Peter R Bergethon of Symmetry Learning Systems: 5 Things That Should Be Done To Improve The US Educational System
My favorite quote I heard at age 13 was “Where others scatter, gather. When others gather, scatter.” This characterizes the life of a learner and teacher, a seeker of knowledge and a builder of solutions. This is guidance for living a life of learning and intellectual growth. It has been a great heuristic for me that captures the process of iterative learning and teaching as a way to greater understanding.
As a part of our interview series about the things that should be done to improve the US educational system, I had the pleasure to interview Professor Peter R. Bergethon, M.D.
Professor Peter R. Bergethon, MD is a neurologist and physician-scientist with over 30 years of classroom teaching in graduate, medical, and continuing medical education settings while also caring for patients and running an active biomedical research laboratory. Over the last four decades, while an academic professor in Biochemistry, Anatomy & Neurobiology, Bioengineering, and Neurology, he has worked with public and private K-12 schools developing science curricula and courses and teaching seminars in the “Neurobiology of Education” to K-12 school teachers. He has written over 130 scientific papers and books including multiple editions of the textbook, “The Physical Basis of Biochemistry: The Foundations of Molecular Biophysics” and also the K-8 science curriculum, “SymmetryScience “. As a professional scientist, he joined the industry for the last decade of his career and was an executive leader at Pfizer and Biogen in Research and Development leading departments of Quantitative Medicine and creating and running Pfizer’s Innovation Research Laboratory.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share the “backstory” behind what brought you to this particular career path?
Since I was young, I have been fascinated with everything mechanical, electrical, and related to space and ocean science. These years in the early 1960s were the time of the Space Race, the transistor radio, and the laser — I watched every Mercury and Gemini flight over lunch and at assemblies in elementary school. I wasn’t interested in reading until I read Tom Swift and his Giant Robot in third grade. But once I discovered these stories about all of his amazing inventions I was hooked on reading and have never stopped (I have a personal library of over 8 thousand books today). I wanted to be Tom Swift Jr. and build Giant Robots and Flying Labs and Jet marines! In my family life, however, I was largely exposed to relatives who were artists, musicians, and teachers and so it was natural that I saw the context of my interest in science and technology in the environment of artistic creativity and learning. So, I wanted to build a Tom Swift robot but I became fascinated with what was the underlying process by which a brain or computing machine could become an artistic mind. I remember reading Isaac Asimov’s The Human Body and then The Human Brain which merged my fascination with machines into a fascination with people seeing them as complex living machines. By the time I went to college, I wanted to understand the interactions between physical force fields and biological systems. I quickly gravitated toward electrochemistry, quantum mechanics, and neurophysiology.
After spending time in professional theatre, I was soon on my way to Medical School and trained to become a physician-scientist. I became a biophysical chemist interested in the electrochemistry of information flow in biological systems and a neurologist focused on understanding the cognitive processes by which the brain becomes the mind.
I was teaching medical and graduate students, caring for patients with neurological diseases, and running a laboratory in which, I was trying to understand how brains were creative and cognitively intact on a mathematical and technical level. The goal was to build machinery to help patients with neurological diseases. At this point, I was teaching graduate-level physical chemistry and was frustrated that my advanced students struggled with basic concepts in thermodynamics. As a cognitive neuroscientist, I realized that the students were trapped in misconceptions that they had learned but looked like some of the neurological problems I saw in the clinic.
I then began to develop methods to help correct the misconceptions and advance these student’s understanding of complex physical principles by putting neurological principles to work. At the same time, my daughter was in elementary school and I became involved with the teachers in the local school developing components of a science curriculum hoping that this could help teachers engage the students and also prepare students to avoid the misconceptions and pitfalls I was seeing in my older students. This led to the development of a unified science literacy program for children. These were the tools that we used for training teachers, building interdisciplinary research teams, and developing innovative research laboratory groups in industry.
