Education Needs Personality? Asian Education Needs Gerhard Roth! – By Markus Heidingsfelder

Philosopher, brain researcher, neurobiologist: Gerhard Roth. © Roth-Institut

The question how to optimise education has preoccupied mankind for thousands of years. Already the question of what is meant by ‘optimising’ is not without controversy. Is it primarily about training memory? Or about teaching the skill called ‘thinking’ – in the concentrated version: reflection?

As is well known in China, Confucius related both moments to each other. Despite the dialectical design, the moment of learning, i.e., memory, was clearly in the foreground for him. This is not surprising, for the self-perception of the first Chinese philosopher is to be a transmitter of the old and not to create anything new. An exceedingly remarkable circumstance: Chinese philosophy begins with the statement that it is not a creation but rather a ‘remembrance’. It conveys what others have said; it does not invent (or at least claims so). The after-effects of this preference for learning to the detriment of thinking can still be observed today in Chinese educational institutions. My Chinese students are incredibly diligent when it comes to studying texts. They memorise a multitude of terms and concepts, almost as if they have a greater storage capacity in their brains than their European counterparts. This is a cause for joy for any teacher from ‘the West’ who arrives in China. But when it comes to putting these terms and concepts into a relationship with each other in a self-reflexive way and proceeding independently – when it comes to ‘thinking,’ that is – they often ask me how exactly they should go about it. It’s almost as if they were discouraged by the constant admonitions that thinking without learning is dangerous. I find the emphasis on memorization and repetition to be much more perilous – the technically flawless yet soulless interpretations of someone like Lang Lang highlight that.

In addition, there is the not insignificant question of what is to be optimised here – what exactly education means. For a liberal arts institution like UIC, where I work, and which upholds the ideals of Humboldt, the answer is clear. It is found in our motto: Onto the whole person. Or, as the German sociologist Niklas Luhmann once provocatively summarized Humboldt’s concept, it is about turning organisms into personalities. Here, the concept of education is equally opposed to a technical one (‘Ausbildung’ in German) as it is to the idea of a self-growing nature. It thus requires a very specific activity on the part of both teacher and pupil in order to turn highly organised organisms not only into capable engineers or doctors, but into responsible fellow human beings and citizens. The general consensus is: this is done by teaching the student not so much a certain knowledge, but by stimulating her own activity. Education in this understanding is a creation of the individual and its relationship to itself. Paradoxically formulated: how the student learns to learn. She has to do this herself, not unlike a plant – but just like the plant, she needs water and fertiliser, and it is the teacher’s job to provide these. In the straightforward words of Harrison C. White, education is all about “getting the students going.” The key question is: What type of “fertiliser” is necessary to encourage this self-activity? Mere memorization won’t suffice.

Plato‘s response to this question is widely recognized. In his Academy, by means of an elaborate technique of dialogue that survives in his writings, the main aim was to acquaint students with their own prejudices, which precede any judgement – an early version of Descartes: I doubt, therefore I learn. A very similar strategy is recommended by probably the most important educational theorist of modern times, the Swiss developmental psychologist Jean Piaget. For him, learning appears as an adaptation to the conditions given by the environment, and the teacher can ensure an imbalance through targeted provocations – not unlike those of Socrates or Plato – that the pupil must restore himself; a process he calls accommodation.

But whether the student actually does that, i.e., learns, whether the teacher manages ‘to get them going’ is not solely in his power. We can only try to teach as well as possible – success stands and falls with the question of whether the student translates what has been mediated into her own thinking. It is a readiness that depends on many variables. Our syllabi, which are full of prophecies (so-called ‘learning outcomes’) generously overlook this. However, what the learning success, the ‘teacher success’, will be at the end of a class cannot be determined – the future is uncertain, and this applies to the field of education as well. It is similar to the situation at a football match where the coach is on the sidelines. She cannot take part in the game, cannot score goals or make the decisive pass – only the players on the field can do that. So how can this intention of ‘They should learn’ be supported? What means do we have at our disposal to facilitate this translation into the student’s own operativity?

I have been teaching for more than thirty years and know from my own experience that my enthusiasm for the material – a skill that is put to the test every time I enter the classroom: Am I enthusiastic enough to inspire others, to carry them along? – certainly does no harm, but also that it is by no means enough. I also know that creating a positive atmosphere in the classroom, fostering a relaxed and open interaction, is essential for encouraging a willingness to engage with the material. But whenever I looked for advice in the extensive literature that is supposed to teach us teachers ourselves, namely the ‘art of teaching’ (the Greek meaning of didactics), I was disappointed. There are many phrases, affirmations, outdated humanistic ideas, preaching of values, or hierarchical models from the 1950s like Bloom’s taxonomy, but nothing that really tells us which methods are most effective in initiating the process of self-learning.

