Getting it wrong from the beginning:
 Our progressivist inheritance from Herbert Spencer, John Dewey, and Jean Piaget

This is not really a blog, just a copy and paste job from Kieran Egan’s website

I hope I’m not breaking any etiquette doing this. You can read the original page here: Introduction

The text comes for the Introduction to Kieran Egan’s book Getting it wrong from the beginning 

I’ve decided to post it here because I have become increasingly frustrated in recent weeks by the way terms such as Progressivism, Discovery Learning, and Constructivism are being used interchangeably and generally negatively. In my opinion this is very unhelpful and does us no credit as a profession. I’m not a scholar or an educational theorist (like Egan), just a teacher, but I am genuinely concerned at some of the dismissive and reductivist language and mis-use of terminology that seems be developing among educational blogging.

“Getting it Wrong from the Beginning” is critical of progressive education and the school systems that developed out of it, but Egan is reasoned and rational. He avoids the polemic rhetoric that besmirches much of the criticism of progressivism we find in blogs. Further, he understands his subject and doesn’t misrepresent, misunderstand, or reduce his argument to platitudes.

I recommend “Getting it Wrong from the Beginning” and Egan’s his other work.

Note: Here are two critiques of Egan, with thanks to @ManYanaEd for pointing them out to me:

Getting it Right: Keeping it Complicated

Some reviews of: Getting it Wrong from the Beginning


Imagine it is the year 1887 and you are a forty-five-year-old white middle-class man traveling by train into a medium-sized American town. You would likely see some new buildings going up. Perhaps the biggest is a factory, and nearby are the shells of houses for the workers, and perhaps a new church and school are being built. You are financially comfortable and aware that your personal wealth and that of your neighbors is growing as a direct or indirect result of the products of the new factories and the trade they generate. The town’s population is increasing, there are more, and more varied, shops and services, and new inventions are transforming your life.

Let us say you know that the factory under construction, which you are turning to look at as you pass by, will make equipment for the new electric lighting system. Your home is now lighted by gas, with a few older kerosene lamps for use in upstairs rooms. You would know that a decade ago Sir Joseph Wilson Swan had invented a new incandescent lamp by heating carbon filaments in a glass bulb from which air was partially evacuated. In the following year, Thomas Alva Edison came up with the same idea, but unlike the Englishman, Edison developed plans for the power lines and equipment needed to establish a practical lighting system. You can foresee this new electric light replacing the less safe, less clean, and less efficient system you now use.

All this change, these buildings and inventions, the growing town and shifting patterns in people’s lives, you recognize, somewhat proudly, as progress. Being a progressive modern man you have learned the ideas propounded by other white middle-class men during the past half-century or so. Unlike all your ancestors, and unlike all people in other than modern Western societies, you confidently believe that the world developed from a mass of molten matter to its present life-supporting form, that life itself evolved from the simplest bugs to that pinnacle of life on the planet—yourself—and that civilizations have similarly evolved from primitive beginnings to the inventive sophistication of your own. This social evolution from primitive to modern societies, you recognize, has not, of course, been uniform; many societies remain in a developmentally “primitive” condition, still living a life reflective of “the childhood of mankind.” You understand the now-common phrase “the childhood of mankind” as capturing the sense in which “primitive” people’s minds are inferior to your modern mind much as children’s minds are inferior to those of adults.

As a progressive modern man you will have read the celebrated and influential essay written thirty years ago by Herbert Spencer called “Progress: Its Law and Cause.” Spencer had persuaded you, and many others, that “progress is not an accident, not a thing within human control, but a beneficent necessity” (Spencer 1966, 60). He had established that this underlying law was “displayed in the progress of civilization as a whole, as well as in the progress of every nation; and is still going on with increasing rapidity” (19). That factory, those new houses, and the train you are riding in are all confirming evidence of his compelling argument.

As your train carries you on, at a speed and with a comfort unimaginable to any traveler before you in history, you recognize that the physical and social changes you see are reflected in, or are products of, a ferment of new ideas. The number and novelty of these new ideas is disruptive on a scale never before experienced. The result creates anxiety in those who see the foundations of their old intellectual world being threatened but is exhilarating to progressive minds like yours.

