Major Findings from Educational Psychology

A sort of greatest hits one-line summaries from educationalists like   Dewey, Bereiter, Piaget, Egan, Vygotsky and more. Sorry for the lack of context, will try to expand on some of these in the future. Another way to say it is that these are the things I believe.

New knowledge must be connected to old knowledge, and then applied.

Humans are social in nature and learn best interactively.

The mind has a developmental imperative that cannot be ignored.

Education should be all about individual development, not societal selection.

The purpose of school is to help young people live in the present and prepare them for the future.

Learning that ignores the emotions and the society of learners is not true learning.

True education possesses a rhythm that is composed of two beats: freedom and discipline. Both are needed.

School should give students an array of authentic, powerful, cultural and cognitive tools.

Schools now have contradictory goals: academic excellence, individual development, and socialization.

Students should work on real problems that encourage them to figure out the world they live in.

Educators need a far more sophisticated model of understanding and knowledge.

Thinking, productive, strenuous, creative thought, must be at the heart of instruction.

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Educating the Whole Child

David Stow began his work in education in his Glasgow Sunday school in 1816. He was strongly critical of the education of his time. He stressed that effective education must be about much more than instruction. It must be concerned with the whole man. With apologies for the sexist language:

Man is not all head, feeling, or all animal energy. He is a compound being, and must be trained as such….The most influential and successful mode of cultivating the child is, therefore, the daily and simultaneous exercise of his intellectual physical, and moral powers.

Ahh, the old-timers knew what they were talking about!

Still the Best Guarantee

The single best guarantee of ensuring a successful, fulfilling life for a young person is still a rigorous, well-rounded liberal arts education. That is a bit miraculous, given the scale and pace of the current social, economic, and technological changes we are witnessing. But it is true.

 

A brief rationale: knowledge remains the key to academic and professional success nowadays, but not in its pure form. As they say, it’s not what you know, it’s what you can do with the knowledge. But that is precisely the goal of a quality liberal arts education: to teach young people “The best which has been thought and said,” as Matthew Arnold described the cultural canon, and simultaneously to familiarize them with the ways in which educated people think about, discuss, critique, and generally engage with the ideas and issues that have formed civilization. There can be no greater task and challenge for both educators and students, there is no conceivable cognitive, aesthetic, emotional or social capability or sensibility that a truly excellent liberal arts education cannot provide.

Does the classical paradigm need to be brought into the 21st century? Absolutely. Far more women, people of color, the voices of the common people and dispossessed…all must be put firmly into the core of the canon if the liberal arts are to retain their relevance in modern times. And some heartfelt mea culpas would not be inappropriate either. Just as importantly, the humanities need to explore new ways to respond to the digital age. It very well might be that the age of print is behind us: so what shall lovers of Dickinson and Flaubert do, hide away in libraries waiting for the world to end? Young people today are more in need of the insights and experiences of history’s greatest writers, thinkers, and artists than ever before. The question is how to get them interested in slow, subtle and deliberate thinking and feeling when their devices are leading them in precisely the opposite direction.

Above all, we should never forget the shining core and promise of a genuinely deep, broad humanistic education: to ‘educare’ , “lead out”, from every learner, in consonance with the contours of the most profound ideas, art, and language of our civilization, their intellectual and aesthetic best. Education is for eternity, not just to get a job.

The Purpose of Learning Content

Carl Bereiter tells us that the real function of formal instruction is to give young people enough knowledge that they can build their own comprehensive and coherent understanding of the world. This is worth rolling around in our mind. It is decidedly a constructivist view of education. There are many implications here; one is that mastering the content of the curriculum is NOT the real end goal of instruction. There is a higher, supervening goal, one not controlled by the teacher. Learning subject matter is an indirect consequence of trying to understand, really understand, how the world works.

 

The Most Important Skills

An alien comes to your door and asks, “What are the most important academic dispositions and capabilities you want to teach your children? Please use very simple language!” My answers are: 1) the habit of daily, sustained and critical reading; 2) the desire and ability to write smooth, thoughtful, and creative prose in a variety of genres; 3) the capacity and willingness to engage in intelligent discourse, listening carefully and offering one’s own opinions without fear and 4) underlying all these performative acts their wellspring: the ability and disposition to think logically, creatively, and practically. I hesitate to say whether this brief and simple list has ever been taken in its pure form as the blueprint for an actual educational programme.

Teaching the Insistent Now

Schools have traditionally been far too focused on the past. Alfred North Whitehead referred to the “insistent present”, and he reminded us that the present world we are living in is all that exists. The primary purpose of school is to prepare young people to live in the current age and the near future, which they will have to survive in. This does not mean that history or classic literature are not valuable; they are.  But they derive their fundamental worth from how they prepare us to understand and thrive in the modern world. Educators, including those responsible for creating educational policy as well as administrators, have not sufficiently understood this fundamental truth. All students should be afforded the opportunity to study current events, global challenges such as the climate crisis and socioeconomic inequality, and modern movements and societal and technological trends such as AI and automation that promise to profoundly impact their lives in the very near future. To reiterate: this should be considered a basic human and generational right of young people, not to be infringed upon for any reason.