With instructionist education throwing up its hands in the face of the pandemic and the ‘education industrial complex’ peddling the same old information-centric instructionalism that drives home-bound teens to sedition and insurgency, it seems appropriate to ask “what should we build instead?”
Yet despite the itch to make something new, even our well intentioned first instincts are likely to point us in the wrong direction. As Paul Rand famously observed, “The public is more familiar with bad design than good design. It is, in effect, conditioned to prefer bad design, because that is what it lives with. The new becomes threatening, the old reassuring.”
This is just as true for education, as Paulo Freire cautioned. Ask most parents about their own experience with school (not with their pals or their favorite teachers, but their overall academic experience) and you’ll often get a tepid saga of boredom, frustration, irrelevance, and dissatisfaction. Yet ask those same parents about their kids breaking away from tradition to try something new, and you’ll witness suspicion, resistance, and a vindication of those ‘old ways’ likely to contain the phrases “I turned out okay” or “it builds character….” Many teachers and school leaders demonstrate this same cognitive dissonance.
An edifice systematically built on the foundation of F.W. Taylor’s “scientific management,” the misguided application of standardization, and the emphasis on testing and human ‘data’ originally developed during the Second World War has come crashing down under the weight of something so small you can’t even see it: a virus.
Of course, had that edifice been as solid and sturdy as it pretended, it would have taken far more to bring it down. Its solidity was always illusory, and its slipshod construction had been increasingly on display. No one should have been surprised that it all fell to rubble, yet many educators, administrators, parents, and legislators seem to have been blindsided.
In my last article, I described two kinds of educational approach: the “Platonic,” that prizes “pure” abstract or conceptual information, and the “Aristotelian,” that focuses on embodiment and application of knowledge in learning-by-making and real-world contexts. In other words, it’s the difference between instruction and construction as teaching strategies. As I discussed, these approaches represent a dichotomy in today’s educational practice. However, they’re not evenly distributed. Despite copious evidence to support a more “Aristotelian” approach, the “Platonic” approach prevails in schools throughout much of the world. Instruction has eclipsed construction. And this poses a profound challenge for our collective future that most educators haven’t even considered….
In a previous edition of my career, when I was a professor of literature and literary theory, I used to tell my students that much of literary history could effectively be seen as an argument between Plato and Aristotle….
Plato believed in an absolute “reality” that exists outside of human perspective and experience — a perfect realm of universal “forms” that shape and give meaning to everything. He believed that the physical universe around us is an inferior, decaying shadow of these forms — nothing but a poor copy. Since only a few “elect” people can see beyond the distracting surface of the material universe, most people don’t really understand what’s important. And what’s important is not the concrete, physical world, but only the “abstract” one that hides beyond it in the perfect, ethereal plane. Human creation (whether by art, skill, or application) is merely another distraction associated with the inferiority of this material world: it’s okay for the “lesser” people, but not appropriate for those “elites” who know what’s what.
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