Wednesday, 1 February 2012

Two interesting and neglected writers on education

Karl Popper 1902-94
Who were the mystery philosophers whose quotations I listed in two recent posts?  The first was Karl Popper, known mostly as a philosopher of science, who died in 1994, and the second was Tyrrell Burgess, a teacher, activist, and writer on the British education system, who died in 2009.  Until recently I had no idea that Popper had written about education - indeed, that he formulated a distinct and very interesting 'Evolutionary' theory of learning, some idea of which can be seen from the quotations I used.  Burgess was influenced powerfully by Popper while teaching at the London School of Economics, and he tried to put Popper's theories into practice when developing a teacher training programme based on Popper's ideas, at North East London Polytechnic (NELP), in the 1970s and 80s.  Burgess, of whom I have been unable to find a picture, became Professor of the Philosophy of Social Institutions at the University of East London, which NELP was transformd into in 1987.  He was a strong advocate of comprehensive schools, and a lifelong opponent of selection.

I came across them both recently in a terrific new book aiming to spread their ideas about the organisation of education, and in particulr about approaches to curriculum.  This is Learning, Teaching and Education Research in the 21st Century: an evolutionary analysis of the role of teachers, by Joanna Swann (Continuum 2012).  It is a very clearly-written account of Popper's evolutionary theory of knowledge and education, and of its implications for practice.  Popper argues that although the objective world exists, we can only ever have imperfect knowledge of it, and learning (indeed the practice of living) consists of a continuous process of identifying problems, creating hypotheses for addressing or solving these problems, and then testing the hypotheses to find out whether or not they are correct.  Our hypotheses can be found to be false (if our results contradict them), but they can never be proved to be true, as it is always possible that contradictory evidence will be found in the future.  Learning is therefore a process of identifying as many false theories as possible, and coming up with as many hypotheses that have not yet been proved false, as possible.

The implications of this are radical, as quotations like these demonstrate:

The process of learning, of the growth of subjective knowledge, is always fundamentally the same. It is imaginative criticism.

There are no subject matters, no branches of learning - or rather, of inquiry: there are only problems, and the urge to solve them.

Education should be organised wholly around, not the notional 'transmission' of a fixed and agreed body of knowledge (which Popper argues hardly exists anyway), but around the skills of perceiving the world as a series of problems, creating sensible theories and hypotheses for solving these problems, and then testing these theories and hypotheses.  In a word, there should be no pre-conceived curricula, and education should be organised around collaborative research projects, on subjects and topics chosen by students.  The teachers' role is to facilitate the selection of suitable projects and problems, and to guide students in their researches.

I really like these ideas, which align nicely with my thoughts about craft and professional learning, and also with the best research findings on effective learning, which emphasise the importance of students' motivation and engagement with the content of learning, and of being active rather than passive in the learning process.  In particular, Joanna Swann has a chapter using this theoretical framework to argue against prescribed curricula in schools and colleges, the paradigm of this being the English National Curriculum for schools.  It so happens that I am  in the middle of teaching a module on curriculum theory and design at this very moment, and I am going to give this chapter to my students: it is directly relevant to their assignment.

I am embarrassed that I didn't know about this significant body of theory before, though I have an idea that Popper, judging by his style of writing, may have made himself pretty unpopular with his academic colleagues - he seems in the couple of chapters I have recently read to be trying to pick fights with people perceived as critics rather than colleagues, in almost every line!

I want to think some more about Joanna Swann's book before posting some more on it.  In particular I want to compare the ideas in it with those of Daniel Kahneman, in Thinking, fast and slow (Allen Lane 2011), which I have read about half of so far.  This is a book about the psychology of decision-making, how we learn to make better decisions, and it also takes an evolutionary perspective.  So I mean to write some more about this sometime soon.

One of those strange coincidences, when something strikes you, and then more or less at the same time gets echoed from a completely different angle, making you think that maybe it wasn't a coincidence (thought this is very likely indeed to be a false conclusion).  I was checking out books written by Tyrrell Burgess, and found that, inspired like me by Ambrose Bierce, he published a book called The Devil's Dictionary of Education!  (See my post of 21st October last year, not that I've done much about it since!)  Though this is only a coincidence, it suggests to me that Tyrrell Burgess was my kind of person!  Here is a brilliant joke from it:

Art History: n. numbing by painters (credited to M.Burgess)

It would be tempting but lazy to give up the idea of collecting my own collection of 'Devil's definitions' about education and just cite examples from Burgess's book.  What I will do is think about my own and then see if (a) he has included the same word or phrase at all and (b) whether his take on it is different in ny way.  It occurs to me that some such words might also appear in Keywords by Raymond Williams (OUP 1985), and if they do I will compare Williams's definition also.

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