In this newsletter, I will examine the impact of the emergence of science on the western industrialized education system, what gaps exist in our schooling because of unexamined assumptions underpinning our curriculum and the ways in which Learning Unlimited addresses these gaps.
Undoubtedly our world is characterised by unprecedented scientific and technological advances, enabling us to explore the vastness and complexity of the universe.
Over the years, I have been involved with the research and development of science curriculums and these have informed the methods of learning that we have offered to our students over the years. In this newsletter I hope to share some of these insights and offer suggestions as to how we can address the shortcomings of the education system.
Congratulations to Matthew Golesworthy who has completed his Oxford University doctorate in chemistry.
Matthew attended various enrichment sessions with Learning Unlimited over the years and achieved an A* for his Cambridge A level mathematics exams as a pre-condition for his acceptance to Oxford University UK.
Matthew was awarded an organ scholarship to Oxford University UK.
Together with a team of scientists, his research on the quantum compass of bird migration has been published in “Nature”. Matthew gives us an insight into his fascinating work and findings below.
Our tutors, notably Tapuwa Muchinga (Biology and Mathematics), currently a PhD fellow and Cancer Genomics Research Scientist and Charles de Villiers, (Mathematics, Further Mathematics, Computer science, Physics and French), are accomplished scientists in their own right and continue to inspire our learners through their passion and expertise in these fields.
One of the concerns I will outline about school science is that it is outdated and obsolete. The closing article by Charles de Villiers tackles some of the more recent developments and breakthroughs in quantum mechanics and gives relevant background about the recent Nobel prize for work on quantum entanglement. Among his many accomplishments, Charles is also 6 time SA Chess champion.
In the October newsletter I challenged the notion that excellence in education can be measured by the attainment of exam results and that there needs to be an awakening of intelligence in the student where he becomes aware of and examines the assumptions upon which his knowledge is based, whether they be the assumptions underpinning his subjects or even those presupposed by his own beliefs and views.
The notion that facts speak for themselves and are objective and unbiased is nonsense and to uphold this belief is to limit the development of the human being who is encouraged to suppress his own subjective views and defer to those sanctioned by an external authority.
On the contrary, as educators we should be encouraging autonomy of thought in our students. We should be genuinely interested in the views they hold and provide a sounding board for them to explore these for themselves.
Contrary to the view that learning is concerned with the transmission of objective facts from the teacher (authority) to the student, lessons are an opportunity for this kind of open- ended enquiry and self -examination.
In my last newsletter I gave examples of instances where this had occurred in my own lessons. However, these moments of insight should not be so few and far between but rather a way of life, the examined life.
Western industrialised education has inherited a belief or worldview that emphasizes empirical knowledge above all other forms of cognition.
Empirical science as taught at school provides the illusion of certainty and truth to which the aspiring scientist must bow. Models of the world and scientific theories are just that, yet they are presented as final truths to be learnt and upheld unquestioningly.
Rather than providing students with a false sense of security and enthroning the sciences as the only means of determining the truth about ourselves and our world, we need to introduce students to the limitations of this approach so that they become comfortable with arbitrating between conflicting views and beliefs. Thought is limited; how can there ever be finality in our understanding of the world?
It is my view that the growth of modern science was a necessary stage in the evolution of humanity’s consciousness. It freed society from the stranglehold of superstition and dogma. The quest for verifiable evidence-based truths is noteworthy and important, but to be stuck with the absolute laws of the sciences is simply to accept unquestioningly the conclusions and voices of external authority that the world is like this.
Perhaps the most damaging effect of empirical science is that their practitioners deny responsibility for the ethical and social consequences of their inventions and adherents of this worldview are not exempt from gross human rights abuse as is evidenced by the horrors perpetrated by Doctor Josef Mengele, also known as the Angel of Death, who performed experiments on helpless victims of the Nazi death camps.
I can think of no better example of this than the Manhattan project where a group of scientists, including those involved in the formulation of quantum physics, led by J Robert Oppenheimer were tasked by the USA government to develop the nuclear bomb that changed the course of human history.
“The Moment in Time: The Manhattan Project” provides insight into the personal dilemmas of scientists involved in the development of the bomb.
No less pressing, is the need for scientists today to be willing to engage intelligently with the debates on AI, Genetic engineering and other more recent scientific advances.
