As long as this is so vague and ill-defined, education will not improve. Most people understand we learn better when we are engaged and have agency. That’s not controversial at all. However, most people also believe only some students are ready to direct their own learning; they believe most students need guidance and some adult supervision. If anything, the free democratic schools you mention only reinforce this conventional wisdom.
What does it take to prepare students to direct their own learning? What do these curated enriched learning environments look like? How do they work? Unless we start answering these questions and can demonstrate that any random student can be ready to direct their own learning after a few years of support, the discourse won’t move forward. Progressive educators will continue to argue for self-directed learning, and most parents, teachers, and school administrators will continue to shake their heads.
Here is my frustration: Over a hundred years after John Dewey wrote My Pedagogic Creed, The School and Society, The Child and The Curriculum, and Democracy and Education, our mental model still looks like this—
- Engagement + agency
- Powerful learning!
Why haven’t any more of the details been filled in? I’m not talking about one-size-fits-all programs we can pull off the shelf; I’m talking about theory. How does step 1 lead to step 3? What are the underlying mechanisms?
In 1980, Seymour Papert tried to fill in some of the gaps in Mindstorms. He argued that, because we grow up in an unhealthy learning culture, most of us don’t create powerful ideas—we internalize the belief that only a select few are even capable of understanding, never mind creating, powerful ideas.
In his experiments with Logo, Papert demonstrated any child could learn differential geometry if the power of differential geometry is embodied in tangible material the child can relate to. Learning was as easy and natural as a child learning French in France.
Now, I’m not saying Papert was right. What I am saying is that he developed a hypothesis and tested it. He made a rigorous attempt to revise our mental model, to make the theory stronger and the underlying mechanisms clearer. But guess what happened? No one remembers Papert’s actual thesis in Mindstorms! Now he is remembered as a champion of engagement, agency, and self-directed learning—the exact same mental model we had before any of his work. And it’s not as though people actually disagreed with or refuted what he wrote; they simply oversimplified what he wrote until his thesis was indiscernible.
A little alarm goes off in my head when one of my mental models is opaque and I can’t make sense of how all the pieces fit together. A much louder alarm goes off in my head when I discover myself refusing to take basic steps to examine one of my mental models which is opaque. As far as I can tell, this is what is happening in progressive education. Not only is the model the same after 100 years, we are actively pretending that the revisions proposed by people like Papert don’t exist—we don’t see or acknowledge them. That’s not right.