One issue at the heart of the education debate is the role of student choice. On one side are those who value it for its own sake. They tend to elevate the role of play in the early years – because children make their own choices when playing – and they argue for student-led projects in later schooling. As John Dewey wrote in 1938:
“There is, I think, no point in the philosophy of progressive education which is sounder than its emphasis upon the importance of the participation of the learner in the formation of the purposes which direct his activities in the learning process, just as there is no defect in traditional education greater than its failure to secure the active co-operation of the pupil in construction of the purposes involved in his studying.”
For Dewey, education had to be based upon experience and therefore:
“Anything which can be called a study, whether arithmetic, history or geography, or one of the natural sciences, must be derived from materials which at the outset fall within the scope of ordinary life-experience.”
Why the insistence upon choice and learning through experience? It is, as Dewey explained in 1916, because learning is a natural process:
“To realize what an experience, or empirical situation, means, we have to call to mind the sort of situation that presents itself outside of school; the sort of occupations that interest and engage activity in ordinary life. And careful inspection of methods which are permanently successful in formal education, whether in arithmetic or learning to read, or studying geography, or learning physics or a foreign language, will reveal that they depend for their efficiency upon the fact that they go back to the type of the situation which causes reflection out of school in ordinary life. They give the pupils something to do, not something to learn; and the doing is of such a nature as to demand thinking, or the intentional noting of connections; learning naturally results.”
This is a fundamental belief that drives much of what we read today about project-based learning, inquiry learning or any other revolutionary pedagogy. The fact that these have been revolutionary since at least the time of John Dewey should give us pause for thought.
The other reason to pause is that we now have strong evidence that choice is not necessarily a good thing for learning. It can even ‘kill’ learning. There are number of plausible reasons for why this may be the case. Firstly, by definition, novices lack knowledge of the subject so asking them to make a decision on where to go next is a little like asking them to drive around an unfamiliar town with the satellite navigation switched off. They may make some wonderful discoveries but they are also likely to drive up a few blind alleys and miss important landmarks. It’s far better to be guided by someone who knows the town well.
Another problem with choice is that learners seem to prefer the wrong kinds of tasks. For instance, Richard Clark found that more advanced students preferred lectures whereas less advanced students preferred more open-ended learning environments, and yet they learned best if placed in conditions opposite to their preferences.
There are now educational psychologists who question the very premise of natural learning. David Geary has put forward the idea that there are biologically primary and biologically secondary learning objectives. The former are things that we have evolved to learn, like speaking or learning social conventions. The latter require far more effort because they involve co-opting mental systems that evolved for other purposes. Academic learning, such as learning to read or write, falls into this category and therefore is, quite literally, unnatural. Which explains why attempting to teach reading by reading to kids and surrounding them with a print rich environment doesn’t work very well.
Clearly, we want students to eventually make choices themselves and there needs to be scope within a rich education for this to happen. However, the time for choice is not at the outset of learning new content, as Dewey implies. Instead, we need to apply a model of structured release where a teacher gradually, and strategically, gives control to the students.
Whether you approve of John Dewey describing competing educational philosophies as ‘progressive’ and ‘traditional’ is moot. We still need to acknowledge that these different sets of ideas exist, imply different approaches to teaching and are, to a greater or lesser extent, a part of the beliefs of teachers and everyone else involved in education. Moreover, we need to acknowledge the substantial evidence that the philosophy of natural learning, learning through experience and offering student choice, is not supported by the evidence that we now possess.