With the emergence of industrial society, the end justified the means. Profit became paramount. The moral debates of our time are being conducted in reaction to this paradigm. For example, the scientific community and big pharmaceutical companies are being challenged to account for their endeavours. Questions such: At what cost? In whose interest? are now at the forefront of recent mass protests.
Building solid foundations for learning:
“Sooner or later something seems to call us onto a particular path. You may remember this “something” as a signal moment in childhood when an urge out of nowhere, a fascination, a peculiar turn of events struck like an annunciation: This is what I must do, this is what I’ve got to have. This is who I am”. (The Soul’s Code: In Search of Character and Calling, James Hillman)
1st stage: Sensory learning
Having outlined the limitations of a particular worldview that dominates our learning institutions, I wish to move to the question of teaching and learning.
If knowledge is considered to be a fixed body of facts, then the focus will clearly be on rote learning and memorization of these facts.
The infant encounters the world exclusively through the senses. In this stage, all the senses are active. Learning is based first and foremost on the exploration of the world through the senses and certain schools such as Montesorri emphasise this mode of learning.
Early learning is pivotal in shaping the destiny and futures of our children. If their experiences are rich in full integrated sensory experiences, they are more likely to discover in themselves the latent seeds of future endeavours.
My son, Joe, as a primary school student explores the principles of gravitational potential energy. Joe graduated from Harvard University in 2018 with Cum Laude degree in Computer Science.
Matthew Golesworthy as a primary school student contemplates the principles of electrochemistry. Matthew completed his DPhil in Chemistry at University of Oxford in 2021.
Joe with friends is building a model construction from an architectural plan.
The senses are windows for learning. Encountering the object through the senses is gradually replaced with the image which the human being forms of the object. Once the child has become capable of this, the literal physical presence of objects is no longer necessary as mental sophistication has reached a point at which the child has some notion of object permanence and both memory and imagination can be called into play. At this point the literal physical object can in a sense be relinquished and mental exploration can take place by means of images. This image making is at the heart of forming an “I,” creating a sense of our own identity as we now start to distinguish not only between the object and ourselves but between images and concepts.
The child has now reached the point at which progress can be made to the second stage of cognition, the attainment of conceptual knowledge.
Apprehension of the world through our senses is the necessary first stage of all knowledge.
In my opinion we move too quickly from sensory learning to factual knowledge overlooking the development of conceptual knowledge, a point I will expand on later.
In many respects our education system confines itself to a narrow emphasis on facts although often at the expense of conceptual understanding. This I believe is one of the principal defects of education as generally practiced as it artificially short-circuits the processes by which real understanding is generated.
2nd Stage “Conceptual knowledge: meaningful learning
Conceptual knowledge needs to be rooted in the rich soil of sensory experience. By this I do not mean the bombardment of children with sensory input from computer games. Rather, what is needed is the hands-on engagement of the child with the subject matter.
In my library a mother and her three pre-school children, ages 2.4 and 5 explore various 2D and 3D shapes.
Some indication of what conceptual knowledge and the meaningful learning that follows from it are can be suggested by considering the concept of a circle. There are all kinds of circles, small, large, red, blue and so on, but they are all circles which means that there must be some unifying concept in virtue of which something is a circle.
In a recent lesson I asked two “bright” 13-year-old students what a circle is and at first obtained only silence. A bit later one of them suggested that it is a shape with no vertices. This is by no means a stupid suggestion as it certainly distinguishes a circle handily from triangles, squares and so on. However, this attempt at demarcation is too specific to be of use as ovals and ellipses do not have vertices either. It is only once one realises that a circle is such that all its points equidistant from its centre that real understanding is attained. It is also only through conceptual understanding that real comprehension can be attained.
The process described above is essential if real understanding is to be obtained in any subject. Unfortunately, now something extremely detrimental to the child’s development occurs in almost all schools. Too quickly we move from image to rote learning of the facts without proceeding first through the conceptual development phase.
This gap in our education system has been identified and highlighted by leading proponents of the conceptual approach to learning, such as David Ausubel and Joseph Novak, as leading to an impoverished education.
A mother and son exploring 3D shapes: part of a program called “Just you and me” which I developed to teach parents the foundation concepts in mathematics and science.
Novak, a pioneer in conceptual learning, set me on a different path and gave me a way out of the conundrum of empiricist knowledge. Novak’s software enables one to use a computer to get one to map up interlinking related concepts in a concept map. (Refer to https:/cmap.ihmc.us for a detailed description of the C Maps). More importantly, Novak believes that such an approach enables students to identify their own misconceptions and understand why they are misconceptions in a way that is far more productive of knowledge than a mechanical right/wrong approach ever could be. For Novak it is this process that enables one to engage in meaningful self-correction.
