From Instruction to Construction: What Does “Platonic” Teaching Teach?

William Rankin
Feb 8 · 11 min read

Pink Floyd’s 1979 The Wall presented a harrowing vision of the “educational industrial complex”

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….

Why does instructionism pose a threat? Because these differences in educational approach involve far more than differences in how teachers understand and manage information in a classroom. Fundamentally, they generate different cultures and different ways of shaping and assimilating learners. This means that people see and understand the world, their place in it, and even their own identity differently depending on which learning culture they’ve experienced. It should hardly be surprising, therefore, that when people begin their lives and careers after school, they tend to replicate the cultural approach they’ve spent the first two decades (or more) of their lives learning. And that’s the reason we need to consider very seriously the broader and ongoing impacts that each of these educational approaches has on society in general.

What’s the most essential cultural difference between instruction and construction, between “Platonic” and “Aristotelian” educational approaches? It’s the difference between a culture of hierarchical fragmentation and a culture of communal collaboration. To show how and why these differences exist, let’s first consider how Plato portrays teachers and teaching in his own writing….

Although the “Platonic” instructionist approach’s abstract and non-material emphasis on “pure” information might initially suggest otherwise, its structure is inherently hierarchical rather than universal. One doesn’t have to spend much time reading Plato’s “Socratic dialogues” to see this in stark relief. Throughout his writings, the teacher is the sole possessor of insight, wisdom, and knowledge. The students, on the other hand, are a bunch of dolts. So there’s really not much genuine dialogue in Plato’s work because true dialogue requires mutuality — and mutuality with dolts would do a disservice to the “truth.” The students in these works — even those who’ve studied and might seem knowledgable about a topic — are universally deceived. They’re misguided practitioners of faulty thinking who’ve been seduced by a flawed understanding of what’s “real.” By not perceiving what’s beyond the surfaces on which they’ve mistakenly focused, these students have accepted a bunch of falsehoods without even realizing it. So whether it’s Glaucon foolishly thinking art is okay (it’s a bunch of deceptive lies!) or Phædrus foolishly thinking rhetoric and writing are okay (it’s a bunch of deceptive lies!), Plato’s dialogues construct a clear hierarchy. What’s needed to clean up the mess of human folly is clear thinking, and there’s only one figure capable of that: the teacher. Elevated by a superior understanding, the “Platonic” teacher rises to the highest stratum. All others are inferior.

The rationale behind this hierarchical structure is consistent throughout Plato’s work. In his view, most people in the world simply serve to gum up the works. Like the slaves chained up in Plato’s famous cave, most of us only accept the false world of shadows. Worse, we’re not interested in anything else. In fact, every once in a while, when a special person is inexplicably released from those chains and able to move into “pure” knowledge about the universe, the first instinct most of us rabble have is to shut that person down. In the “myth of the cave,” for instance, the other prisoners kill their newly enlightened former companion upon his return. Take a moment to consider that: insight in Plato’s approach creates not only a hierarchy, but an adversarial hierarchy at that.

The majority of people, trapped in their unenlightened allegiance to the material world, pose a serious threat to those who’ve come to know the world “as it truly is” — a collection of abstract, pure forms. And the danger implicit in this division of people only serves to justify and further reinforce the need for a hierarchy. It’s a safeguard. In fact, it’s the first cornerstone of the “ivory tower.”

They choose it because it’s baked into the industrialized system of published learning materials and standardized testing — the “educational industrial complex”

Few teachers today choose to be “Platonic” instructionists because of some profound philosophical interest or because they disdain the material world. Plato just isn’t that popular these days. They choose instructionism because it’s baked into the industrialized system of published learning materials and standardized testing — the “educational industrial complex” — that dominates today’s educational climate. Indeed, “Platonic” teachers often recognize the value of real-world projects and the development of applied skills, but they succumb to an instructionist system that tells them the exclusive measure of success is how efficiently they cover textbook content and how well their students score on the written exam. There’s neither time for nor value associated with having students apply their learning to real-world contexts. Better to expend your energies in something that’s measurable, something that counts.

