It’s unrealistic to generalize that ANY system would work for everyone.
Judy Yero

Hi Judy, thanks for explaining your thinking so clearly. I feel like, in my frustration, I haven’t been nearly as clear myself. Let me try to step back and explain my issues with the progressive education movement a little better.

As a scientist, I have an aversion to black boxes. A black box is a system which can be viewed in terms of inputs and outputs, but we have no idea what is actually happening inside. I believe that, in an effort to make sense of the world around me, I should try to shine a light into as many black boxes as I can. Unexamined black boxes represent blind spots, and the most powerful learning occurs when we uncover our own blind spots.

I have many, many criticisms about traditional education. One of them is how policymakers treat classrooms and learning as black boxes. Think about standards-based education and standardized testing. What is the theory of action? If we increase accountability, teachers and students will do the right thing and learning will improve. We have no idea what “the right thing” actually is and we don’t care. The teachers and students either already know it and aren’t doing it because there’s no accountability—or they will figure it out when we apply pressure on them. What is the theory of action around charter schools? Let’s apply market forces. Again, we have no idea what is happening inside classrooms or in learning and we don’t care. The teachers and students will figure it out.

Even if you agree with those two theories of action, the lack of curiosity on the part of the policymakers is a huge problem. What if teachers and students aren’t able to figure it out? What if there are parts of the system the policymakers can change that are preventing the teachers and students in the system from doing “the right thing”? The lack of curiosity is disturbing. It could prevent any of these theories of actions from working, and it could prevent policymakers from finding a theory of action that might work.

Okay, let’s now talk about progressive education. Progressive educators also treat learning as a black box. Here is their theory of action: let’s give the learner agency so he/she can pursue his/her own personal interests, making learning both relevant and engaging. If learning is relevant and engaging enough, the learner will overcome all obstacles and learn what is necessary. We don’t need to know or care how the learner overcomes those obstacles and manages to learn. If we provide enough support and encouragement, the learner will eventually find something he/she is so passionate about that learning will just happen. Once the learner learns that he/she can overcome any obstacle and learn anything he/she wants, his/her core beliefs shift and the learner develops a new mindset as a lifelong learner. Again, we have no insight on what this shift looks like or how it happens. It’s all inside a black box—all we have to do is support and encourage the learner to pursue goals that are highly engaging and relevant, the learner will figure out and do the rest.

The progressive educator’s theory of action is more concrete and there’s more insight into the black box. That’s all good. This is a very good start. But this is the same theory of action and the same insights into the black box we had 100 years ago with Dewey. It doesn’t bother you that we haven’t gained any more insight into the black box or refined our theory of action? (By the way, this theory of action failed when Dewey tried it. It seems like it would be a good idea to learn from that and make some improvements!)

Now, it is obviously impossible to gain full insight into any learner’s process. We will never make the black box transparent. But something feels highly dysfunctional when thousands of people work intimately with a black box for 100 years and we make no effort to gain any understanding about its inner workings. For me, that signals a profound lack of curiosity, and any educator who lacks curiosity is an ineffective educator in my mind. Does my desire to probe black boxes reflect an unhealthy desire developed during my formal training as a scientist? Is looking into black boxes bad? Perhaps. I’m willing to entertain that possibility, but it drives me crazy not to try to look into black boxes.

In Seeking Mountains; Will Travel and Triple-Loop Learning, I try to analyze what self-actualized learning looks like from the outside and the inside. Do I understand the black box? Not at all. But this is my attempt to understand the black box—and I believe the attempt is crucial. Without this curiosity, I would be a terrible learner myself. You can find an earlier but more detailed version of my thinking in Why We Should Learn Vertically.

By the way, Seymour Papert also believed in trying to peer into black boxes. You can find his analysis of the black box in Mindstorms and his work on Logo. And Sugata Mitra does not share Papert’s belief—his work is in direct contradiction to what Papert wrote in Mindstorms. According to Papert, the materials children find on the internet are the products of a mathophobic culture. Using those materials will only perpetuate mathophobia. Papert’s entire thesis was that, to encourage children to develop powerful ideas, we must build Mathland materials which don’t currently exist. These materials must be carefully designed to embody powerful ideas in a form children can relate to. Children need to start by exploring powerful ideas with their bodies so they develop intuitions, then with their eyes, and finally through language. Sugata Mitra ignores all of that. Progressive educational theory is not evolving. The work that Papert did to move the theory forward is being misrepresented by progressive educators.

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