The stratification of education: One version of Bloom’s learning pyramid’ (Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching)

Especially Bloom is highly problematic, but still very popular in higher education institutions in Asia, including here in China. This may be linked to Mr. Bloom’s view of learning as a hierarchical sequence, akin to a pyramid one must ascend. At the base, you start with diligence and memorization, forming a broad foundation. Eventually, you reach the narrow peak (though the tightness up there doesn’t seem quite right to me; in reality, there should be ample room, as you’re finally free to think in all directions). In summary, one could say that he verticalizes the Confucian difference. Interestingly, this model isn’t even recognized in top-tier universities in the USA. For instance, my colleague Alka Menon at Yale University has never heard of it: “Academics in the US don’t really work with Bloom’s model. At Yale, we do not use it at all, and I didn’t encounter it at Northwestern either; I had never heard of it until you asked me.” I inquired with Emily Handsman,  who is currently conducting her dissertation research on the K-12 education system in the United States, and she told me that it is more commonly used there. Unlike me, she doesn’t view the model as critically. Certainly, she says, learning doesn’t occur in such a regimented order. However, she believes that, like most teaching tools, it can be useful but should not be excessively relied upon. Unfortunately, I have had to experience exactly this overemphasis, indeed blind obsession with Bloom’s model in Malaysia and in China, which forces teachers to categorise all their material into the appropriate boxes, which are then ticked by the appropriate committees. To know that learning is not like a ladder that you climb little by little and then arrive at the top, as Bloom suggests, is not something I need literature for – all I have to do is look at my own learning experiences. I don’t want to do Bloom an injustice, despite all the polemics: in fact, his model tries to make sure teachers don’t simply test recall but get kids to do some critical thinking and vice versa. But the similarity of it to ideas about the stratified order of older societies is striking: slaves at the bottom, to which Bloom corresponds memory as well as motor learning – which I think is a criminal disregard for motor skills -, clergy and kaiser at the top, with the prime position being taken by ever new candidates over the last few decades. Once it used to be critique, then evaluation; the image above has creation at number 1. 

So it is all the nicer when, after all these years, one finally discovers a book that answers precisely those questions in the clearest way, without undercutting the complexity of the context, and that also confirms the experiences one has had as a teacher. “Education Needs Personality” by German neurologist Gerhard Roth, which was recently published in a completely revised new edition, provides us with comprehensible, and almost technical guidance, devoid of any lofty rhetoric. It focuses on the critical factor that makes learning possible in the first place: the brain. And since brains are self-organising, closed networks, not architectures that converge on a peak (‘pyramids’), very different methods and understandings are required than those that Bloom recommends.

Not a pyramid: Longitudinal through the human brain. Blue: Limbic system as the seat of personality and psyche (from a 2019 PowerPoint presentation by Gerhard Roth)

The fact that many educational institutions in China still adhere to a model that designs learning as a hierarchical sequence is not surprising in a cultural context heavily influenced by Confucian principles of order and loyalty. Furthermore, it does indeed bear some resemblance to Marxist thought. Here, the economy is the base, and culture is the superstructure (although this paradigm is currently facing challenges due to the Fourth Doctrine, which now considers the former superstructure of culture as society’s foundation). So much for understanding. It doesn’t change the fact that this concept, which hinges on an outdated input-output model that views students as ‘trivial machines’, doesn’t align with the workings of the brain. The implications of subscribing to such a pedagogical approach are aptly illustrated by a delightful GIF making the rounds online (as shown in the screenshot below). One can’t help but exclaim, “No wonder, this aligns perfectly with the very essence of such teaching philosophy!” My Korean friend Jungmo once told me that to absorb the educational content of his textbook, his father actually ate the pages.

However, the realization that the brain is a closed network of purely internal events, only susceptible to external irritations, cannot be the end point. Every brain has a history, which is why insights into the development of the infant’s, child’s, and adolescent’s psyche and personality need to be considered, too. The developmental conditions and patterns of an individual’s personality must, therefore, be understood within the interplay of genetic determination, early psychosocial imprinting, subsequent socialization, and the brain’s functioning. But the most crucial element for a successful teaching process, as the title of Roth’s book already emphasizes, is the teacher’s personality. No matter how sophisticated the curricula and teaching methods may be, they won’t be of much help if the teacher, to put it bluntly, is a bore and fails to engage the students. But let’s begin from the outset (at the ‘bottom’). Who is Gerhard Roth, and what exactly does his neuro-educational science entail?

