The Other End of Bruner's Spiral:
A Proposed Educative Procedure For
Easy Integration of Knowledge.
A Learning Module For Summer School
In College or High School


by

Win Wenger, Ph.D., president
Project Renaissance, Box 332
Gaithersburg, MD 20884-0332.



Summary

Anyone interested in improved or accelerated learning should investigate the integration of knowledge in the school curriculum. Jerome Bruner and others made a much-respected case on behalf of organizing a core of structured principles of understanding common to all fields of knowledge. In Bruner's concept, each core principle would be revisited more formally at each rung up the educational ladder. A fundamental issue in education is the transfer of learning, from initial to other contexts. Without an integrated base of understanding, few students remember the contents of their courses for very long, or find them useful to either the learning of subsequent courses or to living. Few are able to transfer what they've learned from initial contexts into other contexts.

WITH such a core of integrated understandings, most students will be able to do all these things and much more--very much in keeping with the goals of any educator interested in improving long-term and even short-term educational outcomes.

Herein we propose a simple, easy summer school program, college-level or secondary, by means of which to induce a richly productive integration of knowledge in its students, even where none of the school's teachers or administrators or texts are themselves equipped with such a core(!).

"All knowledge is my province." --Roger Bacon

A serious complaint by some of the more intelligent among their graduates, is that most schools "teach each subject in a box." Each subject is taught so dichotomously and so separately from any other subject that there is little transfer of learning from one course to the next, even in closely related fields. Worse, for many, there is very little long-term retention of learning, an apparent waste of most of the schooling effort. Nothing comes along to reinforce what was already learned at such effort and cost. Hence the oft-quoted definition of "an education" being "what you have left after you've forgotten everything you've been taught."

Decrying this condition, many have argued on behalf of integrating the school curriculum around a common core structure of knowledge, with the contents of all subjects taught as examples of the common core principles in operation. Some, from Aristotle on, have concentrated mainly on isolating an identified core of structural principles around which the body of existing knowledge can be encyclopedically assembled and organized. Others, from Oliver L. Reiser to today's Mortimer Adler and his "Propedia"-based Encyclopedia Britannica, have focused on compiling some identified core knowledge and principles in more accessible or teachable form.

More recently swamped by other issues, educators nowadays appear to feel that to consider how to integrate knowledge is but an intellectual luxury, one to perhaps be looked at some other time when classroom learning generally is in less immediate prospect of extinction. Indeed, interest in this topic may have peaked in the Sixties with the war cry of "relevancy," which war cry was, alas, instead used mainly to demolish old scholastic and academic standards without replacing them with genuine improvements.

At about the same time, though, on a far more respectable level, Jerome S. Bruner voiced the case for an integrated "spiral" structure of all knowledge in the curriculum. Further, he argued that "any idea, no matter how 'advanced,' can be taught in intellectually respectable form to any child at any stage of development" if it is put into that child's current cognitive vocabulary"--into the structure of basic codified experiences with which he then processes other experiences. Ford and Pugno among others, assembled not only such arguments but proposals by various writers for integration within particular curriculum areas - math, english, social studies, and the natural sciences. More recently, this present writer found the most widely accepted behavioral law of psychology to be a central descriptive principle not only for animal behavior but for vegetative--indeed extending beyond lifekind to be a major structural issue in the physical universe, which experience lends some further impetus to the consideration that we live in one universe with one set of "natural laws" which, once understood, render comprehensible the contents of any academic or scientific specialization.

Perhaps the most promising area for integration of knowledge has been through the general theory of systems, the study of how things work together. Because the dynamic principles of the interactions of things are consistent from physics to sociology to art and poetry, general systems theory represents an especially convenient set of descriptive physical principles around which can be assembled and organized most or all other academic fields.

In a tradition consistent with Wiener, von Bertalanffy, Laszlo, Kuhn,and Miller, among others, this present writer has argued that once equipped with a basic understanding of the general theory of systems, many or most learners should become able to transfer virtually 100% of everything learned in any one particular subject context into any other particular subject context(s) and into general usefulness.


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The case for integrating the contents of school or academic curricula has not in any apparent way been diminished over the years - only the interest of current educators in that case. An encyclopedic review, of what now amounts to a mere faded lesson in the history of education, is not the intent of this paper. These few citings are only to indicate that the case itself is respectable and was respected.

Further, we suggest that few topics should be of more central interest than this one, to any professional relating to better methods of teaching and learning or to better educational outcomes. If such an integration can (1) reinforce prior learning; (2) improve current and future learning; (3) result in higher long-term retention of learning, and (4) make what is learned more useful to subsequent pursuits, then such an integration must become a central area of interest and concern for any quality-minded educator.

Traditionally, one factor especially has discouraged most teachers from taking an active interest in the integration of knowledge. Alas: much of the exposition and expatiation of this topic have been beyond the convenient intellectual reach of many teachers, not only their students. Even for those of longer intellectual reach, more urgent pressures have usually forced attention to be switched to concrete matters far more immediately understandable to school administrators and fellow teachers.

That very urgency of other matters, though, now has schools on or near the point of losing their support so that to survive, they must begin to demonstrate improved educational outcomes. A summerschool program of the kind described here, run as a simple model or experiment, could go a very long way to relieving this vulnerability. For any school, and certainly for such schools as still have some freedom to innovate or to test special models, we herein set forth a very simple procedure to enable students to begin creating their own integrated structure of knowledge, even where teachers are not personally cognizant of such an integrated structure! After even one such summerschool session, students will attain a high quality intellectual and aesthetic grasp of nearly all that they have been taught to date. The session's students will build a strikingly high quality command of the contents of current and subsequent courses of study. They will build and demonstrate a very high rate of long-term retention, and render their schooling useful to their subsequent living.