I became involved in the development of the interdisciplinary field of the “neurobiology of education”. My career was a tapestry of basic systems neuroscience research into fundamental computational processes, the application of that knowledge for caring for patients and for teaching students and adults across the age range, in an effort to make them more successful and self-actualized. A pretty great way to make a living!
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
I guess it’s not surprising that as a physician-scientist who seeks patient interaction as the starting point for framing a question, my favorite story is about a patient that I took care of many years ago when I was at Boston City Hospital. Boston City Hospital was one of the great inner-city public hospitals with a very rich history of patient care and advancing medical care. Our mission was to take care of a population that was largely poor and dispossessed.
One day, I had a young man came to see me in the neurology clinic. He was in his early 20s and he said, “Doc, I think I’m stupid. I am worried that there’s something wrong with my brain. Can you help me?” I evaluated him and I realized in taking the history and doing the exam that there was nothing wrong with his brain. In fact, he was clearly above average intelligence but was illiterate. He had gone to school in the area and graduated, so he thought there must be something wrong with his brain because he didn’t know how to read or write.
I told him that I thought his problem was educational and not neurological. We found a local resource, and during his follow-up visit, he was extremely excited and proud to show me that he was now able to read, proving that his problem had been on of a failed educational opportunity and not a biological or neurological problem. I saw him once again about six months later to check in, and he had become more than functionally literate in a very short time. His life was changed practically, but most importantly, his sense of self and his sense of opportunities in the world were profoundly changed. He also had discovered he could use the local library. The world was opening up to him.
What does one learn from this kind of experience?
It is the real-world version of how humans are learning machines, (un)bounded by biology/neurology, motivation, and educational opportunities. Today, I call this the cycle of pedagogy in my research and writing. But for me, whether in the clinic, lab, classroom, or civic society, this is the key set of interactions that fascinate me and have guided my life.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
I am retired now from academic and industrial medicine and science. During the COVID years, however, my wife and I were frustrated by the challenges appearing for schools and people in general to make sense of complex and ambiguous information in relation to the epidemic. We had worked many years before on a science education program, and we thought that we should revive and revise that program, perhaps for the home school market. Without trying to reform the entire educational system and “boil the ocean”, this seemed like a reasonable effort to try to help make a difference.
The SymmetryScience™ curriculum had its beginnings in the 1990s while I was a professor teaching medical and graduate students. I was surprised by the lack of understanding of the fundamental scientific process, philosophical viewpoint, and conceptual knowledge in many of the expert science students I taught. Around that time, my daughter entered primary school, and I began working with teachers who were struggling to instill science literacy in their students. I was motivated to develop a curriculum of science study based on the idea that science could be more universally understood if its intrinsic language was explicitly taught early in the educational process, much as we teach children to read and write. These were the beginnings of the SymmetryScience™ program.
The concepts at the heart of the SymmetryScience™ program development recognize the cognitive neuroscience parallels between science and written language. Before the school experience begins, the brain is busy learning on its own. Children begin school with a huge vocabulary and a knowledge of the syntax of spoken language; then we teach them the code of reading and writing. Over the same time, the brain is sampling the natural world and constructing experiences into a view of the world; the code to translate this head start into scientific thinking is the basis of what SymmetryScience™ teaches. However, the brain is not intrinsically scientific nor critical, rather it is by nature, magical. To prevent the intrinsic tendencies of the mind to reach unsupported conclusions, I introduce a unified, structural approach to teaching that accounts for how the “brain learns”. This approach utilizes a language of critical analysis that is central to science learning; I call it the “Language of Patterns”. Using the Language of Patterns, I designed an educational program that incorporates laboratory and activity-based explorations for students from kindergarten through Grade 8, coordinating with each stage of early brain development. This provides a unified, structured approach to knowledge construction that has become known as the SymmetryScience™ method, a method of structured discovery.
