

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