Saturday, March 31, 2012

Piaget (1896-1980) – ages and stages - but mostly bad science

Jean Piaget, the Swiss psychologist, claimed that cognitive development proceeds in four genetically determined stages, and that they always follow the same order. This theory of child development, he called ‘genetic epistemology’, and it saw the minds of children as very different from those of adults. Importantly, this perception must be taken into account in teaching and learning. Big problem – he got it mostly wrong.
Four ‘ages and stages’
1. Sensorimotor (0-2) Intelligence takes form of motor actions.
2. Preoperational (3-7) Intelligence intuitive in nature.
3. Concrete operations (8-11) Intelligence logical but needs concrete referents.
4. Formal operations (12-15) Thinking involves abstractions.
Each of these stages had a more granular structure which Piaget explored in some detail. His emphasis on mathematical and analytic task experimentation has been criticized as being a little narrow. However, this, he saw as a good indicator of general cognitive development.
Famous four-stages demolished
His famous four stage developmental model  has been fairly well demolished.
First, the Sensimotor Stage with the infamous ‘hide a toy under a cloth and the child thinks it’s no longer there’ study, which turned out to be an exercise in distraction, and when repeated by Bower and Wishart in the absence of an adult, with a teddy, most children had no difficulty in understanding that the toy is still under the cloth. In general, Piaget simply focussed too much on motor actions when the real development is perceptual. Kagan also attributes object permanence to a simple increase in memory capacity.
Second, the Pre-operational Stage study, where a child fails to recognise a doll’s point of view from photographs of three mountains, was shown to be too complex for the children to understand. A simpler experiment by Hughes, using dolls of two policeman, showed that many children can understand non-egocentric perspectives.
Third, the Concrete Operation Stage was refuted by Rose and Blank, when it was found that Piaget had been verbally correcting the children towards his wanted conclusions, invalidating the data. The ‘naughty teddy’ experiment also wiped out his famous three rows of sweets trial supposedly showing that kids couldn’t get constancy in number. Overall he ignored hereditary, educational and cultural effects, thereby standardising theory, when, in fact, there are large differences in the speed and nature of development due to these and other factors
Fourthly, the Formal Operative Stage focused too much on formal logic, ignoring many other mature cognitive skills. It’s as if we were all little mathematicians, not ‘little scientists’. In fact kids develop, not in a predictable, linear fashion, but in fits and starts, and in many different ways.
All in all, his four stages were abandoned as subsequent research showed that development takes place much earlier than he had posited, is more of a continuum, with more variation in ages and more plasticity than was previously thought.
Poor scientist
How did he get it so wrong? Well, like Freud, he was no scientist. First, he used his own three children (or others from wealthy, professional families) and not objective or multiple observers to eliminate observational bias. Secondly, he often repeated a statement if the child’s answer did not conform to his experimental expectation. Thirdly, the data and analysis lacked rigour, making most of his supposed studies next to useless. So, he led children towards the answers he wanted, didn’t isolate the tested variables, used his own children, and was extremely vague on his concepts.
Is there much, or anything, that is useful in Piaget to a teacher? His four-stage theory of child development has been so completely negated by subsequent studies, that it’s merely an exercise in the history of science. Piaget was the dominant force in child psychology but many of his claims are now subject to a critique from Bruner, Vygotsky, other constructivists and other developmental psychologists, who see a more malleable developmental picture. What's worrying is the fact that this Piagean view of child development, based on 'ages and stages' is still widely believed, despite being quite wrong. This leads to misguided teaching methods. Education and training is still soaked in this dated theory. However, on the whole, his sensitivity to age and cognitive development did lead to a more measured and appropriate use of educational techniques that matched the true cognitive capabilities of children.
Piaget, J. (1929). The Child's Conception of the World. NY: Harcourt, Brace Jovanovich.
Piaget, J. (1932). The Moral Judgement of the Child. NY: Harcourt, Brace Jovanovich.
Piaget, J. (1969). The Mechanisms of Perception. London: Rutledge & Kegan Paul.
Paiget, J. (1970). The Science of Education and the Psychology of the Child. NY: Grossman.
Piaget, J. & Inhelder, B. (1969). The Psychology of the Child. NY: Basic Books.
Piaget, J. & Inhelder, B. (1973). Memory and intelligence. NY: Basic Books.
Bybee, R.W. & Sund, R.B. (1982). Piaget for Educators (2nd Ed). Columbus, OH: Charles Merrill.
Jean Piaget Society