Along with Wolf Singer, Roth is one of the most distinguished prolific German neurologists, with a large number of international and national publications to his credit. With the 1994 publication of “The Brain and Its Reality”, Roth asserted the claim of neuroscience to have a say in the interpretation of human beings and their actions. The physiology of the brain appeared to offer new answers to the questions posed by philosophy, theology, morality, and economics – and some of these answers challenged the human self-image. For example, the notion that we have free will. Building on the research of Benjamin Libet, who noted that distinct brain signals become detectable milliseconds before a conscious decision, Roth succinctly summarized: “The subjective experience, the feeling that I am the one in control, is evidently a retrospective attribution.” The subsequent question is quite a conundrum – because if there is no free will, how can a person be deemed culpable for a violent crime? I’ll abbreviate Roth’s response: Not really – which is why he strongly advocated for the reform of the judicial system. (The most recent statement regarding the illusion of free will comes from Sapolsky, who, in ‘Determined,’ helps alleviate the fear of acknowledging one’s lack of willpower. An engaging discussion on this topic can be found here.) In his last book published in German, “Über den Menschen” (On Man), he succeeds in creating a neuroscientific variant of anthropology which, on the one hand, follows the rich philosophical tradition, but also adds decisive, here and there deviating elements to it. Last but not least, this book is a renewed plea for interdisciplinarity – only together can the neurosciences, humanities and social sciences grasp what constitutes the human being, or more empathically: the essence of man.

This is exactly what can be said about his approach to a neurologically based theory of education. Roth’s plea for disciplinary networking makes particular sense here, since the brain is itself a complex, heterarchically organised network, which owes its enormous performance capacity precisely to this design. Only the ombination of psychology, pedagogy, didactics and neuroscience, says Roth, is able to bring about the urgently needed reformation of the education system. Based on this combination, the book attempts to answer the most important questions about education and learning: How do people actually learn? Why are emotions so important in learning and how can I arouse enthusiasm for a subject? How can what is learned be permanently implanted in the student’s memory? What role does language play in learning? And what recommendations does he have for representatives of the authorities, professors of education and didactics, and teachers, the three ‘warring factions’ in education, with regard to new teaching concepts?

For Roth, the success of teaching and learning is determined by three factors: cognition, emotion, and motivation, plus the fact that a great deal of learning happens unconsciously. The motivation and attention of the learners, the connectivity of a material to previous knowledge, the “brain-friendly” way of imparting knowledge and the repetition of what has been learned at increasing intervals, all this determines how sustainably knowledge content is anchored in memory and how easily it can be recalled. As already indicated at the beginning: there is disagreement not only about the form of teaching, but also about its content and even its goal. Should school simply pass on knowledge of a general or practical nature? Is imparting knowledge the sole aim or must or may the teacher try to influence the pupil’s personality ‘for the better’? From Roth’s point of view, the answer to the latter is absolutely yes. He also elaborates on what ‘for the better’ means to him: when the outcome is autonomous personalities who consistently pursue their interests while remaining adaptable; who look out for their own well-being and at the same time become valuable members of society. To ensure this, admonitions alone, high moral sermons, and a jam-packed schedule that allows no room to breathe are not sufficient. What helps is an understanding of how the brain functions, which Roth familiarizes the reader with: from the “plastic moment” of learning (namely the formation of new connections) to the role of neuromodulators and the genetic basis of intelligence. It becomes clear how far neuroscientific and psychological research have already come – which makes it all the more shocking that we have so far drawn hardly any consequences for a reorganisation of the education system. At the same time, sticking to outdated methods is sometimes pure convenience – people have always done it that way, and change costs time and nerves. Roth also addresses these structural problems, one of the biggest of which is the lack of time. The trouble is that this very resource, which is crucial for learning success, is in short supply at the relevant institutions. Instead, time pressure reigns supreme and an enormously tight timetable overwhelms many students – not to mention the early morning classes that criminally disregard teenagers’ need for sleep (despite the schools’ constant rhetoric about the necessity of considering students’ mental health). However, for those who truly prioritize education, there is no alternative but to tap into this very resource – whether it’s in the form of later classes, time-consuming and essential foundational reviews, or other methods. Not only less, but also slower is more here, says Roth. He uses an instructive image to illustrate this fact: like on the motorway, you have to slow down when there is a traffic jam, not speed up. In this sense, Roths’ arguments could contribute to further reducing the distress of education in China. In her remarkable new book, Keju Jin describes the ‘national angst’ surrounding education in China as completely opposed to the concept of “common prosperity” (and consequently in conflict with Xi Jinping’s goal of achieving maximum inclusive prosperity). However, the education arms race is not just economically problematic, which is the focus of Jin’s book. The very busy and demanding schedules, particularly in the context of preparing for competitive exams and high-stakes tests, combined with limited opportunities for relaxation and self-reflection, is also detrimental to the primary objective. The decision to shut down tutorial classes for school-age children in 2021 is thus entirely in line with Roths’ viewpoint.