The teachers in a “Platonic” classroom have learned that their job, ironically, is not to educate the masses, nor is it to make learning more accessible. “True” learning isn’t for everyone. Students who can work fifty repetitive problems with consistency and without complaint, who score well on multiple-choice tests, who can identify and diagram the parts of speech in the sample paragraph using the approved system, and who can generate essays according to the form the graders expect will be rewarded. Those who don’t connect with or who question the standardized materials, those who chafe at just completing the worksheet, and those who “just don’t see the point” will not be.

In the “Platonic” instructionist classroom, the teacher’s job is to identify and reward “deserving” students by testing their intellectual capacity for abstraction and abstract reasoning. Such students prove their worthiness by mastering the logic of “objectivity,” moving from application to abstraction rather than the other way around — from “a train leaves its station at 6:15, and by 6:20 is going 35 kph” to “acceleration = distance/time².” Abstraction — pristine, aloof, and “objective” (in fact, pristine and aloof because it’s “objective”) — is the chief mechanism for loosing these elect students’ chains.

The students who ask “why” or who need real-world or applied examples are often perceived as less gifted or less adept than those who can just “do the work.”

In fact, in such a “Platonic” approach the embrace of application is often seen as a sign of weakness — of having a rudimentary rather than an advanced understanding. The students who ask “why” or who need real-world or applied examples are often perceived as less gifted or less adept than those who can just “do the work.” As students move from primary to secondary school, instructionism subjects them to increasingly complex levels of abstraction, and their performance is evaluated based on how well they’ve outgrown the need for some kind of physical manifestation. The kindergartner plays with blocks, beads, and toys to learn early mathematics; the high school student in algebra is expected to memorize and apply a dizzying number of formulas and algorithms without needing the crutch of such objects and without a real-world reason to learn them. As learners move to increasingly advanced levels of conceptual understanding, they’re expected to move from concrete applications to a world of “pure” forms. They’re expected to become less “material” with every year they complete. Applications, visuals, and physical examples are for little kids.

Ironically, if you ask most teachers what they prefer in their classrooms, almost all will say “applied creativity.” They talk the aspirational talk of constructionism even as they practice instruction. Most people know the right answer for learning. But as Erik Westby and V.L. Dawson showed in their 1995 study, what we say we want is not what we actually reward. Asked to label their best students with words the researchers had secretly chosen to reflect either conformity or creativity, primary school teachers who overwhelmingly believed that “daily classroom time should be devoted to the promotion of creative thinking” overwhelmingly chose labels linked to conformity, passivity, and compliance. In their 2010 “The Bias Against Creativity: Why People Desire But Reject Creative Ideas,” Jennifer Mueller, Shimul Melwani, and Jack Goncalo offer an insightful explanation for why. As their study demonstrated,

“regardless of how open-minded people are, when they feel motivated to reduce uncertainty either because they have an immediate goal of reducing uncertainty, or feel uncertain generally, this may bring negative associations with creativity to mind which result in lower evaluations of a creative idea.”

“Platonic” teachers don’t choose abstract information over real-world application because they don’t see the value of developing applied skills. Nor do they do it because they think the world doesn’t need students to apply the lessons they’re learning in class. I’m convinced they do it because they’re trying to minimize uncertainty. After all, a standardized written test has discrete and predictable answers; a project students do with the local food pantry does not. And students who can reliably perform on written exams and standardized materials year after year are a commodity that can be traded for institutional credibility, too. In the current climate, such students are essential for a school’s survival. So many choose “Platonic” abstraction because they know how to count it — and how it counts. It’s reliable and predictable, even if it isn’t the best for real learning.