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Friday, March 30, 2012

Althusser (1918-1990) – schools as ISAs and filters for class and labour

Despite the sad end to his life – he strangled his wife and spent his last years in an asylum, Althuser, born in Algiers, attempted to reconcile Marxism with structuralism. Like Gramsci, Althusser saw education as the means by which the class system perpetuates itself, stratifying people into workers, the petty bourgeoisie and capitalists. Schools are a means of control by the ruling class and capitalism, and a preparation for work (work being the defining characteristic of submission and class). The appearance of a meritocracy in schools, he thinks, masks the reality of ideological control. He says this through, what at times, is almost unreadable prose and jargon.
Ideological State Apparatuses - schools
Education is an Ideological State Apparatus (ISA) working through schools, family, culture, politics, the law and unions. These must be distinguished from a Repressive State Apparatus (RSA); such as the army, police, prisons and courts. He saw himself as providing an improved Marxist analysis of the role of education by identifying it as an Ideological State Apparatus that controls rather than enlightens. However, he avoids interpreting this as a conspiracy or planned phenomenon. It is simply a function of a scientific Marxist analysis of capitalism.
Schools – the primary ISA
Schools (although it is sometimes unclear whether he means schools or education in general) are the primary ISA that reproduce ruling ideology. It does this through grading and assessment, so that the individual strives to achieve what is set as standards of achievement, yet in reality are merely state sponsored selection devices for work and class roles.
Schools and labour
We have much to learn from his analysis of the role of education in sorting and ranking people for the labour market and the political role of assessment and the illusion of meritocracy in schools. Some would argue that education has been subjected to intense political and ideological control, a process which must be rolled back to a more meritocratic and balanced approach.
Education was not the only ISA for Althusser, religion was another and this has turned out to be just as powerful a force in terms of the reinforcement of power through education. In some states, such as Israel and Arab states, the state religion is a core curriculum subject, in many others it is less explicit but just as strong a presence. In many ways this is a more obvious form of ideological apparatus, pushing young minds towards a specific, dominant set of beliefs before they have the ability to choose.
We can learn from Althusser, that education is not a neutral activity. It is often loaded with politics, religion and other underlying belief systems. Rather than being a producing autonomous, open-minded adult, it can to a degree, produce mere followers and close young minds. There is some truth in this idea of education perpetuating the myth of ideological positions but some of Althusser’s theories are extremely abstract, and those who saw themselves as changing the world through education were to be bitterly disappointed. It was they who were seen to be clinging on to an ideology, which in itself has had its day. With Althusser, Marxist theory in education had run its course. History, a much admired Marxist tool, had proved them wrong.
Althusser, Louis,(1977) Lenin and Philosophy" and Other Essays. London: New Left Books
Althusser, Louis. Reading Capital (The Verso Classics Series)
Althusser, Louis. On Ideology (Verso Classics)
Althusser, Louis. For Marx (Verso Classics)
Ferrette L. Louis Althusser, Routledge Critical Thinkers, Routledge.

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Habermas (1929- ): ideology, action but lost on new media

Habermas, building on the work of his teacher Adorno and Marx, critiqued capitalism and was firmly in favour of equality and democracy. We see here a neutered from of Marxism that looks for ideological causes of oppression in capitalism and a philosophy of action to bring about change, albeit in the context of social democracy. His influence on education has been considerable.
Ideology critique
A dominant ideology imposes power over disempowered groups. The disempowered may, or may not, be conscious of their position of weakness. Education must address this by making it clear what ideological forces are at work, then a look at the causes that give rise to these power structures. As a philosophy of change he also recommends action
Action research
This is a call for research by and within the educational system to counter ideological, political pressure and reduce inequalities. It relies on a theory of knowledge that owes much to Marx, namely the idea that all knowledge has a ‘social’ context or is socially constructed, so that all taught knowledge is inherently ideological and never neutral. Such research involves technical, practical and emancipatory goals. Technical includes control through the scientific approach, practical the qualitative analysis of the social context and emancipatory is to free people from the chains of their ideological oppression.
What to do
Habermas and his followers are not short on suggested action. The direct effect of the Habermas theory is to change the curriculum towards inclusive activity that critiques ideology through cultural studies, political discussion, citizenship, media studies, humanities and subjects that reflect on the process of education itself. In practice, teaching needs to accommodate discussion, problem solving, collaboration, and community-related learning. Teachers need to become political agents.
However, while it is hard to defend teachers as political agents or the extremes of socially constructed knowledge; curriculum policy, design and content are certainly ideological, in the sense of being politicised. There is much to be gained by listening to calls for inclusion, student participation and the student voice in education. Education, for Habermas should not simply fill up the recipients with the current canon but promote participation.
The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere is an analysis of  ‘representational’ communications beyond the control of the state starting in the 18th century with newspapers, coffee shops and so on . Then the capitalist ‘public sphere’ where he contends that mass, broadcast media destroyed this earlier dialogue-based culture, when audiences became passive. To be frank he’s been overtaken by events and public statements show he neither understands new media nor its consequences. This is surprising, as it is mass new media that resturns us to active participation and dialogue. This may also be true in education where ew can escape the strictures of a culturally controlled canon.
Habermas has had a huge influence on educational theorising. We see in this form of social constructivism underlying, generalist claims about the social nature of all knowledge, that now seem both dated and impractical. On top of this, the fight against ideology suffers from appearing to be ideologically driven. Action research could be criticised for allowing a soft and woolly approach to educational research that has led to little or no change in the way Habermas and his followers had hoped. But, above all, he is misinformed and misguided on the role of technology.
Habermas J. (1971) The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere,transl. Shapiro  Heinemann.
Habermas J. (1971) Towards a Rationalist Society, transl. Shapiro, Heinemann.
Habermas J. (1974) Theory and Practice transl.Viertel, Heinemann.
Habermas J. (1979) Communication and the Evolution of Society transl. McCarthy, Heinemann.
Rasmussen D. M. (1990) Reading Habermas, Basil Blackwell
Murphy M. Fleming T (Editors) (2009) Habermas, Critical Theory and Education, Routledge