Let us say, as you passed that school being built, you turned to look at it with a particular and professional interest because you are a recently appointed senior official of this newly organized school division. The ferment of ideas you are aware of will prominently include those about education. You hold decided ideas about how the new state schools should go about educating all the children in society for the New World. The new world that is tangibly coming into form around you would be the world they will inhabit, and you are keenly aware that it will be quite unlike the world you grew up in. Your educational ideas have also been influenced by the redoubtable Mr. Spencer, an Englishman born in 1820 who has written at length about education, as he has written about nearly every other topic a modern man might turn his mind to. Spencer made a triumphant lecture tour around America in 1882, and, let us say, you attended two of his exciting talks. His ideas about education draw on the same fundamental principles that undergird his progressive arguments about the development of life, of civilization, and of individuals’ potential.

Well, let us imagine now that you are you—a tougher call, perhaps—and consider our man on the train from the outside. He was an agent in creating the kind of schools we still have. He, and hundreds like him, shaped the new schools under the influence of a set of powerful educational ideas. During the late nineteenth century, the modern apparatus for schooling everyone was put in place. My topic is the ideas about education that shaped these new state schools into the forms we have lived with ever since, and particularly the ideas about children’s minds, and their modes of learning and development, which have determined the curriculum and the organization of schools.

In the 1850s, Herbert Spencer wrote four essays on education. They were published separately in journals, but he had intended from the beginning that they would appear as a single volume. That volume was published in New York under the title Education: Intellectual, Moral, and Physical in 1860 and in London the following year. By the end of the 1860s the book had appeared in fifteen editions from seven publishers. During the 1870s it was reprinted in New York nine times by D. Appleton alone, and in the 1880s there were fifteen printings, all but two in the United States. (The laxness of copyright laws, especially concerning foreign publications, helps account for this proliferation.) In the 1890s, it seems, a slowdown in popularity occurred, with only thirteen printings during the decade, including editions from seven American publishers. Appleton itself sold hundreds of thousands of copies.

The later nineteenth century was a crucial period for educational thinking. Rapid population growth, industrial development, and the beginnings of universal schooling coincided with reverberations from the stunning theory of evolution. Herbert Spencer stood at this crux. He drew on a range of new ideas and shaped a set of educational principles that became and have remained fundamental in the thinking of those who have had responsibility for our schools, even if their historical source has become invisible to those who hold them.

The historian of education Lawrence Cremin has described the 1890s as revolutionary for American education. He cites the influential books that appeared in that decade, including William James’s Principles of Psychology in 1890 and his Talks to Teachers on Psychology in 1899, Francis W. Parker’s Talks on Pedagogics in 1894, Edward L. Thorndike’s Animal Intelligence in 1898, and John Dewey’s School and Society in 1899. Cremin might have extended his time frame a little to include G. Stanley Hall’s two-volume Adolescence: Its Psychology and Its Relations to Physiology, Anthropology, Sociology, Sex, Crime, Religion, and Education in 1904. These “revolutionaries” had in common the fact that they were all profoundly influenced by Spencer’s work: “If the revolution had a beginning, it was surely with the work of Herbert Spencer” (Cremin 1961, 91). In the generation after Spencer’s death, it was uncontentious to claim for the collection of educational essays he wrote that “more than any other single text-book it is the foundation of all the so-called ‘modern’ ideas in education” (Samuel and Elliot 1917, 176).

“By the 1950s,” Cremin has also claimed, “the more fundamental tenets of the progressives had become the conventional wisdom of American education” (1976, 19). And many people today assert that our schools’ ineffectiveness is due precisely to the influence of these progressivist ideas. But those sympathetic to progressivism tend to be irritated by such statements, because from their point of view, schools and teaching are dominated by the same old dull approaches to education that they have been trying to change for more than a century. And they believe that our schools’ ineffectiveness is due precisely to the influence of these traditionalist ideas. Progressivism, in their view, has never been implemented. In the 1960s, Paul Goodman, echoing many before him and echoed since by many others, argued that as soon as attempts are made to apply progressivist ideas in schools, the ideas become “entirely perverted” (1964, 43); their radical nature first is watered down and then sinks into the persisting stale routines of the traditional classroom.

