Thanks, David-
Judy Yero

Hi Judy, I agree with much of what you say, but I have to push back on black boxes.

Lifelong learners are fueled by curiosity. We see something, we want to understand it. How does that toaster work? Well, let me take it apart and figure it out. Maybe I can build something else.

As a classroom teacher, I was surrounded by walking and talking black boxes. They were so unique and puzzling—I had to study and learn about them. While full transparency was an impossibility, I did gain insight into individual students over time. And as I learned things about individual students, I started to look for commonalities and construct theories. This wasn’t an attempt to standardize my practice. I loved connecting with and puzzling out individual students. I left my PhD program in chemical engineering precisely because a student is a much more fun and intriguing puzzle to explore!

The examination of black boxes, the search for commonalities, the sense making and theory building—these are all behaviors of a vertical learner. It has nothing to do with learning something functionally useful; it’s about making sense of something puzzling in our environment. Anyone working closely with students—guiding their learning—should exhibit this curiosity themselves. I don’t detect this curiosity in progressive educators when they write about learning; they seem to prefer leaving the black box unexamined.

I agree that more research should be done to qualitatively describe the “other factors” you mention, but given the variability of the human mind, I’m afraid such knowledge would lead to yet another attempt to “simplify” the process so it will work for everyone…NOT!

Now maybe progressive educators have grown wary of examining black boxes because they know that any theories constructed will be simplified and standardized. We both know that’s exactly what will happen—it’s the age-old story of education in this country.

But the answer isn’t stubbornly refusing to examine black boxes because insights will be distorted and abused; the answer is looking into the black box of why that always happens and doing something about it!

I believe the reluctance to examine black boxes and the habit of simplifying theories and reducing them to watered-down recipes spring from the same source. Why don’t we want to examine black boxes? When we open up and try to look inside a black box, the contents are messy and confusing. We feel like we’ll never make sense of it, so we slam it shut and look away. Why do we oversimplify theories? Because a full and unfiltered theory is messy and confusing and we feel like we’ll never make sense of it. So we reduce it to a few simple rules and adages and call it a day.

If we do nothing else as educators, we should strive to encourage learners to open up and look inside black boxes. They’re not scary. Their complexity is a source a wonder and we should marvel at what we can learn.

I really appreciate your taking the time to explain your thinking and help me to clarify and explain my own. It’s been enlightening! :)