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Thursday, March 29, 2012

Gramsci (1891-1937) – hegemony, intellectuals and informal learning

Jailed by Mussolini, Gramsci wrote 32 notebooks, written over 11 years in prison but wasn’t published in English until the 1970s. If you hear the word ‘hegemony’ it’s likely to have come from someone who has read, or just as likely not read but unknowingly quoting, Gramsci.
As a Marxist his focus was on cultural and ideological forces in society. Informal education along with defined roles for intellectuals and redefining schools, are all main themes for Gramsci as he took Marxism and updated its theories in the light of 20th century evidence. The physical conflict between the classes became a mental conflict, where ideas were the weapons, perpetuated through institutions, especially educational institutions. He was to have a great influence on radical educational theorists such as Freire and Illich.
Traditional Marxism saw class control and conflict as one of domination and coercion. Gramsci saw that this was not subtle enough to explain the status quo and thought that values, morals and social institutions kept class structures in place. The common consciousness unwittingly adopts these beliefs and preserves inequalities and domination. Two forces operate here; first coercive institutions such as the armed services, police, government and legislature, second non-coercive institutions such as schools, churches, trade unions, social clubs and the family. Interestingly schools straddled both categories with their coercive curriculum, standards, qualifications and compulsion but also non-coercively through informal education, the hidden curriculum.
Power for the ruling classes, comes not from force but ideological manipulation and control. Schools and education play a major role in perpetuating this hegemony, reinforcing the social norms of dominance and obedience. The fact that different classes tend to have different schools is evidence that this dynamic was operative. Schools, he thought, should give all pupils a common grounding, free from social differences and we should be wary of vocational schools for the poor and academic schools for the rich. Everyone should have a good, grounded education, a comprehensive education. In many ways the UKs comprehensive system had its roots in Gramsci. Like Dewey and many others he saw learning as being active through activities. However, he was no Rousseau-like romantic. Children, he recognised, did not take naturally to learning.
Intellectuals, for example academics, are often seen as being above and apart from the ruling classes but Gramsci doubted this and saw some as perpetuating the system. Indeed, some intellectuals are the product of this class consciousness and their role is precisely the continuation of the current system. His solution was to encourage intellectuals from other class backgrounds to participate in political activity. This opened the door for a more enlightened view of education and change, counter to the brutality of anti-intellectualism of Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot.
Informal learning
Schools need to produce well-rounded participants in society, but also intellectuals who would act as a brake on the power of the ruling classes to exercise their power through education. The educated individual could act critically to change society and play a significant role in society. Education was therefore a powerful source of ideas and action in a society with the capability of changing society for the better. This was a powerful force in 20th century socialist thinking, where intellectuals, and worker’s education, were regarded as being at the vanguard of working class consciousness and struggle.
Technology and informal learning
Many still see informal, adult education as great force for good, perhaps stripped of its Marxist clothes. The rise of technology may be moving us in this direction with almost universal access to online knowledge through Google, Wikipedia, Amazon and a plethora of other sources. A different breed of intellectuals may arise, free from the control of institutional academia. We may even see much learning break free, in the way Gramsci imagined, from the control of formal, coercive curriculum, assessment, qualifications and institutions.
Gramsci related Marxism directly to the institutions of education and saw them as playing a key role in the ideological revolution. The role of intellectuals, not merely academic, in changing society, was also recognised. Many would argue that this sort of academic Marxism had a deleterious effect on schooling, politicising education and schools. Others would still argue that an egalitarian educational system is far from realisation and that Gramsci’s ideas still have huge currency in modern debates on education and schooling. As with so much of this debate, the danger lies in strong ideological positions being taken at the expense of innovative practice and realism.
Gramsci, A. (1971). Selections from the Prison Notebooks. London: Lawrence and Wishart.
Boggs, C. (1976) Gramsci’s Marxism. London: Pluto Press.
Entwistle, H. (1979). Antonio Gramsci: Conservative schooling for radical politics. London: Routledge.
Carmel Borg et al (2003) Gramsci & Education  Rowman & Littlefield.
Jones S. LouisGramsci, Routledge Critical Thinkers, Routledge.

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Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Marx (1818-1883) – education for all but the educated became the enemy