In this book I wish will to show incidentally that both of these claims—that progressivist ideas have become central to educational thinking and that they have never been implemented on a significant scale—are largely true.

What ideas make up progressivism? The central belief—the most fundamental tenet—of progressivism is that to educate children effectively it is vital to attend to children’s nature, and particularly to their modes of learning and stages of development, and to accommodate educational practice to what we can discover about these. That this belief is shared almost universally among educators today supports Cremin’s observation about how widely progressivism’s tenets have become the conventional wisdom of American education, and Western education generally. But it is precisely this belief that I shall will show is mistaken.

My argument will be unfamiliar, I think. I shall not be arguing against progressivism on the basis of the usual alternatives of “liberal” or “traditional” theories of education or because it is not adequately attuned to preparing students for jobs. My critique will be unfamiliar also, I suspect, because it will be coming from someone who has considerable sympathy with progressivist ideals.

Progressivism has historically involved a belief in attending to the nature of the child, and consequently its research arm (so to speak) has involved studies to expose that nature more precisely. Because the mind is prominent in education, psychology became the consistent scientific handmaiden of progressivism. The psychologist exposes the nature of students’ learning or development and the practitioner then must make teaching methods and curricula accord with what science has exposed. (“Education, therefore, must begin with a psychological insight into the child’s capacities. . . . It must be controlled at every point by reference to these same considerations. . . . The law for presenting and treating [educational] material is the law implicit within the child’s own nature” [Dewey 1964, 430, 435].)

One or another form of progressivism has been promoted and tried in the schools of North America since the beginning of mass schooling in the late nineteenth century. Progressivist practices have usually been promoted on the grounds that if only teachers will attend to the new knowledge gained by research about learning or development and follow what that research implies for teaching or curricula, an educational revolution will occur. In each new generation, progressivist educators have first to explain what was wrong with their predecessors’ attempts to implement the ideas—because the promised revolution consistently fails to occur—and then to explain why their new approach will do the job.

So we may see the attraction the work of the Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget (1896–1980) has had for progressivists. Piaget claimed to expose in a new and fuller way the nature of children’s intellectual development, and from his work progressivist educators sought to learn how to apply those insights to educational practice. Or we may see the attraction of the cognitive science research that Howard Gardner uses to support what he has described as his “sympathy with the vision generally termed ‘progressive'” (1991, 189). The problems with past attempts to implement progressivist ideas are, he thinks, reparable by drawing on “recent advances in our understanding of individual learning” (246).

My task, then, is to expose a flaw in what seem to me the most widely held beliefs among educators today. Although the ideas that I think are false are foundational to progressivism, they seem also to be held by many who might even consider themselves critics of progressivism—which is where Cremin’s observation about the movement’s tenets having become the conventional wisdom of American education comes in.

My subtitle includes some of the main figures whose work has shaped the modern forms of progressivism and modern conceptions of education. Of the three I mention, the least well known today is Herbert Spencer (1820–1903), whose crucial role in the formation of progressivism and whose influence on modern schooling seem to me much underestimated, for reasons I describe in Chapter 1. This may seem an oddly balanced work, in which Spencer receives the lion’s share of attention and John Dewey (1859–1952), for example, is represented as drawing significantly on Spencer’s work. Perhaps it might seem a little offensive to identify what is usually thought of as a quintessentially American movement as derived significantly from the work of another dead white European male. Causality in ideas is, of course, difficult to trace with any security. Spencer’s is certainly just one of many voices promoting not dissimilar ideas during those years on both sides of the Atlantic. Even so, although you may take the centrality of Spencer in my account as merely a kind of rhetorical stand-in for others, those constant reprintings of his book strongly suggest that it was his words that were most read. Spencer allied Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s somewhat romantic view of educating with the authority of science, showing how child-centeredness and science together could provide the engine that would modernize and transform education. Also, not entirely coincidentally, this emphasis on Spencer is a kind of backhanded homage on the centenary of his death in 1902.