The key teaching insight was to foundationally teach the powerful scientific tools of systems analysis and modeling as the language of science. This was the element that I had found lacking in my students.
In addition to these educational successes over the last 20 years, my research teams in biomedical research and industry successfully applied these tools to build professional research groups that remain productive and innovative in the industry.
When I retired from professional academic and industrial science, our nation was recovering from the COVID-19 pandemic. There has never been a more powerful example of why we need to re-engage the challenge of making a scientifically literate public. I decided to revise and re-issue the original SymmetryScience™ curriculum for the broad community because these are tools that have been proven to develop scientific literacy for everyone. These tools are successful whether you are a parent citizen, a first provider, or a professional scientist or engineer.
Can you briefly share with our readers why you are an authority in the education field?
I come from a long line of teachers. My Uncle was a music educator and wrote a best-selling music textbook for teaching music in elementary schools, my father was a German scholar, and a Dean at Brown University and then became the youngest President of a college (Lafayette College) at age 40 in 1958. He wrote a best-selling textbook on German grammar. My brother is a leader in teaching jazz and communications in the medium of public broadcasting. So, there is a strong tradition of teaching in our family.
My career has been as a physician-scientist and a medical educator. Physician-scientists are traditionally teachers, researchers, and physicians within the academic medical environment. For over 30 years I taught graduate and medical students in the classroom and at the bedside. I taught biochemistry, bio-physical chemistry, cognitive neuroscience, mathematical modeling, neurology, and neuroanatomy as well as courses in education, curriculum design, and the neurobiology of education. I also trained graduate students in our laboratory to become researchers and professional scientists.
By the end of my academic career, I was a full professor at the major research universities: Tufts University and Boston University. My departmental affiliations were in Anatomy & Neurobiology, Biochemistry, Biomedical Engineering, and Neurology. In addition to my funded research and scholarship in Intelligence Modeling and Neurophysics, I have written papers in the field of medical education and science education and worked for many years as a principal investigator in a National Institutes of Health (NIH) supported program for middle and high school science education called “CityLab” at Boston University. I was the principal investigator in one of the first NIH-funded programs to build and train interdisciplinary research groups and training programs. In both, we used the same principles that underlie the SymmetryScience program. I also used those same tools and principles when I went into industry to build the innovation research laboratories at Pfizer and Biogen.
I was a principal investigator in a multi-year program with the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching exploring the future stewardship and implementation of graduate education in the US. Finally, I was active on the Education Committee of the American Academy of Neurology deeply involved in the design of its continuing medical education programs both as a practitioner teaching in the classroom and also training other teachers how to build a replicable high-quality curriculum in which effective teaching methods could be assessed and refined.
So, I have had a lot of practical experience developing and applying new teaching tools and methods across the full age range, and also in formal, informal, and industrial settings.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the main focus of our interview. From your point of view, how would you rate the results of the US education system?
The overall difficulty in assessing the broader educational system is that the US has multiple systems that make up the greater whole. Because the US has a variety of public, private, religious, and home school traditions at the elementary and secondary schools that all interact and meet in the workplace or the higher education systems, it can be difficult to simply rate the overall system. That said, some things are still superb, and some areas not doing so well. In general, I think the trend in all aspects is of stasis at best and a downward trend in many areas.
The broad goal of literacy in the US system with an understanding of civic virtues has long been additionally burdened by the need for technical, scientific, and mathematical literacy. The ability to successfully use critical analysis skills in daily life, from most basic tasks to typical vocational or professional employment, has driven up the level of educational accomplishment required to be “functionally literate”. If we take functional literacy as the base expectation today, our educational systems are only accomplishing a 75–80% rate of success. So, a system that had accomplished a higher degree of literacy — up to 99% — (reading a sentence in the 19th and early 20th centuries) is inadequate to the task of using reading, writing, and quantitation to be functional in our modern technical society. This is different by the way from my young patient many years ago. He had graduated from school and was not even able to read a sentence. That was a foundational failure of the educational system. That problem still exists, but the goalposts have also moved, and a higher bar is now required of everyone. The American educational system is struggling to move forward and its students are being left behind.