Although Karl Marx wrote little on educational theory, his influence on learning theory and practice has been profound. It was Marxism that underpinned the entire communist world’s view of learning in the 20th century, especially through Marxist theorists such as Gramsci and Althusser. In Soviet Russia and its satellite states education was remoulded around political aims and when the Cultural Revolution in China between 1949 and 1966 was unleashed, it had devastating consequences. To this day Marxism, to a degree, persists in educational and learning theory, most notably in the social constructivism of Vygotsky, Luria and Leontyev.
Education the result of economic structures
As Marx believed that our very consciousness, as well as our theorising and institutions, were the result of basic economic structures, education is seen as the result of existing class structures. In practice, this means that the ruling class controls and determines educational theory, policy and institutional development. In The Communist manifesto (jointly authored with Engels)
For Marx, education has a ‘social’ context, which is both direct and indirect, ‘And your education! Is not that also social, and determined by the social conditions under which you educate, by the intervention direct or indirect, of society’. The solution to the dominance of the ruling class was, first to abolish of child labour, then introduce free, state-funded education. The ‘combination of education and industrial production’ is also promoted, what we’d call vocational training. Unfortunately, ‘dialectical materialism’ was the manifestation of struggles between these groups within society and led to the identification of educated people and groups as enemies of the state.
Gramsci and Althusser
It was left to later Marxists to expand Marx’s social theory of education into working models that relate to knowledge, intellectual development and education. Antonio Gramsci developed these ideas further through ideas such as "ideological hegemony". The ruling class determines what passes as knowledge or truth. Louis Althusser developed this further exploring the way in which education, state, church, media and other institutions become the ideological state apparatus. Class structures determine knowledge and the means by which knowledge is transmitted, distributed and taught. These ideas were to literally shape education for a large part of the twentieth century across entire continents and in some outliers, notably North Korea and Cuba, the idea persists.
Social constructivism
Marx is still having a profound influence on educational theory today through social constructivist theory. The resurrection of Vygotsky has led to strong beliefs and practices around the role of the teachers and collaborative learning and the belief that social context lies at the heart of educational problems. Here, it is clear that Marxist ‘class consciousness’ is replaced by ‘social consciousness’. We no longer have Marxist ideology shaping education, but we do have the ideas dressed up in sociology and social psychology.
Technology and education
With remarkable foresight Marx also predicted the massive impact technology would have on the division of labour. His vision of a classless society would lead to such divisions disappear, with education as the driver. The breakdown of traditional academic and vocational should break down, ‘free them from the one-sided character which the present-day division of labour impresses upon every individual’. Individuals will have several careers and through ‘education… pass from one branch of production to another in response to the needs of society or their own inclinations’. This proved hard, if not impossible to implement, even in hard-lined Communist countries.
Disastrous legacy
The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point, however, is to change it’ said Marx. And change it they did, mostly for the worse. The 20th century saw the dogmatism of Lysenko in Soviet Russia, political indoctrination in schools and dialectical materialism interpreted by Mao during the Cultural Revolution, into an intellectual pogrom. The results in Cambodia, speak for themselves, with the virtual elimination of education and the educated. With that and the collapse of the Soviet Union came the end of the utopian dream.
We are still living with a hangover of Marxist theory in education, especially through social constructivist theories. Marxism is far from dead and the Marxist idea that everything becomes commoditised, including knowledge and education, is useful in combating the excesses of education and training aimed merely at increasing productivity. On the positive side, the Victorian democratisation of education, that arose from the industrial revolution, was transformed by Marxist and socialist ideas into a movement that pushed for free, state-funded education as a right for every citizen. This struggle is still raging as attempts are made to widen access to education and higher education across all socio-economic groups. In addition, the relationship between the state and education remains problematic is worth examination, and Marxist theorists have much to say that is useful in relation to the idea that education reflects and props up class differences, by filtering people, not on ability, but social background. Inequalities still exist and political interference through ideological, rather than evidence-based policies, are still the norm. Few, for example, would see even current education systems as truly meritocratic.
Karl Marx, (1988) The Communist Manifesto, ed. by Frederic L. Bender, Norton
Karl Marx, (1983) The Portable Karl Marx, ed. by Eugene Kamenka, Viking
Karl Marx, (1988) The Communist Manifesto, ed. by Frederic L. Bender, Norton
Karl Marx, (1992) Early Writings, tr. by Rodney Livingstone, Penguin
Karl Marx, (1992) Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, tr. by Ben Fowkes Penguin.
Terry Eagleton, (1999) Marx Routledge
Francis Wheen, (1999) Karl Marx Fourth Estate

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Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Dewey (1859 - 1952) – practical, problem-based learning

Did you know that Dewy headed up the commission that investigated Trotsky in Mexico? John Dewey, like Socrates, was a philosopher first and educational theorist second, and like Socrates, his progressive educational theory has been simplified to the level of caricature. It is often assumed that he favoured an extreme version of discovery learning. This was not in fact the case. As a philosopher he was what is called a ‘pragmatist’, a school of philosophy that emerged from Pierce and James in the 19th century. As befits an American with strong democratic beliefs he saw education as leading towards authentic participation in a democratic nation.
His reflections on the nature of knowledge, experience and communication, combined with his views of democracy and community, led to an educational theory that started with a broad based vision of what education should be, an identification of educational methods and a practical view of its implementation. He practised what he preached through his own ‘Laboratory School’.
Problem based learning
He is best known for his problem-solving approach to learning. In line with his view that science and experimentation lay at the heart of learning for both a person and society, he encouraged innovation and abhorred dogmatic principles and practices. For Dewey, exposure to certain types of learning experiences are more important than others. Schools should create learning opportunities by engaging in occupational activities, as practised by the rest of society. He was keen on ‘occupational’ learning and practical skills that produced independent, self-directing, autonomous adults. That schools had become divorced from society was one of his basic claims. In his model school, the students planted wheat and cotton, processed and transported it for sale to market.
Schools – divorced from society
Dewey spoke out against communism as well as the right-wing threat in US politics, including what he saw as reactionary Catholicism. A recent reappraisal sees him as a typical American liberal believing in a secular approach and reform in education, moving it beyond the limitations of traditional ‘schooling’. He was refreshingly honest about their limitations and saw schools as only one means of learning, ‘and compared with other agencies, a relatively superficial means’. In fact, he was keen to break down the boundaries of school, seeing them as a community within a community or an ‘embryonic society’. Schools are necessary but must not get obsessed with streaming, testing and not be overly academic in the curriculum. They must reflect the real world, not sit above and apart from society.
However, Dewey was not a full-on progressive and had little time for Rousseau’s free approach to the acquisition of knowledge and skills. Structure and teaching were important. Perhaps his most important contribution to education is his constant attempts to break down the traditional dualities in education between theory and practice, academic and vocational, public and private, individual and group. This mode of thinking, he thought, led education astray. The educational establishment, in his view, seemed determined to keep themselves, and their institutions, apart from the real world by holding on to abstract and often ill-defined definitions about the purpose of education.
Dewey is a child of the Enlightenment, a progressive thinker, not a traditionalist. More importantly for our purposes, experiential learning through Kolb and others had its origins in Dewey. His views on schools and how they relate to a modern, democratic society are also of lasting interest. Those involved in the modern debate about a more active role for schools in their community can benefit from a re-reading of Dewey as he raises important issues about the relevance of education, the destructive institutional practices and the lack of practical, pragmatic, vocational and life-skills teaching.