But this is not a work of history. I do consider some historical figures, but only because it is sometimes easier to disinter the ideas that have been loaded with layers of complexity over the years by looking at their earlier appearance and then seeing how they have gradually transmuted into today’s presuppositions. It is a way of trying to make strange what is so familiar that we find it hard to think about. My topic is current education and how the persistence of powerful progressivist ideas continues to undermine our attempts to make schooling more effective.

“The world is largely ruled by ideas, true and false,” observed the American historian Charles A. Beard (1932, ix). He went on to quote a “British wit” to the effect that “the power which a concept wields over human life is nicely proportioned to the degree of error in it” (ix). We needn’t give in to such cynicism, of course, but the witty point pricks because it sometimes seems true. The power that Spencer’s ideas have wielded over educational thinking is a sharp example of just this point.

In Chapter 1, I outline some of the basic ideas of progressivism, showing their early expressions in the work of Herbert Spencer. I also consider the strange case of Spencer’s immense influence and almost vanished reputation. In Chapters 2 through 4, I look at progressivist ideas about learning, development, and the curriculum. In each case I begin with Spencer’s formulations—which will, I suspect, surprise many readers, as they may have come to take such ideas as obviously true and might even believe them to have been originally Dewey’s ideas. I show how such figures as Dewey and Piaget elaborated these ideas, how they have found their way into current practice, and how they have been wrong from their beginning and haven’t become any less wrong for a century’s reiteration. In Chapter 5, I argue that much modern educational research is flawed by related presuppositions to those I identify in progressivism. Throughout, I indicate the direction we need to move in to get beyond the pervasive flaw.

When I mentioned to a colleague the proposed title of this book–“Getting it wrong from the beginning”–he said cheerfully, “Ah, an autobiographical work!” I have indeed been trying for some years to work out a way of describing an alternative view of how we might better educate children in the modern world.This book may be seen as of companion to two others, the slim center between two larger chunks of text. The first of this trilogy of sorts is The Educated Mind: How Cognitive Tools Shape Our Understanding (University of Chicago Press, 1997), and the third is skulking under some aggressive, and provisional, title such as “How to Educate People” forthcoming from Yale University Press. All three explore related issues, and there are necessarily small overlaps in each of them. The books form part of a project to provide a fundamental critique of current educational theories and practice and to outline an alternative that might move us toward more effective schooling in modern societies. I want to make the case here that most of the beliefs most of the people hold about education today are wrong in fairly fundamental ways. But as my colleague, with the unfortunately damaged knees, declared, maybe I’m getting it wrong. But that’s for you to decide.



Leave a comment
  1. ChemistryPoet March 3, 2014 at 9:07 pm #

    Tim, do I have to read the book to find out how the ideas promulgated by Spencer et al were profoundly wrong then, and still are wrong? Alas, I can’t see myself doing that. Can’t you summarise the book’s findings? ( Go on).

  2. Harry Webb March 4, 2014 at 1:46 am #

    I commend your quest for precision. However, I think that there is a reason why many terms do get used interchangeably. I am one of the people that does this and I have explained my reasons for doing so. However, I would like to make another attempt here by way of a hypothetical.

    Imagine that in 1906 Mr George Egan opens a school. He bases his pedagogy on a key set of principles.

    1. Children naturally want to learn and yet schools beat this out of them (literally, because it is the age of corporal punishment) and by committing dull and pointless facts to memory.
    2. Left to learn naturally, children will develop, with appropriate scaffolding and exposure to books, the ability to read and an appropriate grammar.
    3. Given choices, children will choose to maximise what they learn and this learning will be deeper than that which is ‘delivered’ in other schools.
    4. Authoritarianism is undemocratic
    5. The best way to learn so that children develop a deep understanding is by involving them in work that is directly relevant to everyday life so that they can see the relevance of it.