A Learning Unlimited student is building a concept map in order to understand a complex biological process using Joseph Novak’s software.
Let us return now to the formation of the ego, the “I” discussed earlier when the process of gradually becoming able to substitute images for objects was considered. The “I” stores the created image of the object in memory enabling a continuation of thought and exploration which would otherwise be impossible. The “I” is now capable of concept formation, combining its concepts to acquire an understanding of the world and linking concepts to form judgements. It is vital that the processes we have been considering when speaking of sensory knowledge and its successor conceptual knowledge happen in the order in which they have been presented.
If the reverse occurs, that is if judgements, conclusions and definitions precede conceptual knowledge, then the cognitive development of the child is impaired: he has no choice but to succumb to the authority of the purveyor of facts and to the pronouncements of an external authority who now gets to mould the child. Not merely do conditioning and deference take place, but the door is also opened to competition of a perverse and destructive kind, as children who memorise the views of an authority figure—often without any real understanding of what they reproduce—are rewarded and children who do not are either reprimanded or, at least by implication, made to feel inferior even though their doubts or questions may actually manifest far greater insight.
This truncates the child’s development, and the result is disenchantment, the loss of curiosity, loss of self-esteem, alienation and despair.
In short, we have failed to develop the inner resources of the individual and the child’s development has been stunted.
Learning Unlimited has sought to address these deficiencies in various ways:
- The revival of sensory knowledge to open the doors of perception.
- A conceptually rich approach to teaching and learning; delivering curriculums in a concept-driven manner to learners reduces teaching time to more than half of the prescribed time.
- Emergence of self- knowledge through the Liberal Arts with an emphasis on the social sciences: History, Literature, Psychology, Sociology and Philosophy.
Working within the constraints of the curriculum and the exam requirements, Learning Unlimited seeks to introduce more flexible and informed methods and enhance and enrich learning.
The key to this is the skill and ability of our tutors to teach in this way.
But this is not enough.
Where the child has lost his innate ability to perceive the world directly through the senses and where sensory learning is lacking these latent abilities can be reawakened and thereby serve as a window to enriched capacities, essential to the further cognitive development of the individual.
We have encouraged our children to give up their fantasies in exchange for hard facts/ reality and often instilled a belief in them that the senses are not to be trusted or, worse yet, a source of temptation and uncleanliness.
As a result we look at life with one or two senses that are awakened. It is possible not to suppress any of our senses but awaken all our senses without the interference of thought with its judgements and opinions.
Other than social conditioning, traumatic events in a child’s life or even congenital defects can also result in a shutting down of the senses. Professor Alfred Tomatis , an otolaryngologist and inventor, developed and patented the “Electronic Ear” that reawakens the sensory neural pathways of the brain that have been impaired: his findings “The Tomatis Effect” were published in the French Academics of Science and Medicine in 1957. I have personally witnessed the powerful impact of the Tomatis effect on students with dyslexia, auditory processing disorders and a variety of emotional and learning difficulties. Refer to www.tomatis.com for more information on the Tomatis Method or Audio-Psycho-Phonology.
In his pioneering work Neuropsychiatrist, Professor Alfonso Caycedo, who was working with war veterans suffering from PTSD, sought alternatives to drug therapy and shock treatment for his patients and dedicated his life to the development of the Sophrology Method to re- awaken the connection to the senses and awaken the dormant capacities of the inner senses which lead to imagination and intuition. These inner resources enable children to be creative, overcome emotional and mental obstacles and realise their potential and acquire self-management tools.
LU students explore various modes of perception during a Sophrology session with Dorna Revie.
3rd stage: Self knowledge
Socrates: “The unexamined life is not worth living”
In our previous newsletter Zulifqar Awan, our Sociology and Psychology tutor, outlined the historical and social forces that have led to modernity and posited the revival of the Liberal Arts as a panacea for the sick society.
Once again, I refer to the Liberal Arts where History, Literature and the like provide other contexts in which human behaviour can be examined and against which our own behaviour can be examined.
“All along I have kept repeating that a historian cannot rightly pretend to complete impersonality or impartiality. Our final goal in the study of history is self-knowledge. To attain I, we must have sympathy for other people, must try to see them as they saw themselves; as we look back on the decisive clashes of ideas and ideals we must try to understand both sides, particularly the side we disapprove of, which more often than not proved to be the winning side; but our aim, in the words of Ernst Cassierer, is not to efface the self but to enlarge it.” Herbert Muller, “The Loom of History.”