We are probably still best in the most advanced professional and technical schools especially where innovation and creativity are sought after and rewarded. But, the risk-taking required to really be top-notch is being given away to a culture that is more protected and risk-averse. Therefore, even the top institutions are slowing in innovation momentum. They are still top tier but they are losing ground. Furthermore, there has been a steady erosion in rigorous preparation that lets the prepared mind ask the impertinent questions so essential to breakthroughs. The result is that bright students are coming to advanced fields accepting and expecting incremental advances rather than being ready to question and surpass the assumptions within their chosen fields.
Our public K-12 schools are not making the grade anymore as they are more rewarded for advancing the frontal position of the group and not individual students’ own advance that in ensemble defines the actual advance of the group. Rather than prepare each student for success by helping each other find their unique contribution within the group, students find refuge in the group and avoid the uncomfortable but critical growth that comes with unique failures and successes. As hard as it is, the best time to learn to handle both failure and success is in the relatively insulated time of childhood and adolescence.
The undergraduate educational institutions then struggle with this interface. The undifferentiated student arrives unable to begin to define their uniqueness especially as it might fit into the overall structure of our complex social and civilizational land of opportunities. They are more easily indoctrinated which stunts the growth of the individual finding how their uniqueness fits into a free society. They actually become less unique defined by the reigning groupthink and less productive as individuals or as a group. Knowledge is more easily received from authority sources or found through a personal way of knowing, but the critical skeptical exploration of the world is uncomfortable and avoided whenever possible. The net result is a monotonous, anxious, low-productivity environment for learning.
Our system of education which excelled at resisting the sclerosis of enculturation and indoctrination because it embraced risk-taking and open discussion with a very large tolerance of diverse points of view brought by individuals is now at significant risk of becoming in effect an enculturation engine grinding every individual into a medieval pablum devoid of the sharp edges of excellence and comforted by a never-ending need for comfortable acceptance of opinion.
Can you identify 5 areas of the US education system that are going really great?
- The most important aspect of the American education system is its broad accessibility and its commitment to the demonstrated value of education to promote social and economic mobility.
- Another area that is terrific is that at the highest levels, American education has certainly had the tradition in the last 100 years of being well and diversely funded. This has led to a rich input of new ideas and diverse opinions. There has been a mixture of resourcing, can-do-attitude, and reward for innovation that has fueled experimentation, and innovation and resulted in great success in discovery, creativity, and relentless rapid advances in the global society’s standard of living.
- A third remarkable balance in the US system of higher education is the integration of the rigor of the University model from 19th century Europe with the more open access model and broader goals of the American system.
- A fourth area has been the willingness of Americans to be open with data. Libraries, patent offices, freedom of expression, and the tradition of journalism to provide information to the market account for tremendous success in a free and capitalist society. The expectation that sharing and honesty is part of information transfer both because it’s good for everybody to be able to know what’s going on and also because it allows for critical analysis and skepticism is a tremendous strength of the American system.
- Finally, the willingness in America to believe in continuing education, understanding that learning is something that is a process that you start when you’re young and you have the time to really amass the skills and the habits but it’s lifelong. You can learn forever in this country and that is incredible. It is a manifestation of the belief in social mobility — both up and down. This is the greatest power of American culture and its commitment to liberty and the agency of the people in this country. Education is a path to higher social and economic levels, and this is ongoing from the earliest years and opportunities to define yourself and advance to being able to change and recreate yourself throughout your lifetime.
Can you identify the 5 key areas of the US education system that should be prioritized for improvement? Can you explain why those are so critical?