    Egan writes a book and his pedagogy becomes known as ‘Eganism’.

    Imagine then that a number of schools follow Egan’s model and yet they fail. Further, over time, various refutations are made. For instance, evidence suggests that, given the choice, children do not choose to maximise what they learn, that reading rates in such schools decline and various scholars attribute this to the fact that learning to read is an artificial process that does not happen naturally. The emphasis on real-world contexts restricts what can be taught and how rapidly – it is like trying to learn to volley by playing football matches. The absence of factual learning hinders meaning-making – students can’t seek such knowledge as-and-when required because they don’t know what they don’t know. The lack of discipline leads to little engagement in learning and quite a lot of bullying i.e. in the absence of an imposed hierarchy, children create their own.

    Eganism is therefore largely abandoned.

    But then, in 1935, Maric Devashov comes along. He is a proponent of the new science of psychology. He applies this to education and comes up with some completely revolutionary conclusions. He makes the following proposals.

    1. The brain is hard-wired for learning.
    2. Meaning has to be negotiated and ‘dialogic’ and cannot be imposed from without. It is better for children to negotiate meaning through discourse with other children.
    3. Punishments cause a dislike of learning.
    4. Learning to read is more than simply decoding text. Given enough exposure, children will work out grammar for themselves, indeed, psychologists have shown that we are hard-wired to understand grammar.
    5. Children often fail to apply the rote facts and artificial procedrues that they learn in school to real-world situations and so there needs to be more emphasis on this.

    Clearly, Devashovism is a little different to Eganism. It uses different words. It emphasises group work.

    Critics of Devashovism point out the same issues as have been pointed out about Eganism. Devashovists object; Devashovism is different. Have you even read his books? Some schools adopt Devashov’s techniques but, because they are flawed, over time they fall into abeyance.

    Then, in the 1960s, a new school of thought develops around the International School of Education in Norwich. It is highly politicised and can be summarised as follows.

    1. The ruling class oppresses the working class through education. By teaching them rote, mindless facts, the ruling class ensures that children do not develop the capacity to question the status quo.
    2. This process starts with reading. By indoctrinating students into believing that there is a “right’ way to make meaning, we are teaching subservience. Better, to surround the child with books and facilitate them to make their own choices about what to read and how.
    3. Children learn about punishment at school as a microcosm of society. It teaches students to accept authority without question.
    4. Knowledge must start with a critical evaluation by the child of what is relevant to that child. Forcing children to learn about dead white males such as Shakespeare merely reinforces society’s hierarchical structures. Instead, we must engage in a critical dialogue with students to determine what they need to develop in order to be change agents in their communities.

    The ISEN model is clearly different to Devashovism, although it draws on some of the themes. A key difference, of course, if the focus on social class. Some commentators make criticisms of this model based on earlier criticisms of Eganism and Devashovism but they are branded out-of-touch and out-of-date and pretty much racist, fascist reactionaries who want to keep the masses down.

    Then, in 2001, the International Council on 21st Century Education is set-up. The world is changing faster than ever before. Knowledge is becoming redundant at a terrifying rate. The old careers are disappearing and we need to prepare students for the future. The council makes the following revolutionary proposals.

    1. There should be a greater emphasis on teaching students how to think critically about the world, rather than learning facts that are soon redundant.
    2. Writing is no longer a key skill, particularly spelling as computers can check spellings for you. Anyway, who’s to say that text-speak is incorrect?
    3. Given the appropriate technological resources, ipads etc. children will willingly engage in learning that is dynamic and self-directed. Just look at those computers that whatsisface stuck in walls in India.
    4. Given such self-directed learning, there will be no need for discipline, no requirement to regiment children by sitting them in rows. Students will be able to work on real-world projects that they have negotiated with their teachers.
    5. We need a completely new and revolutionary approach to teaching where teachers no longer consider themselves founts of knowledge but rather as guides and coaches.

