Imagine that we decided that one of the objectives of school was to make kids grow taller. Let’s set aside any questions about how we might do this. I don’t much mind whether we utilised inquiry learning or explicit instruction; whether students teach themselves or educators take the lead. The key assumption that we have made is that growing taller is somehow susceptible to training, however we go about it: It is trainable.
I think we would all concede that the height of a person may well be affected by outside factors. For instance, a malnourished child might not grow to her full potential. An accident or disease might damage the legs or spine. The medical use of growth hormone might increase height. Yet none of these external factors could be described as ‘training’. They are quite extreme interventions of a positive or negative kind. It is hard to picture how a series of lessons might affect a child’s height. And yet we might also observe, as we teach these notional lessons, that the children do indeed gradually grow. We might falsely attribute this to the training.
The cognitive aims of education are relatively easy to define and measure, despite what some might claim. If we decide that students should be able to solve a certain type of maths problem then I think it’s pretty obvious that this is trainable and we can get some measure of success by seeing if students can solve such problems under test conditions. I also think there is plenty of evidence that we are not yet good enough at meeting many cognitive objectives such as students being able to read, write and do basic maths, so there is plenty to focus on.
When experts come along and instead suggest that we should focus on non-cognitive goals, perhaps by teaching character – whatever that is – or resilience or creativity or collaboration, I think we should do two things. Firstly, we should ask whether these kids can read yet. If not, I think that meeting this much more clearly defined, basic goal of education should be the priority. Secondly, we should question whether this new goal is actually trainable, like the goal of solving maths problems, or whether it is not, like the goal of trying to make kids grow taller.