Whether public, private, military or non-secular schools, the US education system overall is challenged today. There are several areas on which I would focus and prioritize efforts:
- Learn foundational skills without excuse and ensure that every student accomplishes them. These fundamental skills are reading, writing, quantitation, systematic scientific observation and hypothesis generation, interpersonal skills for listening to and presenting observations, thoughts and ideas in a dispassionate and tolerant manner, self-restraint and discipline, physical activity and use of musicality, voice, and body to communicate.
- Reduce the presence of social media and technology and replace with greater human contact and activities (increase civic engagement).
- Increase the diversity of types of schools and schooling. Here is the place to utilize the power of modern technologies to experiment.
- Use schools to primarily educate and not be burdened with things they should not be doing.
- Civics, personal responsibility, personal discipline, teamwork, and social engagement should be utilized to enhance learning and student development, but the schools should expect society (parents, religious organizations, medical, civic organizations, governmental agencies, and extended family and neighborhoods) to support the schools by taking primary responsibility in the non-school hours for ensuring students ready to learn at school.
If we stopped trying to stamp out every student into a specific form and type and invested instead our time, effort, and money in creating a structured disciplined environment where students could flourish and be productive such that their own productivity is rewarded according to their own motivations, we would find a more engaged, independently motivated but better team player able to function in a complex and dynamic civilization.
How is the US doing with regard to engaging young people in STEM? Can you suggest three ways we can increase this engagement?
Just ok. This is not from a lack of effort to try to push STEM recruitment. There has been a constant call for more STEM training over the last 30 years. In general, there has been a response by students to enter these fields that seems to reflect the underlying jobs within the economy independent of efforts to increase engagement.
Statistically, we can look at the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) and just follow the number of bachelors, masters, and doctoral degrees annually granted in the USA between 1960 and 2022. The NCES lets us look at STEM domains such as health care, biomedical and biological sciences, engineering, chemistry/geology/physics, mathematics/statistics, and computer/information sciences. Data is showing growth in these areas but my interpretation is that we are attracting the same sliver of young people into science fields that we always have. Which means, that for the most part, the people who undergo the rigors of science training and the long-term investment needed to have a successful career are doing it anyway.
I am reasonably confident we are leaving a significant cohort of people out because of the way that we approach science education. On one hand, students think they can’t make the grade because they really don’t know what scientific thought involves and they think it is too hard for them. This can lead to science phobia. In addition, because scientific thinking seems foreign and unappealing, there is a cohort of talent that never engage because they don’t see how it interests or applies to their lives and talents.
What we are doing with the SymmetryScience program is how I think we could impact this.
- Science, if taught as a foundational skill in the way we teach reading and writing, can empower students to know how to apply the inquiry methods, what we call the language of patterns, across their life experiences. Learning scientific inquiry as a process applied to almost any content can engage every student, not just the “science content” inclined. With the skills and rigor for analysis that come from the practice of science inquiry, students will be more successful at any field of study. Most importantly, they will not be intimidated by scientific analysis. I will predict that a much larger cohort of scientifically oriented students will consider STEM as a career because they will see the transformative power of the tools.
- I would make this a priority study and start early. Children are exploring their world as soon as their eyes open. They can start to be scientifically engaged once they become conversational partners (about 3 years old). That is when we should start a science education program with all children.
- We should engage the children in ongoing conversations about what they want to talk about and know but teach them to frame and explore, describe, measure, and test in those conversations. An interdisciplinary curriculum that uses this conversational tool (it is called systems analysis or systems science) for talking about sports, music, history, reading, dance, and playground politics, will make all children scientifically literate regardless of whether they become professional scientists.
- In summary, we will increase STEM participation when we make scientific literacy our goal and our priority.
Can you articulate to our readers why it’s so important to engage girls and women in STEM subjects?
The issue about females in STEM subjects is a little more complicated and interesting. In the 1980s women and girls really poured into the STEM fields. There was a big push then and there was a realization that women had been excluded and that was unwise and ridiculous.