    Clearly, this is different to Eganism, Devashovism, and the ISEN model. For a start, there is a new emphasis on new technology. However, it shares certain features. Many commentators suggest that there are flaws in this pedagogy; left to themselves, for instance, children do not necessarily maximise their learning etc. Such commentators are branded as old-fashioned and out-of-touch.

    To finally reach my point, I would suggest that the progressive education hydra is many-headed and that this serves a purpose. Once one model becomes falsified, a new one can be proposed under a different name and with slight differences to what has gone before. I don’t believe that this is any kind of conspiracy. Rather, I suspect, progressive education is actually quite intuitive for many people. Much like sex, each generation therefore thinks that they have invented it for themselves and they give it a new name, whether trying to root it in new technologies or psychology or whatever. However, the core romantic views about a naturalistic form of ‘useful’ education that idealises the child remain because they are, as I have said, quite intuitive. They just happen to be wrong.

    Definitional debates therefore seek to press ‘reset’ on all of the evidence and argument that has been accumulated over the years and start from scratch. This is obviously beneficial for pedagogies that such evidence does not support. However, they don’t serve the greater good of society.

    • Tim Taylor March 5, 2014 at 11:36 am #

      Thanks for your comment Harry. Thought-provoking as always.

      Personally I’m not in favour of monolithic theories in education. I find they polarise and over simplify the argument, forcing people to take sides unnecessarily. My instinct is to resist the reduction of complex ideas down to their bare essentials. Society is complex, it is ever shifting, ever changing, and human beings react and interact in response. Casting all ‘progressive’ ideas in education as essentially the same thing is convenient for debating but does not reflect the true way of things.

      I think you are trying to make two unsound arguments.

      The first is that all ‘progressive’ theories in education are essentially the same thing. You emphasis this point by demonising ‘progressive’ education as a monster, using the metaphor of a ‘many-headed Hydra’. Which I suppose is better than a Blob (at least a lot cooler).

      This is an argument Hirsch makes in the first chapter of the Knowledge Deficit, asserting that all ‘progressive’ theories are apples falling from the same poisoned tree: the poison being (as you say) – “the core romantic views of a naturalistic form of ‘useful’ education that idealises the child”.

      I didn’t find this argument convincing. I’m not a historian of education or a theorist, but I have, as a keen amateur, read a bit around the subject and everywhere I look the landscape is complex and multifaceted.

      We’ve discussed before whether I’m a ‘progressive’ or not and I’m reasonably happy to say I am, but not on the terms as defined by you and Hirsch. I don’t subscribe to a romantic view of childhood that idealises the child or to the idea that children are natural learners that need to be left alone, uncorrupted by adult interventions. My views are quite different. My opinion is that children need support, guidance, and teaching: that adult interventions are desirable and essential to children’s learning and development (including moral development) and that this is best done in a collaborative and respectful environment.

      Many of my views, certainly in terms of goals, do correspond to those held by ‘progressives’ (perhaps, as you say, intuitively), but essentially I am not in agreement with the core tenet of naturalism. So, am I no longer a ‘progressive’?

      This is the problem with the monolithic argument – trads v progs – it casts people on to either one side of the fence or the other, but in reality the fence fell down years ago and has been replaced by a swamp.

      The second part of your argument is that all ‘progressive’ education theories are both wrong and bad.

      To this second argument I’ll answer with a quote from E.D. Hirsch, who we both admire in our different ways:

      “there are many examples of the superior efficiency of explicit, focused instruction. How astonishing then if it should turn out that the most efficient way of learning thousands of word meanings is through an unconscious, automatic, and implicit process. Yet the weight of evidence indicates it is so. The proponents of naturalism in learning are not always wrong, it appears. It depends on what is to be learned.” (my italics) [p.63 The Knowledge Deficit].

      I really couldn’t have said it better myself.

      In my view education is a swamp (not a battlefield) and we are all struggling to find a way through. Let’s stop fighting each other and look for ideas that work, wherever they originate.

