Traffic Light Epiphany: Curriculum Should be Based on Cognitive Abilities

Traffic Light Epiphany: Education Should Base Curriculum on Cognitive Abilities


As creativity goes, I was stuck at a traffic light about a week ago and had a moment of insight. I’d been actively thinking about education for a while and decided to give it a rest. According to Graham Walla, I decided to go into the incubation stage—unintentionally of course. So, sitting at a traffic light in front of Sam’s Club, it came to me (Walla’s moment of illumination). We should structure education around cognitive abilities rather than subjects.

Currently, we structure education mostly around subjects; we pass through a series of courses related to that subject on our way to obtaining a degree. As we progress, these courses do become more intense, but they don’t necessarily climb the ladder of Bloom’s Taxonomy. During our senior years, much of our education still hinges on remembering, the lowest on the scale of six intellectual skills ranging from: remembering, understanding, applying, analyzing, evaluating to creating. Creating is the highest on the ladder.

There’s a developing trend in primary and secondary levels of education to incorporate such a model of cognitive skills. Classical schools utilize the trivium of the old Greeks to transform elementary, middle, and high school levels to grammar, logic and rhetoric. It was combined with the quadrivium of subjects to fully education someone:  arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy. The trivium was also at the core of many medieval universities. With the trivium, you essentially advance cognitively as you grow. Grammar has a lot to do with remembering. Logic helps you make sense of things. And finally, rhetoric enables you to communicate these ideas, debate and to come to conclusions yourself (hopefully).

Essentially, this is a humanities education. But I think there is something more we could add to this equation. Education as a whole is based on a model of scarcity. We assume that you can’t get the information we give you in the classroom. Nowadays, that’s a false assumption. With just a little work—about ten minutes typing on a keyboard—you can get access to the best information in the world, on any subject. If you don’t believe me, click here. That’s a link to Michael Sandel’s ethics course at Harvard. You can watch every lecture. The Khan Academy is free and lists a huge number of subjects you can learn.

What I propose is a form of higher education where students begin by learning facts and end by creating things. Senior year should look less like a classroom and more like a Fab Lab. Keith Sawyer wrote about learning how to create and found that the studio model may be the best way to learn, for real. Artists and designers have been using the studio model of decades. It’s a model where students have real-world assignments and make stuff. They fail frequently and are heavily criticized. They learn the value of prototyping and creativity. Best of all, with this model of education, students actually retain much of more of their education. They also learn how their education applies to the real world.

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