I remember the first time I looked at a table and saw it as a dance of fields and mostly empty space. It was the first time I had taken this particular body of knowledge I had gained from physics, and applied it to an everyday object previously encountered through my folk understanding of the world. This act, this choice to see the table differently, was my act and my choice.
I believe that we should respect the subjective experience of the humans we teach. It is for them, and them alone, to decide how to integrate knowledge into their understandings of themselves and the world. I think this is a key misunderstanding about expository, explicit forms of teaching. Critics, such as Paolo Freire, argue that explicit teachers think their students know nothing, perhaps are nothing, without instruction. This is false.
Explicit teachers aim to communicate important, foundational ideas to each new generation of students. This can seem inflexible and disrespectful of our students’ interests and I think this is why it is portrayed in a negative way. But explicit teachers don’t assume a vacuum. They know that their students are human and have a subjective experience of the world. What they do is offer up knowledge. They place it in front of students and make sure they see it, comprehend it and interact with it. What the students then do with it, and how they let it change them as human beings, is up to the humans themselves. This is a ‘liberal’ attitude, in the uncorrupted, original sense of the word.
It is because explicit teachers understand the humanity of their students that they recognise that schools must mirror society and have rules and norms of behaviour. These rules and norms are needed by schools for the same reason that they are needed whenever humans, with different desires and attitudes, have to cooperate and work together. Children are not blank slates, as yet uncorrupted by the adult world. Instead, they are full of ideas and feelings, some of which are destructive.
In contrast to this position stands progressivism or its later incarnation as constructivist teaching. These are more manipulative approaches in that they do not seek to simply present knowledge but to insist that students internalise this knowledge; that they believe in it. To a constructivist science teacher, it is not enough for students to simply know that Aristotle’s views of motion have been superseded by Newton’s laws, they have to believe in Newton’s laws and see the world this way.
This presents us with three questions. Firstly, is it even possible to shape a human as fundamentally as this? If it is, then is it desirable? Finally, what happens when ideas that have been taught in this way are superseded or refined?
Rousseau presents us with an extreme illustration of what this form of education might look like in his novel, Emile. The eponymous hero is joined by a tutor shortly after birth. Throughout his education, Emile must feel that he is totally free and the choices he is making are his own. Yet, in the background, his tutor is subtly manipulating the environment such that Emile makes the right choices and develops the right character. Again, this raises the question of whether this is even possible. But if it is, who would want this? It is dystopian in its denial of Emile’s own agency; of his humanity.
Explicit teaching of powerful ideas has, well, an explicit agenda. It isn’t sneaky. You get what you expect. If you wish, you can learn about evolution and yet personally reject it. That’s fine. The old people pass on their knowledge, including the ways it has been used and interpreted in the past, and the young people decide what to do with it. It is therefore explicit teaching that recognises the humanity and agency of students, and it is therefore explicit teaching that is fair and just.