      • Harry Webb March 6, 2014 at 12:31 am #

        It is interesting that you pick the example of vocabulary acquisition. This is an entirely natural process, subject to evolution. Ever since humans began to talk, whenever that was, we have been acquiring vocabulary from each other. It is therefore no surprise that this has become automatized and that it can therefore be picked up implicitly. However, one of the key problems we face with educational disadvantage is that many students do not come from vocabulary-rich environments. If we then restrict the vocabulary that they are exposed to at school because of flawed notions about relevance or the idea that children must find things out for themselves, we then increase this problem and create an ever greater gap between the haves and the have-nots.

        Learning to read, write or do mathematics, however, are not natural processes at all. They have been invented relatively recently in human history and so we have evolved no mental architecture with which to pick them up implicitly. This is why discovery approaches such as whole language reading or inventing strategies in mathematics are intrinsically flawed. They can be mitigated, of course, but they are based on a mistaken view of learning.

        I have been very clear in arguing against specific examples of what I disagree with. Unfortunately, I think that some of definitional debates that I face come from a subconscious attempt to shut me down. The most obvious – to me – is the ire that I generate whenever I mention constructivism.

        Constructivism is, of course, a widely accepted view of how people learn. We assimilate new concepts into the landscape of what we already know. We relate new concepts to old ones rather than taking them on cold. There is nothing to argue with here and it is the reason why sensible teachers have always made use of analogies and examples.

        However, I can find *many* examples of people who imply methods of teaching from constructivist premises. For instance, this extremely popular book by John Van de Walle is for teachers and is all about why students should be required to invent their own strategies for solving mathematical problems rather than having the traditional algorithms imposed upon them, presumably without understanding:

        The rationale comes from constructivism. Under the heading “A constructivist view of learning” he states, “constructivism rejects the notion that children are blank slates. They do not absorb ideas as teachers present them. Rather, children are creators of their own knowledge.” So here we have constructivism used to imply both the impossibility of communication and the importance of discovery. And it goes on like this.

        It is therefore very tempting to call this a “constructivist” view of mathematics teaching. However, when I do so, people *fall over themselves* to remind me that constructivism is a theory of mind, not of teaching. I also happen to think that such pedagogical constructivists have not really derived their ideas from constructivism at all. Given that Dewey had very similar ideas, I think that this is part of a progressive theme and constructivism is a convenient new badge for progressive ideas to wear.

        Why is it so convenient? Whatever these people are, they can go around promoting their ideas as ‘scientific’ and based upon constructivism. As soon as criticism comes in about discovery learning etc. they can then state that constructivism is a theory of mind and has no pedagogical implications, so what are people going on about?

        Think of this: I was recently debating the specific issue of synthetic phonics. Yes, I do debate the specific issues; mine is not some diffuse point against progressivism in general. The reason I was taking part in this discussion was that Andrew Davis had written an article called “why synthetic phonics doesn’t work”. Do you find it at all surprising that Andrew Davis has also written against the national numeracy strategy and in favour of students having more control over the learning process in mathematics? I *would* be surprised if I found someone who was in favour of teaching algorithms in maths but who was against teaching synthetic phonics. In theory, these should be independent of each other, but in reality they are not. That is why there is a thing called “progressivism” that sits underneath and that motivates many of these specific ideas.

        As for yourself, progressivism is obviously a spectrum. You come across as quite moderate and I suspect you are definitely on the moderate wing of MoE. For instance, I cannot imagine you writing about textbooks in the way that Luke has done. However, the fact that it is a spectrum and that individual human beings have a tendency to be individual is not evidence that progressivism does not exist, does not have certain underlying principles and is not motivating much of educational ‘innovation’.

        • bt0558 March 9, 2014 at 12:50 pm #

          ‘The rationale comes from constructivism. Under the heading “A constructivist view of learning” he states, “constructivism rejects the notion that children are blank slates. They do not absorb ideas as teachers present them. Rather, children are creators of their own knowledge.” So here we have constructivism used to imply both the impossibility of communication and the importance of discovery. And it goes on like this.’

          Harry…..the quotes you supply do not imply anything of the sort. I haven’t got time to read around the context so it may be there that you find this implication. I have had this exact conversation with you in the past but you continue to make the same statements.