Dewey, J. (1916) Democracy and Education. An introduction to the philosophy of education (1966 edn.), New York: Free Press.
Dewey, J. (1933) How We Think. A restatement of the relation of reflective thinking to the educative process (Revised edn.), Boston: D. C. Heath.
Dewey, J. (1938) Experience and Education, New York: Collier Books. (Collier edition first published 1963).
Dewey, J. (1929) Experience and Nature, New York: Dover. (Dover edition first published in 1958).
Campbell, J. (1995) Understanding John Dewey. Nature and co-operative intelligence, Chicago: Open Court.
Ryan, A. (1995) John Dewey and the High Tide of American Liberalism, New York: W. W. Norton. 

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Monday, March 26, 2012

James (1842-1910) – father of modern psychology, develop habits, learn by doing

William James, elder brother of Henry James the novelist, asked his younger brother to stay close for six weeks after he died, as he wanted to try to contact him from the next world. No messages were ever received but it showed how seriously he took real inquiry and experimentation. In fact he is widely regarded as the father of modern psychology. His The Principles of Psychology (1890) set the tone for future inquiry into the mind, establishing psychology as a separate discipline; the scientific study of the mind. Grounded in his philosophical theory of pragmatism, James’s theories emphasised the consequences of one’s actions, rather than pure theoretical speculation.
Learning by doing
Like Locke, he wrote a practical book Talks to Teachers (1899), originally a series of lectures, giving practical advice to teachers. The difference is that psychology had now become, through his efforts, a science, and its principles could be used in practice. It was here that he put forward his now famous theory on learning by doing. This was to heavily influence John Dewey, and the future of educational theory through to Kolb and others. The book doesn’t pretend to have all the answers, as psychology is a science; teaching an art. But some psychological principles are clear.
Vocational learning - habits
Like Locke, he believed that education is, above all, the organization of acquired habits of conduct and tendencies to behaviour. Children should not be expected to learn by rote. Their experiences must be turned into useful and habitual behaviour through action. The learner must listen, but then take notes, experiment, write essays, measure, consult and apply.
He recommends learning through work and the creation of real things or dealings with real people in, for example, a shop, to give you educational experiences beyond mere theory. He was in fact a firm advocate of vocationally oriented schools and work-based learning (relevant today or not?).
The supervision of the acquisition of habit is another of his principles. Habit is the enormous flywheel of society, and should be exercised until securely rooted. The result of almost all learning is this habitual behaviour. Association, interest, attention, will and motivation; these are James’s driving forces in education. In addition there’s memory, curiosity, emulation, constructiveness, pride, fear and love - all impulses that must be turned to good use. This is not to say that he favoured a lazy, or what he called ‘soft pedagogics’. He recognized that learning was sometimes hard, even arduous.
William James proved to be a turning point in the history of both psychology and educational theory. He set both off in a more orderly fashion, introducing the scientific study of the mind as applied to learning. This has since proved to be by far the most fruitful approach to education and learning theory, although still often ignored. In particular, his emphasis on learning by doing still reverberates through Dewey, Kolb and others.
Myers, G (Editor). William James: Writings 1878-1899, Library of America
Myers, G (Editor). William James: Writings 1902-1910, Library of America
James, William. (1899) Talks to Teachers
James, William. (1899) The Principles of Psychology
James, William. (1899) Pragmatism
Putnam, Hilary. (1995) Pragmatism: An Open Question, Blackwell

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Sunday, March 25, 2012

Mohammed (570AD –632AD) - books, recitation, memorisation and writing

It is claimed that Mohammed was illiterate and the Koran, was literally the word of God, transcribed by others (like Socrates) from his revelations. Mohammed is therefore a prophet and teacher but in reality a mouthpiece for the absolute message of God.
Koran and education
Books, especially the Koran, are held in the highest regard and mosques functioned as repositories of books. In Sura 75:15–18 attentive reading is specifically mentioned. This reverence for the ‘book’, especially the Koran, is paramount. Indeed it was almost immediately made into a ‘codex’ (book form), as they had acquired paper technology from captured Chinese sailors in 751AD. One had to even wash before touching the Koran.
The dominant role this one book, of similar length to the Gospels, has had on education in the Muslim world cannot be underestimated. For five centuries after its emergence in the 7th century, the so called ‘Golden Age of Arabic culture, encouraged centres of learning in Damascus, Bagdad and Cairo. Their libraries collected and distributed Western classical texts and made advances in mathematics, science, philosophy and law.
Recite and repeat
Koran means ‘to recite’ and the text was originally meant to be read aloud. It has been argued that this has led to a dependence on rote learning. Prayer is one of the five pillars of Islam, recommended five times a day, so the repetition of recitation, known to be effective for embedding knowledge in long term memory, becomes an ingrained habit, as does listening attentively, especially at Friday prayers and also through the attentive reading of the Koran. On the other hand this focus on recitation and repetition tends to infect studies across all subjects and education in the Arab world has been criticised for its dependence on simple recitation at the expense of critical analysis.
Islam literally means ‘submission’ and it has been argued that this affects the way learners and teachers approach education. In particular, memorisation of the Koran, which has been admired for centuries in the Muslim world, may have encouraged  the memorisation and regurgitation of text, rather than analysis and critical thinking. With traditional paternalism, authority of the state and dominance of religion, some argue, comes a lack of questioning, passive learners and didactic teaching. Obedience and compliance, not unusual in other educational systems, are arguably much more embedded in Islamic countries. The time spent on religious studies also squeezes out time available for other subjects. This may be another reason for the low levels of original research and patents in countries where Islamic education is dominant.
Koran and writing
Writing, not only through the Koran, but in other expository texts, is a strong feature of Islamic education. Sura 96 urges believers to ‘recite’ but also explains that God taught man through the ‘pen’, namely writing. Writing, especially calligraphy, is regarded as a high art form, as it is in the East (but never was in in the West).  The double edged sword is that the power of the pen is seen as the power of God’s absolute religious knowledge, not the freedom to write critically. Indeed, the writing, even drawing, has led to death threats ‘fatwas’, on novelists and cartoonists. Islam, like Christianity, has supported the extremes of rigorous scholarship and education but also bans on education (especially for women) and even the burning of books.
The Arab world has one written language, and, as the Arab Spring has proven, its demographically young populations have used technology to depose dictators and criticise the cronyism, nepotism and corruption in those societies. With this may come a more open attitude and access to education, using the technology they so successfully used in learning how to change their systems of government. We should start to see the emergence of good Arabic content, tools that cater for the Arabic language and an increased use of technology based learning, along with the democratisation of education.