Here is the suggested procedure to cause students to integrate their knowledge--

Integration Days: Getting STUDENTS To Integrate All Knowledge:

The advantage of intersessions and summer schools over normal sessions in this regard is: offering only one or two courses intensively over a period of but several weeks, instead of 5-6 courses at a time strung out over a semester.

Begin with a pair of such courses. One course runs in the mornings and the other in the afternoon, as is usual in summer schools, with the announced anticipation that such integrations will be attempted. Whether or not the individual teacher or professor refers to this expectation, or indicates along the way various points relating to previously taken courses (that would be a very desirable practice in any case): at the conclusion of each such pair of courses, feature an "Integration Day."

Part of the evaluation of the students' degree of success in each course will be their observed performance during the processes of "Integration Day." "Integration Day" will follow the final examination in each subject and be weighed as strongly in each student's "grade" for the course as is that exam. Other than that, each teacher's conduct of each course is not interfered with.

Integration Day itself will feature use of the focussed-interactive, classroom management techniques set forth in How To Be A Better Teacher, Today. In an intensely guided interactive discussion format, students will pursue the task of tracing out relationships and structural similarities between the contents of the course just completed and other course subjects taken previously. Students will work successively in pairs, in threes and fours, in small buzz-groups, and in plenary larger groups converging as a symposium proceeding and in personal documentation.

Repeat this same "Integration Day" procedure for the same students, through a sequence of three or more courses. The second "Integration Day" will be at least ten times richer in intellectual product than the first, and the third several times richer than the second, as an integrative context builds from course to course.

It would be helpful to have each teacher of those courses involved in supporting these integrative process. However, teachers vary just as do other human beings. Even without cooperation of and support by such teachers, if need be the escalating comprehension and integration can be accomplished through these "Integration Days" alone, together with concurrent anticipation of such days by the students in these courses.
A good idea is to include many tape recorders and clerical services for transcribing select portions of the resulting recordings from "Integration Day." This is because the resultant intellectual integrations will emerge in forms which are useful for more than those particular participating students. These integrations will be useful to other teachers and students beyond the boundaries of the model project.

Comparing two just-completed courses at a time is better than just integrating from one course at a time. The ongoing process will be more interesting as well as richer. On the other hand, doing three courses at a time usually would make the task too complex. Part of the emphasis is to recognize and highlight a structure of descriptive dynamic principles also found in courses studied previous to entry into this model project. Two such courses at a time afford enough more possibilities than does one, to help students to begin generating as good many responses and to get into a productive flow of responses leading toward the desired integration. Even without regard to prior learnings, comparing the structured contents of just the two courses at a time will generate some useful initial responses. Do not leave matters there, however, since part of the objective is to integrate all previous and subsequent learning.

Summer schools are better for this purpose than are intersessions. At least two pairs of courses should be taught and then integrated, to allow the greater part of this intellectual and aesthetic integration to take place. Intersessions usually are not long enough to allow students the greater part of the benefit from this procedure.

After monitoring the gains from the summer model, schools may consider re-engineering their wintertime programming as well, into successions of pairs of intensive courses followed by Integration Days. One drawback of rendering the Integration Days model into the regular school year would be that each participating teacher would be involved in the teaching of such courses only for those several weeks unless teaching several such courses, a possible problem in scheduling the school's regular faculty. On the other hand, this arrangement could also entail the opportunity to engage especially high quality instructors from the community and from elsewhere in the educational system, without the expenses of committing them to a year's appointment.

Many leading researchers and educators currently engaged or on sabbatical, and truly emeritus educators, could be available in such a project who would not be available to the school for a year's commitment.

Outcomes of the Model "Integration Days" Project:

1. Very high long-term retention of course contents by students (and recovered retention of prior learnings).

2. Very high quality understandings by students of course contents past, current and subsequent.

3. Very much higher quality performance by students, in courses taken subsequent to the project.

4. A very much higher rate of usefulness of course contents, in the subsequent lives of the students however measured, since a far higher proportion of learning will transfer from initial contexts to other contexts.

5. A body of integral understandings to aid not only the participating students, but to serve as a supplemental resource for such teachers and other students as will find such matters to be of interest.

6. Higher morale among students finding such gains in their experience, and among their parents, and eventually among the sources of support for the school.

Results of this model project, if closely monitored and measured, will encourage further such investigations, leading toward a time when the educative ideal will truly be achieved, where for each student everything learned and everything encountered, adds rich meaning to everything else ever learned or ever encountered, forever.

Interested persons are requested to contact the writer, toward helping make this project and this ideal happen.

-------------------------------------------------
Copyright 1987, 1994 by Win Wenger, Ph.D., Project Renaissance, 301/948-1122 or fax 301/977-4712. You are authorized, however, to reproduce the above article--in whole, including this notice, but not in part--for educational non-commercial purposes.



©1998 by Project Renaissance (regarding this internet version only, other copyrights may apply). While we encourage the free distribution of this article (complete text only, including this notice and acknowledgement of source), we do require that expressed permission be granted by Project Renaissance for any major republication. For minor printing and sharing, we only request that you notify us.

To reach Win Wenger, please visit his website at Project Renaissance.

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