Friday, October 09, 2009

The Primacy of Method

The progressive education goal of teaching students how to think, as opposed to teaching them a particular content, does not mean that content is omitted or ranked third, fourth, or fifth in the hierarchy. It does not even mean that content is ranked second, for as John Dewey put it in one of his occasional business metaphors, subject matter is the working capital of thought. Taken literally, a business is not viable if it does not have working capital. In Dewey’s usage, the metaphor means: no subject matter, no thought.

If learning how to think conceptually—in principles and without a dichotomy between abstractions and concretes—is correctly taught, content must be included to have something to think conceptually about. The key point about primacy of method is that the content does not have to be any particular content or “core curriculum.” This is in contrast to traditional education that puts curriculum first.

This is also not to say that teaching how to think is not a subject matter in its own right. It is. The principles of logical thinking, generalization, application, and the creative process are content that can and should be taught throughout secondary and higher education. The problem is that the progressive movement of the twentieth century never rigorously taught the principles of thinking. In its place it put poorly designed and controlled group projects, a barrage of failed reforms, and often little if any well-organized content.

Nevertheless, the primacy of method, or teaching students how to think well, is the essential distinguishing characteristic of progressive education when it is compared to the traditional or conservative form. Indeed, the aim of the great education reformers in history, beginning with Quintilian and even including the Jesuits, was, as formulated by Rousseau, to see the child as a child, not as a smaller version of the adult. This means in particular to see the child’s mind as a child’s mind, hence the need for specialized techniques to develop young thought processes. It includes being nice to the child and catering to the child’s interests.

“Being nice” can be viewed as symbolic of the progressive emphasis on the “whole child.” The two phrases, however, mean a lot more than the clich├ęd versions sound. They emphasize, in addition to not physically or mentally punishing the child, the need to be aware of the child’s psychology and to encourage the adoption of life-advancing self-confident premises. The extended meaning of “whole child” is the development of an unobstructed mental and emotional life that produces independent, not just sound, judgment. Content must be there in the child’s brain, but stuffing it or furnishing the “empty vessel” with a prescribed core curriculum is not the primary goal of education. Teaching students sensible decision making (sound judgment) and the ability to perceive facts as facts and, more importantly, especially in the face of opposition, the willingness to act on those facts (independent judgment) is. Content follows, driven by parent and student, not bureaucratic, interest.

When parents and students are allowed to determine content by buying and abstaining from buying the services of entrepreneurial teachers who are unhampered by the dictates of educational bureaucrats, a system of progressive education can be fully achieved. It is for this reason that I would describe the theory of concentrated attention and independent judgment detailed in Montessori, Dewey, and Capitalism as a theory of progressive education without the state. Interference of the state in education—by forcibly dictating what will be learned and how it will be learned, by forcibly expropriating funds from some to pay for the education of others, and by forcibly compelling children to attend school at all—thwarts and destroys the aim of catering to the needs and interests of the child. Only a free market in education that bans the initiation of physical force against parents, students, and entrepreneurs would make it possible for this aim to be accomplished.

Primacy of method means that education is aimed at the development of the mind. A mind well trained in the functions that are its distinctive nature, namely the correct perception and evaluation of the facts of reality and the guidance of behavior based on those correct perceptions and evaluations, is a mind that has been trained in method. It is one that has been taught how to think. Content is acquired and accumulated in the process but it is not primary.

1 comment :

David said...

"When we opened Sudbury Valley School, basically there was nothing in the school except the rooms. We did have a playroom for which we bought some toys because we just couldn’t get ourselves to believe that you didn’t have to have some toys for the kids. Every single toy we bought was either trashed within a few months or converted into something else! Yet the games that go on in the school are the most intricate that you could possibly imagine. Games are creations of the imagination and these kids are learning how to think twenty-four hours a day. Having courses in schools to teach kids how to think is just so much nonsense! They think just fine without the help of any educational gimmicks."

[Excerpt, The Birth of a New Paradigm for Education, by Daniel Greenberg, The Sudbury Valley School Journal.]

"Interpersonal interactions aside, the main work of students while at Sudbury Valley has always been practicing the construction of working models of the world. These models are not merely static structures, but also include within them the means of dealing with change, of solving problems, and of inventing new challenges. To be sure, industrial-era schools also have become adept in recent years at talking about "problem-solving", "teaching children how to think", etc. But these schools always view such activities from the vantage point of Industrial Era Thinking, as routines that can be taught, much as any other mechanical skill. Thus we find in the modern curriculum such absurdities as training or testing for creativity (as if this can be defined and measured), or an algorithm for solving problems (a contradiction in terms, since a problem is not a real problem if an algorithm exists for solving it, but rather a tautology).

In fact, human beings do not have to be taught how to think, or how to build world models, or how to solve problems or be creative. Nature created us with these skills as inborn possessions of each person, and it takes only time, patience, and freedom to have these skills develop to their fullest potential, without outside "help". The most striking example of man's natural propensity for reducing the surrounding world to a meaningful model is the behavior of two-year-olds ("the terrible twos") who have just begun to gain mobility and verbalization. Children of that age are indefatigable and all but unstoppable in their drive to conquer their surroundings. They need no "motivation" from "teachers", no "classes", no tests or progress reports, no unsolicited evaluations. They plow on regardless of the obstacles placed in their way, and never give up unless their will is brutally broken. They may seek assistance from adults, but they need no spur to ask for help -- indeed, one often wishes they would desist just for a moment."

[Excerpt, The Meaning of Education, from Worlds in Creation, by Daniel Greenberg.]