50% of the population is an incredibly important cohort that should be engaged to bring their talents and energies to STEM fields.
How is the US doing with regard to engaging girls and women in STEM subjects? Can you suggest three ways we can increase this engagement?
The NCES and US Census numbers now show that females dominate numerically in certain science fields, but not others. In the health and biomedical fields, women equaled men in degrees granted in the late 1980s and today dominate the field. Almost all the growth in these fields that we discussed earlier came from women entering these professions. Alternatively, women entered engineering fields in the same period, peaked participation at 20–25%, and then the growth fell off and has not significantly grown as a percentage in the last decades. There was a cohort of women that were likely discouraged or barred from participation in all of these fields, but some fields grew to reverse the gender dominance but others did not.
My own interpretation of this is that these are personal choices that we are seeing now for a group who was once discouraged from trying something. It didn’t fit everyone who tried it and the wave ebbed. If we want to see if these numbers will change, we will need to increase the denominator of women interested in the differentially represented fields. We need to increase the number of potential candidates. It is an interesting experiment to do but right now we are probably at the maximum of both girls and boys that feel like they can make it in the sciences.
Here is a personal example. My wife was a chemistry major in college in the 1960s. When she was a young woman choosing a career, the options were largely to be a medical technologist, a teacher, or a nurse. She started as a lab technologist but in the late 1970’s entered medical school. She became an infectious disease physician completing her residency at the renowned Boston City Hospital and going on for ID training in the Harvard system. She is very successful by any criteria.
Our daughter, who I think had a very fine mind for physics or engineering, was pushed in that direction by her parents. One day she said to me, “Dad, stop pushing me into physics. I’m a girl and I want to make my own choices. I am going to go into medicine.” She majored in physical chemistry in college but chose a career in medicine with an MD-MBA. Within a single generation, a lot changed. My wife had a very different experience because she was a pioneer as a woman in medicine. My daughter was in the gender majority in her medical school class as a woman. Women today simply have many more opportunities in STEM fields than just 30 years earlier. Young people are differentiating because as individuals they are different. For those of us who worry about whether they belong in one area or another is a bit of social engineering and social gesturing. I think physics and engineering would be very well off if my daughter had engaged in those fields but that was not what she wanted. Her patients and her business colleagues benefit from her choices.
Another important aspect to making STEM fields more engaging for young women is finding practical ways to support the dual creative challenge for women being mothers while they are developing skills and experience in scientific investigation. Motherhood often falls in the same time frame as their critical training, and as a society, we must find better ways to support women during this time. It is correct to note that we have not solved this challenge. However, the critical first component is a commitment to continuing to work to find solutions to this balance challenge.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
My favorite quote I heard at age 13 was “Where others scatter, gather. When others gather, scatter.”
This characterizes the life of a learner and teacher, a seeker of knowledge and a builder of solutions. This is guidance for living a life of learning and intellectual growth. It has been a great heuristic for me that captures the process of iterative learning and teaching as a way to greater understanding. It closely correlates with another favorite of mine from medical school, “See one, do one, teach one.”
We are blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂
Thomas Sowell or Shelby Steele. These are two of the smartest thinkers and advocates in the country. I love their writings and work and see what we are now doing as naturally adjacent. Both men are important thinkers on the topic of individual agency and how this can either evolve or revolutionize our American educational system to serve the worst served today. And since a rising tide lifts all boats, if we help the people in the most trouble, everybody will get better.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
Our current work in developing science curriculum for young learners can be followed on www.symmetrylearning.com. There are books and learning tools available on my author page at www.amazon.com. My textbooks are available on Amazon. Springer Verlag, www.springer.com, is my publisher in the science textbook realm. Most of my scientific papers can be found on PubMed, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/.
Thank you so much for these insights! This was so inspiring!
Peter R Bergethon of Symmetry Learning Systems: 5 Things That Should Be Done To Improve The US… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.