Literature provides ways of enlarging one’s self understanding. A good case can be made for the proposition that literature has for millennia offered insights into human nature and behaviour in areas where science has as yet not penetrated and perhaps never will. Regardless of where you stand on the scientific status of Freud’s notion of an unconscious, he was the first to admit that poets and playwrights had been exploring it centuries and indeed millennia before him.
Let us take just one or two more examples. Has the fact that Hitler and Stalin were notable art connoisseurs, albeit of conservative taste, disconcerted you as it should? How can grotesque extremes of cruelty and evil coexist with a sensibility undeniably refined in other respects.? Read Robert Browning’s most famous poem My Last Duchess and I believe you will learn as much about the unnerving psychology behind this as you can in any other way and perhaps more.
To cite another example taken from an article on the Learning Unlimited website on the relevance of English Language and English Literature studies, do you think that the barbaric conditions workers endured as described in Victorian poems and novels are of purely historic interest, images of a grotesque past which is behind us? If so, you would do well to read Thomas Hood’s poem The Song of the Shirt, published in 1843, and immediately after it Robert Pinsky’s The Shirt, published in 1990. When you do you will see the casual ruthlessness with which human life is sacrificed to a shallow, oblivious and heartless consumerism now as much as then.
These two examples alone—and countless more could be given—illustrate the ways in which literature intersects with all of history, politics, sociology and psychology. The constant ways in which the past and present interpenetrate is also a great source of insight into who we are and provides one of the greatest joys of reading books genuinely worthy of a reflective adult’s attention.
This is merely the start of building a foundation for life-long learning by means of a holistic education.
There are also other latent faculties within the individual yet to be awakened and it is incumbent on us as educators to educare, (draw these out) since a rich interior life including all of intelligence, imagination and intuition is the greatest wealth we can bestow on any generation.
Billiards, Dice, and Entangled Photons – Article by: Charles de Villiers
“I think I can safely say that nobody understands quantum mechanics”
– Richard P. Feynman, 1965 Nobel prize winner for physics and quantum computing pioneer
The 2022 Nobel Prize for Physics has been awarded to three researchers – a Frenchman, Alain Aspect, an Austrian, Anton Zeilinger, and an American, John Clauser – “for experiments with entangled photons, establishing the violation of Bell inequalities and pioneering quantum information science”.
Science, far from being just an established set of rules to be taught at school, is constantly advancing and broadening its horizons. The technological breakthroughs that regularly appear in the press – new vaccines, lunar probes, artificial intelligence – are perhaps the best-known examples of this. Fundamental science like this Nobel-winning research is, however, just as important, and just as exciting.
But what on earth is “quantum entanglement”?
In 1905 a certain Albert Einstein, a 25-year-old Swiss patent clerk with no particular academic credentials, published four scientific papers that defined modern physics. One of these papers set out his Special Theory of Relativity. Another explained the photoelectric effect, the phenomenon that causes a current to flow when light falls on an electrode. It was this second paper that became the foundation-stone of quantum theory. Einstein showed that the details of the photoelectric effect could only be explained if the light arrived in discrete packets of energy, or “quanta”. Soon, many brilliant young researchers – Bohr, Heisenberg, Schrödinger and others – were exploring the implications of this discovery.
Quantum theory seems weird because we humans have evolved to understand the world at our own scale. We have a basic, intuitive understanding of motion and forces that we can observe directly, and we can make mental pictures and draw analogies. But soon after the birth of quantum physics, it became apparent that these mental models do not work well at the atomic and subatomic level. Is light a particle like a billiard-ball, or is it a kind of wave? What about electrons, protons, and all the menagerie of other subatomic particles that have been discovered since that time? All of these exhibit both particle-like and wave-like properties. Neither the billiard-ball nor the water wave provides us with a fully satisfactory analogy for the quantum realm.
Werner Heisenberg showed that there is a fundamental limit to the precision with which a particle/wave’s position and momentum can be determined by any experiment. Erwin Schrödinger showed how to model the probability of particle states using an abstract “wave function”. Their work implied that the object’s state does not really exist until it is observed. It is in a “superposition of states” – all possible states at once – until an observation fixes the state at a definite value. This was the great revolution brought about by quantum physics – never again, at least at quantum scales, could one expect reliably to predict future behaviour based on past measurements.
