Educating humans

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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constructivist science teacher, it is not enough for students to simply know that Aristotle’s views of motion have been superseded by Newton’s laws, they have to believe in Newton’s laws and see the world this way.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.


11 thoughts on “Educating humans

  1. Tom Burkard says:

    The 18th century English Radical James Burgh’s response to Emile was particularly apt:

    “It will be possible to prevent all the faults…whenever M. Rousseau obliges the world with the discovery of a new chemical process by which all the weakness, the self-love, the passion, and appetite which have been hitherto found in human nature, may be extracted out of children, and mortals at once transmuted into angels.”

    In 1981, RS Peters made your point about Emile’s tutor eloquently:

    “…the methods of learning from Nature and things are so contrived and controlled that even Skinner might be envious… the tutor, who is the only model available to the child, exercises his authority by structuring Emile’s learning environment, not by directly imposing his will on him.”

  2. Stan says:

    This seems a mischaracterization of the constructivist approach. Surely proponents of all approaches want their students to believe things. But the constructivist approach aims for something more than just a good recall of knowledge.
    I think they would argue that direction instruction is not so neutral and by choosing the material and presenting it as fact a traditionalist is failing to train the student to question and discover things for themselves.
    Their claim is that student that learns by discovery develops the skills to establish what is fact and what is important for themselves.

    To answer their claim at what they do better than DI you have to show that DI can enable students to answer questions for themselves and think of their own questions better than a constructivist approach does.

    I think the article at this link does a good job of answering this:

    • Tom Burkard says:

      Jerome Bruner admitted that discovery learning “is the most inefficient technique possible for regaining what has been gathered over a long period of time”. For instance, the algorithms, procedures and facts of mathematics are powerful cultural inventions that have accumulated over thousands of years of human history. We can’t expect every child to discover the Pythagorean theorem.

      Although Bruner was one of the most intelligent advocates of ‘discovery learning’, he understood that it was the teacher’s responsibility to provide students with information and encourage them to draw their own conclusions (or ‘construct their own knowledge’). This is pretty much what happens in any case when students are taught with direct instruction. The more they know, the more likely they are to have encountered conflicting ideas and narratives. In any case, surely it is better to let this process occur without too much interference from teachers, who inevitably will inject their own prejudices into the mix. Sadly, the days when most teachers went to great lengths not to betray their own politics are long gone.

      • Stan says:

        Totally agree. I think it is obvious that once you present a bit of history of science you have to tell the story of the refinement and replacement of old ideas with new.
        I also agree with Tom that the efficiency argument carries a lot of weight.
        I see this appropriate tweet in the sidebar:

        My point was that the constructivists don’t see themselves as sneaky they are explicit that they are teaching students to ask questions and discover the answers for themselves. A pure DI approach doesn’t aim to do this and so could be worse at getting students competent at these things.

        But perhaps after DI has succeeded in its aims it is relatively easy to achieve this. Whereas a discovery first approach struggles to get he knowledge transferred at a reasonable pace so the end result is worse.

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  4. Great thoughts as always Greg. I take mild exception to the following paragraph, however; perhaps I’m seeing something different than you:

    “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.”

    I agree 100% that those in the “progressive education camp” very often slip past the line between education and indoctrination. However I do not think that this is a specific element of constructivism, per se. As I read their ideas, when constructivists speak of internalizing knowledge it seems sincerely (if mistakenly) meant in a postmodernist sense of “constructing one’s own knowledge” as if there were multiple options as to what is ultimately true and that a child should be on a mission to come up with their own version of reality. So at first take it would be the opposite of “manipulation”.

    This is a glowing ideal based on a terribly mistaken picture of what knowledge and truth are. And like most idealist agendas, in practice it ends up in a different, possibly diametrically opposite place. This narrative of the child conceiving their own “truth” turns out to be a great cover for indoctrination in the classroom.

    I agree that there is manipulation in the “constructivist” classroom, but I think that manipulation is not an expression of constructivism per se but a secondary consequence of the practicalities of adults “guiding” children in the process of self-discovery. Turns out it’s rather easy to manipulate this process, and I think it’s rare if ever that a classroom attains anything like the ideal. I think manipulation is the norm. Some teachers may sincerely believe they don’t do this. Others, I think, have calculated their advantage and are delighted to have subtle but powerful influence over the beliefs and loyalties of children, under a cloak of plausible deniability.

    It is analogous to our problem as adults with “fake news”: the problem lies primarily not in sources of information that skew the story this way or that — it is in the pretence at neutrality; the subterfuge of being regarded a “trusted source” by an unwisely credulous audience.

    Now, conventional (i.e. “traditional”) education and direct instruction have long been criticized for being that — an authority figure in the classroom claiming to be an unbiased source of truth. But there are many ways of claiming neutrality, and the least of these may be that which is up-front about what is presented. For a conventional curriculum, directly taught, is transparent to inspection.

    A parent who wants to know that is taught in their child’s EI class need merely read the text. But in a “progressive” classroom that may eschew the use of texts or which bases the acquisition of knowledge on social exercises subject to manipulation by a teacher who may or may not have a personal agenda, which may or may not be visible to an observer, and of which the teacher may or may not even be consciously aware, strikes me as orders of magnitude more dangerous.

    In direct instruction information is passed in its rawest form, and by the most transparent means, to the child, and as you observe, this is how to educate … a human.

    Like the old quip about democracy … explicit instruction may be the worst way of helping children acquire unbiased knowledge of the world … except for ALL THE ALTERNATIVES.

    • Michael Pye says:

      I once answered a question about what a teacher does by saying we manipulate. This obviously went down badly. However I was using it in the way I acquired through my science education where it means to alter or change rather then as a pejorative.

      At the time I was a few years out of my PGCE, and I was very much employing constructivist theories (specifically discovery learning). I still use what I learnt from that period (how to direct and nudge learning), but I am much more specific about why and how things work when teaching. (I believe this is Greg’s explicitness). I will openly admit to alternatives and flaws while having the confidence to refuse to stray to far from the point at hand. (Which along with the greater number of steps, repetition and cross-bridging differentiates my current teaching from that earlier form).

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