          Just as when you read these quotes you interpret them and absorb them depending on your existing knowledge, opinions etc so does everyone.

          The “impossibility of communication” is not implied when I read this. What is clearly stated (rather than implied) is that the message received and stored may not be the message that the teacher had in mind when sending it. This isn’t rocket science it is about basic communication. Simple messages accurately transmitted may be accurately received but incorrectly interpreted. Some messages will be sent, received and stored perfectly.

          The quotes do not imply anything to do with discovery. It matters not whether a person in presented with information from an expert or finds that same information by discovering it for themselves, the learning will be the same.Learning is not about how the information is presented, it is about how it is absorbed.

          Surely some knowledge will be better presented by a teacher, especially when considering efficiency. It is obvious that for some learners, discovering some knowledge effectively and accurately may be impossible or very difficult.

          ‘Why is it so convenient? Whatever these people are, they can go around promoting their ideas as ‘scientific’ and based upon constructivism. As soon as criticism comes in about discovery learning etc. they can then state that constructivism is a theory of mind and has no pedagogical implications, so what are people going on about?’

          You seem to have a very solipsistic view of things. I don’t think “progressivism” is a spectrum, that would be too simple. I think it is a multi-dimensional array.

          “Constructivism” and “constructionism” are also used in ways that make them confusing. If I define “constructivism” in the way that you often describe/define it then I agree with you 100%, however I do not understand it the same way you do.

          As soon as people start to talk about discovery learning as being necessary because learners construct their own knowledge they lose my support. If people start to suggest that discovery learning is never a good approach whatever the subject, whoever the learner and whatever the context they lose my support.

          Unlike you I would not presume to suggest that I can speak generally for the human population. I can speak only for myself. I consider my views to be based on “constructivist” ideas. I do not believe that “construcvtivist” teaching methods can be dismissed out of hand as some of them work well with my ideas of constructivist learning.

          If you would just state simply, in your own words your definition for “constructivism” then I could tell you whether I agree or disagree.

          However you seem to wish to take the term “constructivism” as a learning theory, extend it to some notion of “pedagogy” to justify it’s use and then extend the thing further by referring to “progressivism” you seem to me to lose the plot. You seem to want to rant about people having different interpretations of the concepts but then use those different interpretations to justify your arguments about progressivism.

          How about we say constructivism_1 = a therory of assimilating and accomodating new info
          How about we say constructivism_2 = theory of teaching which purports to respond to communication_1
          How about we say progressivism = that advances in science, technology, economic development, and social organization can improve the human condition

          We might then be able to discuss each and if really necessary consider one in terms of the others.

  3. bt0558 March 5, 2014 at 7:21 pm #

    “there are many examples of the superior efficiency of explicit, focused instruction. How astonishing then if it should turn out that the most efficient way of learning thousands of word meanings is through an unconscious, automatic, and implicit process. Yet the weight of evidence indicates it is so. The proponents of naturalism in learning are not always wrong, it appears. It depends on what is to be learned.” (my italics) [p.63 The Knowledge Deficit].

    As you suggest Tim, wise words indeed.

    In dealing with these issues we are all learners and like you I am happy to look to any sources of inspiration and illumination.

    Great post and thought provoking comments from Harry and yourself.

  4. @manyanaed March 5, 2014 at 8:03 pm #

    “It depends on what is to be learned.” So what learning is better by naturalistic learning than by “explicit, focused instruction”?

    • Tim Taylor March 5, 2014 at 9:06 pm #

      Making meaning, according to Hirsch. Re. The Knowledge Deficit.

      • @manyanaed March 5, 2014 at 9:08 pm #

        What, *all* making meaning?

    • Harry Webb March 6, 2014 at 8:37 am #

      The point is that the things we can learn naturally are the things that we have evolved to learn e.g. vocabulary. We have had to learn vocabulary ever since our ancestors started talking so this process has been automatised, made implicit and acted on by evolution. Doing maths, reading and writing, on the other hand, are pretty recent human inventions and so we have no mental apparatus for learning these implicitly.

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