This brings us back to the beginning of our considerations, the difference between learning and thinking. When learning, we initially work with only one part of our brain, the working memory. It is the cognitive and emotional bottleneck. Navigating through this bottleneck therefore requires a didactically skilled conception of teaching. But only what is processed in this area in a meaningful way passes into the long-term memory! Thinking is already a crucial element at the moment of learning, confirming Confucius’s famous wisdom: there’s simply no learning without thinking. However, even more important than thinking is feeling! Without emotional engagement, nothing enters our long-term memory. Above all, the delicate nature, if you will, of this ‘unit’ must be taken into account, as the working memory is not very resilient and also very susceptible to stress. The quantity is decisive here, breaks are important, repetitions are necessary. Different learning approaches and learning through independent action support the successful work of this part of the brain – and last but not least and again: the good relationship between educators/teachers and pupils, which is shaped by positive feedback processes.

The title of the book points to a central problem of our profession that is rarely ever discussed in public. As Max Weber already pointed out: “Every young man who feels called to be a scholar must rather realise that the task that awaits him has a double face. He should be qualified not only as a scholar, but also: as a teacher. And the two do not coincide at all. A person can be an outstanding scholar and an appallingly bad teacher.” Gerhard Roth builds on this insight. The author’s central thesis is: the personality of the teacher and his or her relationship to the students has an enormous, hitherto criminally underestimated significance for learning. It is crucial for “learning to succeed” (the subtitle of the book).  Of course, we should not confuse personality with what the mass media and Hollywood want to sell us as such: a dazzling, quirky character. The hint that the main thing here is to realise a relationship of trust should serve as a guideline for all of us. Teachers must be trustworthy and credible, only then will what is imparted be permanently absorbed into the memory – intuitively and not so much consciously or by decision. But if what makes the good teacher is personality, we have a problem. Because personality is not something we can teach any more than temperament or tone of voice. This puts the whole previous concept of educator training to the test. And who should decide – and how – whether a teacher has personality or not? Perhaps that is why the education system can hardly admit this fact to itself yet. A similar restraint surrounds the idea of talent. It’s a fact that certain students possess more talent than others and that a talented student often achieves higher grades than one with less talent, even though it contradicts the pedagogical ideal. Roth tackles this controversial topic in his book with the same radical approach we’ve come to expect from him: He asserts that intelligence is 50 percent innate and 30 percent dependent on early childhood development. This leaves us teachers with a meager 20 percent.

In this sense, Roth’s book is similarly radical as his reflections on free will – radical in the original sense: they go to the root of learning success. Weber’s answer to how one acquires personality is still marked by the emphasis and pathos of functional differentiation: “Personality in the academic field,” he writes, “is only found in those who serve the cause. And it is not only in the scientific field that this is the case. We know of no great artist who has ever done anything other than serve his cause and only his cause.” Roth refrains from giving an answer to the question of how to solve this problem, he is merely pointing out to take this moment seriously. He also does not believe that his findings can be directly integrated into education. This network is also a closed system, which can only be influenced from the outside and must translate these influences into its own operations. Certainly, China will, and should, take different paths than the West in this regard.

In summary, Roth’s book not only offers a lot of insights into the functioning of the brain and quite a few hints on how to design successful lessons. It also offers an answer to the question discussed at the outset of this article: how to “get the students going”, i.e., how to initiate independent learning. The teacher must manage a balance between intensive training and successful withdrawal, in such a way that in the end phases of self-instruction and self-design predominate. Roth describes this empowerment of self-activity as an arduous journey from pure instruction to pure self-activity, whereby with each step into independence, the intensity of learning and thus learning success in general increases. And here we can certainly refer back to Bloom – even if the process resembles more of a series of loops rather than an ascending line, and we should always keep in mind that the outcome is highly uncertain. One way or another: With all the importance of personality, this is something we teachers can learn. The corresponding textbook for this is herewith available. 

The next question that neuroscience needs to address is the increasingly important role of AI. If education requires personality, should the ‘operating systems’ also have personalities? And what does it mean to consider the brain’s functioning in the context of AI-oriented learning? At least the act of memorization, so crucial in the Chinese context, may have become obsolete – memorization can be outsourced, and the freed-up space can be used by students for thinking. What would Confucius say about that? Roth briefly touches on the use of digital technologies in the classroom in the final chapter of his book, but that was long before the revolution we are currently facing. However, I believe that cognitive and neurosciences can still make a significant contribution to this. As long as our brains are involved in the learning process, and education is not about machines teaching other machines (something that is increasingly the case at the moment, with unforeseeable consequences), their input remains highly relevant. Unfortunately, Gerhard Roth himself can no longer address these questions, as he passed away last month.