For all its educational qualities, the focus on one book, its absolute truth and primitive recitation, repletion and memorisation seem like primitive pedagogies, leaving little room for active and critical thought. Islam, like the extremes of Christianity and Judaism, can be seen as a return to an absolute form of dogmatism, where young minds are locked down before they have had a chance to reflect or choose. This is an anathema to secularists who believe that education should open young minds not close them down. On the other hand, let us not forget that the Islamic world encouraged learning, scholarship and intellectual endeavour, gifting the world those texts of the Classical world we now so admire.

DawoodJ.  (Transl. 1956, revised 2000) The Koran Penguin Classics
Lyons M (2011) The Book Thames & Hudson
Hitti P.K. (1936) History of the Arabs MacMillan
Whitaker B (2009) What’s Wrong with the Middle East. Saqi

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Saturday, March 24, 2012

Jesus (7–2 BC to 30–36 AD) - parables, sermons but also dreaded lectures

Jesus, as a teacher, was primarily a man of action but in terms of instruction it was his powerful parables and sermons that stand out in the Gospels. Importantly, there is no sense of exclusion as he encourages shunned lepers, hated tax inspectors, prostitutes, criminals and especially the poor, to receive his message. Has there been any more radical and effective teacher? When it came to powerful messages it was through his individual acts of love, kindness and forgiveness that make their mark. However, there is much to learn from how he taught.
Parables were not used by him to impose moral rules but to show, by story-telling, how to act by listening to examples of how others have acted. Jesus was clear about why he used them and why they worked, explaining this in the Gospels. Parables are image rich and allow the listener or reader to picture the scene and recall from episodic memory. They appeal to the illiterate poor and have the power to change behaviour and lives. Christian art is full of images that retell these parables, as most people across the ages were illiterate.
Jesus also used sermons, notably the Sermon on the Mount, to tell his story and the sermon was to become the priest and preachers pedagogic weapon for centuries to come. Paul the Apostle was the man who took Christianity to the world, preaching in major cities and shaped the way Christianity was to be spread and taught for the almost two millennia. From Paul we get the read speech and authoritative sermon. This is not the Sermon on the Mount but the proselytising sermon that we still hear from every pulpit, priest and preacher to this day.
Sermon to lecture
Given the hold religion had on educational institutions until relatively recently, especially Universities, it is hardly surprising that the sermon transmogrified into the ‘lecture’, which to this day, remains the main pedagogic technique in Higher education. In education it moved from pulpit to lectern. ‘Lectern’ means ‘reading desk’ and the word ‘lecture’, from the 14th century meant ‘the act of reading’, from the Latin ‘to read’. It was only in the 16th century that this shifted to mean a talk for teaching a specific topic or subject. The verb ‘to lecture’ is first recorded in 1590. This pre-print pedagogy remains the primary pedagogic method in Higher Education, despite the overwhelming evidence that it is inefficient and runs counter to almost everything we know about the psychology of learning.
We can learn from the power of parables, that attitudinal change can come if we show exemplary behaviour in a way that is memorable, through story-telling. This has been the power of YouTube, TED and video. We should also remember that this is not the way to treat all forms of learning. In the end it is through action that we learn to change ourselves. The point is not just to look and listen but to act.
Has there been any more powerful teacher? His only rival is perhaps the Buddha or Mohammed. This one man shaped two millennia of thought and culture through the use of simple parables and sermons. These were to be retold and evangelised by others such as Paul, and armies of preachers, to congregations, largely in churches, that continues to this day. Note that some, like Nietzsche, thought that this led to a two millennia aberration and, in particular, a thousand years stultifying scholasticism. The religious influence on pedagogy also meant that the sermon became the dull one hour lecture, which still dominates much of our educational pedagogy today. This has held back pedagogic progress rendering much higher education a slow, ponderous and too often tedious affair. There is, of course, the threat to science posed by fundamentalist Christianity, in its denial of evolutionary theory, especially in the US. However, overall Christianity has more recently played a key role in the provision of universal schooling.
Wilson A,N. (1992) Jesus Sinclair-Stevenson

