Disrupting the culture

It is one of the strange things about education.

Go to a big-ticket conference and you will hear from loads of people; some who have actually worked in education and others who have not. You might expect that this would produce a diversity of views but it really doesn’t. It’s great that everyone feels free to voice an opinion but these opinions are remarkably similar.

In Dan Willingham’s recent blog post, he discusses new evidence for the importance of the social transmission of culture. People don’t simply adapt to their environment through a process of problem-solving, they maintain cultural traditions transmitted to them from knowledgeable forebears. Willingham relates this to education and notes:

“It’s easy to be a little dazzled by the brilliance of the human mind, and to see most of cognitive development as the intrepid mind of the individual, exploring the environment like a little scientist… When it comes to schooling, I sometimes sense a similar reverence for learning that is the product of an individual mind at work, over the mere copying of someone else’s solution. It’s true that you only get true invention/innovation from original thought. But it’s a whole lot quicker and more reliable to copy what others have done. That is probably why social learning seems to be the workhorse of cultural learning.”

I don’t think Willingham is making a case against all forms of discovery learning but he is noting something important; transmission of ideas is a pretty essential part of education. This passage reminded me of a recent blog post by Benjamin Evans where he writes of a conference that seems to fit with what Willingham is describing:

“I spent the last two days in Sydney, with a nice view of Darling Harbour, at a conference which was ostensibly concerned with the design of learning spaces. Though this topic was touched on periodically, it also gave the chance for the presenters to espouse their philosophy of education. This philosophy was remarkably similar, to the extent that some presenters were made to look sheepish as they moved swiftly through the same slides as the previous chap, their shock statistics looking a little less dramatic than they had hoped.

The more presentations I sat through, the more the same mantra was chanted: children in rows is bad; teachers who talk are bad; today’s kids will have 17 jobs in their lifetime (in five separate industries – which seems very specific); we need to teach C21 skills; content and knowledge no longer need to be prioritised because of Google; Schools kill creativity; Project Based Learning is the future; children need to be engaged and this means teaching them what they want to learn…”

It really is a mantra, isn’t it? And it pays no attention to the need for any kind of cultural transmission.

Willingham notes the influence of Jean Piaget in shaping this… er… culture in which the child’s individual discoveries are placed at the heart of learning. In the early 1980s, Seymour Papert built on the work of Piaget to develop ‘constructionism‘; a theory that prioritised the need for students to solve problems themselves and create a physical product. It was Papert that developed the computer programming language LOGO and a little robot buggy known as a ‘turtle’ which could be controlled by the language and draw patterns on the floor. As a student at that time, I had a mess around with LOGO myself (I wrote about this more in my ebook).

Discover-learning LOGO didn’t transform learning. It didn’t really work because it downplayed the role of social transmission in favour of individual problem solving and so it represented a misunderstanding of how we learn. As Mayer notes:

“Papert’s call for hands-on discovery of LOGO environments helped to stimulate a healthy set of research studies. Kurland and Pea (1985) carefully tested a group of 11- and 12-year-olds who had logged more than 50 hours of LOGO programming experience under pure discovery conditions. The students were able to write and interpret short, simple programs but had much difficulty on programs involving fundamental programming concepts. In interviews, students revealed many incorrect conceptions about how programs work although “none of these sources of confusion will be intractable to instruction” (Kurland & Pea, 1985, p. 242). In a controlled experiment, Pea and Kurland (1984) found that students who received extensive hands-on experience exploring a LOGO environment were no better on tests of planning than were students who received no programming experience. In a review of results such as these, Dalbey and Linn (1985) concluded that “students who learn LOGO fail to generalize this learning to other tasks” (p. 267).” [references available in link above]

Why is it that so many people on the conference circuit still want to sell us an idea that didn’t work in the early 1980s? I’m not sure. What I am clear about is this: we need to disrupt these disruptors and change the culture of education. It’s getting old.