This philosophical uncertainty has important real-world implications. To give just one example: a particle that is trapped (in classical physics terms) by an insurmountable barrier, may miraculously “tunnel” through that barrier and appear on the other side. Its state – its position, momentum, energy and so on – is not just unknown, but unknowable, until it is observed. The particle is governed, not by the iron laws of Newton, but by the “uncertainty principle” of Heisenberg and the “probability wave” of Schrödinger.
“Quantum tunnelling”, as this is called, is central to the explanation of natural phenomena such as radioactive decay and nuclear fusion, and it has found practical application in devices such as the tunnel diode and the scanning tunnelling microscope.
Einstein was never comfortable with the probabilistic interpretation of nature. After endless debates with his colleagues, he remained unconvinced and continued to search for a theory that accounted for the undeniable weirdness but did not require randomness. “God does not play dice with the Universe”, he grumbled.
In 1935 Einstein, Podolsky and Rosen published the famous EPR Paradox: a “thought experiment” involving two particles that are linked together by well-established quantum laws – two photons, say, emitted from a single nuclear reaction. Photons have a quantum property named “spin”, which can take one of only two values – “up” or “down”. If the nucleus is left unchanged, then one of the photons must have its spin “up”, and the other must necessarily have its spin “down”. The photons are said to be “entangled” because the spin of each depends on the other. Crucially, though, neither spin has a value until an observation is made.
We can make an analogy with a tossed coin in mid-air. Newton would have claimed that the coin’s ultimate state (heads or tails) is predetermined by the exact conditions of the throw. Quantum physics says that the coin, viewed as a quantum system, is in a superposition of states, both heads and tails, until a definite outcome is observed. There is no way – practical or even theoretical – of knowing the result in advance.
A promising application of this notion of superposition is in the new field of quantum computing, where a quantum bit or “qubit” can be in a superposition of “1” and “0” states, enabling multiple computations to proceed simultaneously.
But let’s return to the EPR Paradox. Suppose, said Einstein, that an experimenter (we’ll call her Alice) captures two photons as described. Hanging on to one photon for handy reference, she sends the other to Bob, her lab partner. Bob usually occupies the next bench; but purely for dramatic effect, we’ll assume he’s at the Mars branch of the lab, about 15 light-minutes away. (The experiment works perfectly either way). Neither Alice nor Bob knows in advance which photon will be found to have its spin “up” – it’s a 50/50 proposition. But now Alice observes the spin of her local photon. Instantly, she knows the spin of Bob’s photon too. And sure enough, whenever Bob gets around to checking his own photon, its spin will be the opposite of Alice’s. If Alice found “up”, then Bob will certainly find “down”, and vice versa. You may perhaps wonder if Alice and Bob have communicated faster than light? Not really, because no information has flowed between them. Each will still need to wait 15 minutes before hearing the result of the other’s measurement.
But Einstein still couldn’t accept that the spin-states of both photons are completely undetermined before measurement, yet suddenly both become “real” at the instant the first one is observed. No signal can possibly have passed between the photons, yet their properties are somehow linked. Einstein rejected this as “spooky action at a distance” and suggested instead that the photons must contain “hidden variables” – invisible properties, created along with the photons, that somehow predetermine the outcome of the experiment. Of course, this just replaced one conundrum with another. Where and what were these hidden variables? Still, the EPR thought-experiment posed a challenge to common sense. There seemed to be an insurmountable paradox at the heart of physics.
At last, in 1964, the Irish physicist John Bell was able to show that there is a way to resolve the EPR Paradox: the two explanations (Schrödinger’s picture of superposed states vs Einstein’s hidden variable hypothesis) will produce different statistics for certain measurements if the experiment is repeated multiple times. Experimental physicists would “simply” need to perform the necessary experiments! Bell probably deserved his own Nobel Prize for this work, particularly after it was successfully applied by others. But the wheels of the Nobel committee grind slowly, and Bell died, aged 62, before he could receive the prize.
Instead, it is the multinational trio of Aspect, Clauser and Zeilinger who have been honoured for the ingenious and tricky series of experiments that vindicated Bell and resolved the EPR Paradox once and for all. The upshot was that the “hidden variable” theory was refuted, and probabilistic quantum mechanics is triumphant.
So Einstein, who was right about so much, was wrong about quantum physics – the universe is not deterministic. Perhaps God does play dice, after all?