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Friday, March 23, 2012

Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-97) – original & radical

Mary Wollstonecraft bursts with originality in her thoughts on education rejecting the dry, dull teaching of the day, even recommending peer-justice by students. However, she is best known for her ground-breaking work in politics and education, work on the education of women that has resonated through to 20th century feminism. She adopted the Enlightenment love of reason in educational theory but wrote a devastating attack on Rousseau’s crude recommendations on the education of women. Women deserved the same education as men and the right to be educated alongside men. But she had more to say on education than this one principle.
In her Vindication of the Rights of Men (1790), a political work, she is critical of the gender-based language and gender analogies used by Burke and launches a verbal broadside into the monarchy and aristocracy, in favour of republicanism. In this she invokes the Enlightenment ideas of reason and progress. But it is in Chapter 12 of her A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792) that she presents a detailed account of her educational views.
Schools – innovations
She launches a direct attack on the schools and schooling of the day, especially boarding schools, as she thinks it is vital that children receive both home life and some structured respite from home for learning. However, she castigates educators for their ‘fear of innovation’ and decries the lines of benches and ‘parrot-like prattle’. State funded day schools should be available to all. Most importantly, she is firmly against single-sex schools. It is important that both girls and boys learn from and about each other for a harmonious society. Long vacations are undesirable, as they both disrupt learning, leading to forgetting, and place too much pressure on the home environment.
Much teaching is pedantic and tyrannical with its recitation and focus on Latin and Greek. And in a prescient passage notes that, ‘It is not for the benefit of society that a few brilliant men should be brought forward at the expense of the multitude’. With echoes of Rousseau she recommends a broad curriculum but with a focus on open air and exercise. And harking back to Socrates, she recommends that some subjects, notably religion, history, the history of man and politics, be taught through conversation.
On discipline she recommends that peer-punishment be implemented making it free from teachers, so that the students learn justice from practice. How innovative is that!
Women and education
Rousseau’s position on the education of women, which saw them as not only lacking the abilities of men but be taught for the pleasure of men. Women, Wollstonecraft stated, must seek intellectual autonomy and should not depend on men for that goal. They are not, as some at that time claimed, slaves to their emotional passions and have the ability to develop rational and intellectual passions and abilities. In short, women have the right to the same education as men and to be taught alongside men.
In detail, she provides an analysis of the enslavement to the body beautiful 250 years before the feminism of the late 20th century. Interestingly, she was sensitive to the different roles women have from men, as wives and mothers, but saw that this only has a bearing in the sense that education and reason improves the skills needed in these roles. This is a debate that is still alive in feminist thinking. But before we see her as a wholly modern, educational theorist we must also remember that she thought that poor children should be taught in separate schools.
It is delightful to read of Enlightenment innovations on the curriculum, the school calendar and discipline that would put our modern-day educational establishment to shame. But her primary contribution is that she challenged society to offer equal political and educational rights to women, claiming that the only way to prove her case was to put it to the test. We did, and it passed the test magnificently. Although it was well into the 20th century before it happened and even quite recently some Universities did not admit women. A recent vindication of her work is the fact that women, in many countries, now outperform men in education and that the education of women is seen as a key to economic prosperity in the developing world.
Wollstonecraft, Mary, (1786) Thoughts on the education of Daughters
Wollstonecraft, Mary, (1790) A Vindication of the Rights of Men
Wollstonecraft, Mary, (1792) A Vindication of the Rights of Woman

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Thursday, March 22, 2012

Rousseau (1712-1778) – prickly, paranoid, noble savage

It’s hard to see a man who handed all five of his children up to an orphanage at birth, as an expert on the development and education of children. Prickly and paranoid, he managed to fall out with almost everyone, including those who tried to help him, like David Hume. Yet Jean Jaques Rousseau wrote extensively on education, including a major novel ‘Emile (On Education)’, still arguably the most important novel on education ever written and his influence on education has been long-lasting and profound.
Noble savage
As an exponent of The Noble Savage he saw civilisation as a corrupting influence, creating inequalities and conflict. His educational theories are an attempt to avoid such corruption within the mind of essentially good human beings, the antithesis of the Hobbesian notion of our intrinsic savagery.
With a passing nod to Locke in the preface to Emile, he states his intention to build a complete theory of education from the point of view of the learner. Emile grows from a boy to a man and Rousseau tracks his inner, natural growth, matched by education appropriate to these natural stages of development. It is the learner that matters and the learner who develops in a natural fashion, not shaped by teachers but growing in response to opportunities for development.
The book develops over five sections The first two are about giving the child freedom to explore and drink from his/her senses, as their ability to focus on serious learning is absent and when forced, is counterproductive. It is only at around 12 that the education of the mind should be considered. From 15-20 we are born again as we develop naturally into adults. This time of turbulent emotion allows us to learn about conflict, morals and religion. We must experience a gradual introduction into the ways of the world and wider society, but it is between 20-25 that one must be introduced to society. Here Emile meets Sophie, who he will marry. Rousseau takes this opportunity to draw differences between the education of men and women, based on his belief that the two sexes are naturally different.
Educational principles – nature, men and things
Education comes from nature, men and things, these are our three masters and nature is the most important. The child, naturally good, needs simple freedom and not rushed into inappropriate or unnatural educational activity. Play and self-reliance are important. From then on, each stage of natural development needs appropriate and personal education with learning appropriately matched to age. The focus is on motivation, first through restlessness, then curiosity and later goals. People do not need to be taught in a traditional sense; they need to be exposed to problems and come to their own conclusions.
In many ways, the presentation of self-paced  e-learning, open access to knowledge through Google, Wikipedia and Open Educational resources and projects such as the hole-in-the-wall’ work of Sugata Mitra, are heirs to the Rousseau dream. There is, to this day, a feeling that the strictures and structures of post-industrial revolution are harmful and counter-productive have led to a search for more natural and meaningful ways to learn. We may yet find that Rousseau’s dream will become a reality.
David Hume wrote, “He is plainly mad, after having long been maddish”, and although Rousseau's legacy has been profound, it is problematic. Having encouraged the idea of romantic naturalism and the idea of the noble and good child, that merely needs to be nurtured in the right way through discovery learning, he perhaps paints an over-romantic picture of education as natural development. The Rousseau legacy is the idea that all of our educational ills come from the domineering effect of society and its institutional approach to educational development. If we are allowed to develop naturally, he claims, all will be well. This may be an over-optimistic view of human nature and development, and although not without truth, lacks psychological depth. Emile, as Althusser claimed, now reads like a fictional utopia.
Rousseau, J-J. (1762) Émile, London: Penguin.
Rousseau, J-J (1762) The Social Contract, London: Penguin. (1953 edn.) Translated and introduced by Maurice Cranston.
Rousseau, J-J (1755) A Discourse on Inequality. Translated with an introduction by M. Cranston (1984 edn.), London: Penguin.
Rousseau, J-J (1755) A Discourse on Political Economy. Available as part of The Social Contract and Discourses, London: Everyman/Dent.
Rousseau, J-J (1782) The Confessions of Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1953 edn.), London: Penguin.
Rousseau, J-J (1782) Reveries of the Solitary Walker. Translated with an introduction by P. France, London: Penguin.
Boyd, W.  (1956) Émile for Today. The Émile of Jean Jaques Rousseau selected, translated and interpreted by William Boyd, London: Heinemann.