Valiant Technology Ltd. [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Valiant Technology Ltd. [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

11 thoughts on “Disrupting the culture

  1. Interesting that the people promoting these ideas are maintaining that education is “broken” because of old ideas. Yet it may be their ideas that have been in play for 30+ years that have caused the problems they are attributing to “traditional” education.

  2. Constructivism was just a rehash of the original progressive ideas from the twenties (Kilpatrick et al) with additional pseudoscientific jargon bolted on. The hilarious thing is how these dusty old ideas, which have been the orthodoxy for decades, almost a century in the USA, are continually sold as being the latest groundbreaking concept.

  3. “It really is a mantra, isn’t it? And it pays no attention to the need for any kind of cultural transmission.”

    Actually, Greg, I suspect what one is observing in this sheep-like behaviour is a sort of illustration of the mechanism behind cultural transmission. Not a particularly healthy or helpful one, but nevertheless, it illustrates that *even those who advocate strongly for thinking outside the box and striking out on one’s own with independent, original thought* consciously or unconsciously operate under the mechanisms of the cultural transmission of ideas, and rely on those mechanisms to propagate their ideas.

    1. Yes. There are lots of ironies when you explore this terrain. I would add the proponents of teaching critical thinking skills who seem incapable of critically evaluating the concept of teaching critical thinking skills.

  4. The Mantra Persists — Discovery In It’s Many Masquerades !

    “ . . . children in rows bad, teachers who talk bad, today’s kids will have 17 jobs in 5 industries, content and knowledge bad, schools kill creativity, project-based learning is the future, kids need 21st C competencies and be ‘engaged’ — or so the mantra goes. We have it here in Canada as well, right now!

    This reminds me of the 1980 quote from the Aquarian Conspiracy: “Discoveries about the nature of the mind, unfortunately, have been like the slow-spreading news of armistice. Many die needlessly on the battlefield, long after the war is over.”

    Just how many of our children are the casualties of today’s continuing education wars. A dozen years ago Richard E Mayer said, “The debate about discovery has been replayed many times.” After discovery came experiential learning, then problem-based learning, then inquiry learning, then constructivist instruction. Other terms also populate this thrust — and they should be collected and brought forward for the needed work ahead.

    Mayer, in his paper “Should There Be a Three-Strikes Rule Against Pure Discovery Learning? The Case for Guided Methods of Instruction” says:

    “An important role for psychologists is to show how educational practice can be guided by evidence and research-based theory rather than ever-shifting philosophical ideology.”

    The division, the disagreement, the actual “war” lies in a quarrel between practical people who want the education job done and political people who see schools as training for changing the world (or something like that, you know, “social justice”, etc.).

    To differ slightly with Mayer, I, as a grandparent, don’t think psychologists alone can tackle this job. Many parents are getting impatient, and so too are a lot of teachers. Thankfully, cognitive psychologists ARE leading the way in delineating effective methods in pedagogy. But the matter has come to the point of knowing that withholding critical information is doing untold harm in this world. No medical breakthrough would ever be left dormant as long as this unrevealed education knowledge has been left to fester.

    I am a gardener and am constantly uprooting invasive weeds. That is the imagery that inspires me to want to help in this task of getting the proper pedagogy out there. I came across an incredible article that increases my fears even more, and that is a 25 year chronicle of the very revered “scientific method” itself being attacked by “constructivists” . Academics out there should be able to get this paper easily and I got it months ago when it was still free — 25 Years of Journal Editorship, Michael R Matthews.

    The comforting part in Matthews article is that he has found at least one constructivist cheerleader who has “abandoned the constructivist paradigm as a useful theory for articulating and explaining knowledgeability and changes in observable behaviors . . . because it turned out to be plagued with considerable contradictions.” Ominously, however, Matthews points out that there is now a journal devoted to cultural studies in science as a mutation of the constructivist direction.

    I am wondering if this embrace by Willingham of the social and cultural is aligned?

  5. I hope isn’t too silly a question: if constructivism is ‘progressive’, what do we call ‘traditional’ teaching?

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