What should a student know? This question is currently being addressed in the context of the Common Core State Standards Initiative, an educational program being adopted in most states designed to codify what students from kindergarten to grade 12 should know in English and math at each grade level.
The Common Core standards mandate that 50 percent of reading carried out by fourth-graders be devoted to non-fiction texts, which increases to 70 percent by grade 12. Will this increasing emphasis on non-fiction better prepare students for college and careers as intended?
A recent study published in the journal Science reports that reading literary fiction improves a cognitive process given the New Age-sounding name “Theory of Mind.”
Theory of Mind is the ability to detect and understand the emotions of others, and to infer their beliefs and intentions. This is a critical skill for day-to-day interactions with others, including in the work place. Underdeveloped Theory of Mind is manifest as anti-social behavior, not a quality employers are looking for. Although the human brain is predisposed to Theory of Mind, this cognitive skill is developed by learning through social experiences and other information input. For those who need to justify education in terms of career preparation, this skill is essential and so, too, should be literary fiction.
Designers of the Common Core standards intend for reading instruction to be distributed throughout all classes. Therefore, classes other than English need the greatest reform in order to meet the English standards without marginalizing Shakespeare and Yeats. I suggest that educational reform that integrates subjects traditionally taught in separate classes and presumed to engage different cognitive skills would enrich learning, put knowledge in context and perhaps promote reading across the curriculum. This may place a curriculum committee well outside of its comfort zone, but the life for which students are being prepared is an interdisciplinary experience. What might a more topically integrated class lesson look like?
A high school student studies a photograph of a striking and somewhat eerie painting by an anonymous artist rediscovered in Spain numerous years ago. The work, titled “Panel de las Manos” (Panel of the Hands), gives the illusion of hands pressing up behind a transparent canvas even though they were of course painted over it. The teacher explains the unique perspective, textures, light and hues that create the effect. This painting is unusual for several other reasons, not the least of which is that the canvas is a cave wall found in El Castillo Mountain near the town of Puente Viesgo. The painting is dated to at least 37,000 years ago using a new sensitive spectrometric technique that can detect small amounts of a uranium isotope and its decay product thorium. This body of knowledge that combines art, anthropology and physics may leave some educators fidgeting over where to place it in the curriculum, but our student is in awe of what is knowable. Her cognitive ability to integrate knowledge is enhanced, a useful skill set indeed.
Wait, class is not over yet. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the hand stencil art is that the artist was a child, and numerous other hand stencils have been found throughout Europe, usually created by children. Our student cannot help but wonder whether the young artists created the hand stencils simply because they could. Art for art’s sake. Anthropologists are interested in understanding why humans began expressing themselves through art around 40,000 years ago. One might think that Paleolithic Era people would be preoccupied with more pressing matters, such as staying alive, than to expend precious time and resources on what seems to be a luxury. Apparently not.
Art is almost certainly an evolutionary adaptation associated with critical cognitive development, probably leading to language and socialization. By now the curriculum committee is in a state of apoplexy. Biology is supposed to be after lunch, neuroscience is too hard and we must tread lightly over the subject of evolution as best we can.
Our student, however, is engaged. How can she not be? Her biggest worry right now is that she might have to wait until tomorrow to find out what the artists were doing in Europe in the first place so long ago, and how they get there.
Modern humans reached Europe, ultimately from our birthplace in East Africa, not much earlier than the hand stencil paintings were created. By then, people had already been in Asia and Oceania for about 30,000 years, and by 18,000 years ago the African diaspora had spread throughout the globe. Through a combination of geological, archeological and DNA evidence, the migratory routes of the early explorers out of Africa are known with a high degree of certainty. Moreover, one study suggests that the hundreds of phonemes, or sounds, used to construct modern languages can be traced to an African origin as well. The paths of the modern human exodus are strewn with the genes and phonemes left behind by our earliest ancestors. Our student will recognize that there is no such thing as prehistory, only history. Despite lacking a written record, the discovery of America 22,000 years ago by nomads crossing the Bering Strait is no less a historical narrative than is Christopher Columbus’ accidental encounter with Americans millennia later.
We want all students to be able to integrate knowledge from disparate sources to solve problems, develop theories, tell stories, reconstruct events and reveal beauty. We want them to be prudent, yet be willing to take calculated risks. Therefore, a curriculum should be designed and implemented in that spirit.
Mark R. O’Brian is a professor of biochemistry at the University at Buffalo.