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Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Locke (1632-1704) –motivation, habit, practice - sceptical on schools & arts

Some Thoughts Concerning Education (1692), is really a practical guide, rather than a theoretical treatise but that’s what makes it so fascinating and readable. Widely translated, it became a manual for education among the upper classes for most of 18th century.
As the greatest philosopher of his age, he laid the foundations for empiricism and the enlightenment view of knowledge, politics and education. Sceptical of the educational practices of his day, it was a break from the dry, educational stranglehold of medieval scholasticism. His is a sophisticated theory of education built, not around the transmission of information, but the shaping of habits and character, and in some detail.
Motivation matters
As a libertarian he thought that the learner must not be coerced nor learn when they are not in the right frame of mind, neither should they be beaten. They must be made to feel as if it is in their own interest, and that they are acting from their own free will. Without pleasure and play, the child will become demotivated. Conversation is strongly favoured over lecturing, and the child’s character and temperament needs to be understood if they are to be taught well. Not that children should be spoilt. Indeed he recommends that parents, in particular, should be tough on their children in their early years.
His approach is a series of very practical methods for encouraging good habits and character right down to details on curiosity, games, language learning, dancing etc. He recommends educational methods that focus on example and practice, rather than the teaching of information and principles, as children do not remember or apply rules. In this sense, it is not learning that matters, but the establishment of good learning habits. It is repeated practice that reinforces these behaviours so they become instinctive, through the use of the concrete rather than the abstract. This is way ahead of its time.
Academic and vocational skills (but not the arts)
In particular, everyone should learn a manual skill, such as carpentry, as it helps relax the mind. Beyond this, his focus is on a healthy mind that has the basics in reading, writing, arithmetic and a knowledge of literature along with the natural and social sciences. The arts, like Plato, he regarded as either useless or dangerous. Detailed scholarly study should be left to those who want to become scholars.
Sceptical on schools
He does not recommend school (for those who can afford tutors), and sets great store on the enthusiasm of parents, and the family in general. Schools, he thought, merely perpetuate bad company and bad habits of behaviour. He explicitly rejects the focus on Greek and Latin through the teaching of grammar. A cross-curricular approach should, for example, move from French through geography (places in France) and only after a knowledge of numbers to longitude and latitude then Copernican astronomy. It is this orderly approach to the curriculum that puts the practical before the abstract, that lies at the heart of his pedagogy.
Lastly, and not many learning theorists touch on this, Locke recommends travel, not at 16-20 (the gap year norm) but either before this age, to acquire a language, or after when one can truly appreciate the difference between your own and another culture.
His thoughts on education, although influential, are weakened by the fact that, like most pure empiricists, he saw the mind as a table rasa or blank slate. But this was tempered by his recognition of individual character. We can now see that he was also a product of the age, making a firm distinction between the education of Gentlemen and the masses but remember also that he was an active investor and political supporter of the slave trade.
These points aside,, it is the idea of a free mind, that uses the power of reason to become contributory, autonomous adults in a free society, that mark out this educational theory. The sweeping scope of his thinking and thoroughly practical recommendations are impressive, couching education in a sophisticated theory of knowledge and liberal political society with observations and general views on education that point towards a tradition that focused on character and autonomy within society, rather than the transmission of knowledge.
Aaron, R. (1971). John Locke. Oxford: The Oxford University Press
Cranston, M. (1969). John Locke (rev. ed. Green and Co. Ltd. London: Longmans
Tarcov, N. (1984). Locke's education for liberty. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Yolton, J. W. (1968). John Locke and the way of ideas. Oxford: Oxford University Press

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