All of this means that the successful students in an instructionist “Platonic” approach are those who conform to the “Platonic” culture in every way: adopting the same emphasis on “objectivity” over “subjectivity” and the same increasing rejection of application for “pure” information. Of course, no one denies the need to return to application at some future point. Even the most “Platonic” teacher would consider application appropriate when students enter their careers. But they’ll only get to that point once they’ve proven themselves capable of mastering the generalized, standardized information that dominates most classrooms. Those who “get it” will show they don’t need the crutch of constant application; the “problem learners” won’t. And there’s an important corollary. In so doing, successful “Platonic” learners will adopt a new identity that increasingly encourages them to flock together with their fellow “elect” who conform to and are rewarded by the “Platonic” system. We see it in schools every day. “Math” people identify and define themselves by the presence of a much larger “non-math” group that just doesn’t get it. “Good” students flock with “good” students, whatever the discipline. In other words, in a “Platonic” approach, learners demonstrate their learning by recapitulating the same hierarchical stratification to which they’ve just been subjected.

I don’t mean to suggest that any of this is nefarious. “Platonic” teachers aren’t trying to pull one over on their students. And there’s nothing inherently wrong with expecting learners to demonstrate the ability to deal with increasing levels of complexity or abstraction. Nor do I believe that most “Platonic” teachers are subjecting their students to this system out of a malicious need for dominance. In fact, from within a “Platonic” understanding, the teacher’s motives can be quite pure. By emphasizing abstract knowledge, such teachers are not only minimizing uncertainty. They’re protecting the purity of their discipline and its information, ensuring that it won’t get bogged down or cheapened by people who don’t really understand it. It makes sense.

the disciplinary “abstraction” of the teacher’s language further deepens the divisions between disciplines

However, they’re also doing what’s easiest in a system built around instructionism’s standardizable, measurable, predictable (and if we’re honest, monetizable) structures. They’re perpetuating a system that delivers predictability through compliance rather than creativity, the very structural logic in “Platonic” teaching that poses its greatest threat to global culture. In this approach, the people who succeed and rise in a given discipline do so on the basis of their mastery of a kind of specialized insider’s language that demonstrates conformity rather than through innovative application of what they’re learning. Encouraged into the disciplinary guild, they refine that language further and further. Yet as they do so, they’re also often increasingly distanced from both the “everyday world” and from outsiders, and are often less able to engage either in their work. It’s no wonder, then, that when these students eventually become teachers, they tend to speak in a way that only certain learners can understand. The language itself becomes either a key or a barrier to entry, depending on who’s hearing it. So those in the next generation of students who already have an inkling can open the door; those who don’t, cant. And the overall effect is that the disciplinary “abstraction” of the teacher’s language further deepens the divisions between disciplines, further divides the “us” from the “them.” After all, in a “Platonic” approach, “true” learning isn’t for everyone…

The overall effect of this approach is therefore fragmentation: divisions between groups of people and divisions between people and the world around them. The prevalence of this approach in schools around the world means that we’re producing generation after generation of learners who don’t much see the value in application or broad collaboration.

How did we get to a place in the twenty-first century where people don’t understand how vaccinations work or how to evaluate the overwhelming evidence of human-caused climate change? How can people who’ve sat through history and civics classes around the world be choosing authoritarian regimes over those that increase democratic access? How are so many people who’ve sat through literature and language classes unable to process the rhetoric in words spoken by advertisers and politicians? How are educated people so ill-equipped to evaluate the truthfulness or fallaciousness of professional and social media? It’s because this is the unfortunate fruit of a “Platonic” approach. Most of the information people have learned in school in order to pass a test — which most of them have, in fact, passed — is designed to be abstract, divorced from any kind of meaningful application to a real-world context. That’s not accidental. It’s the chief feature of a system that sees the world as inferior and polluting, that sees the need for real-world examples as a sign of unsophisticated thinking, and that sees abstraction as the highest, purest form of learning.

The chief outcome of a “Platonic” instructionist approach is thus its culture of hierarchical fragmentation in which abstraction trumps application. This is also its chief problem: instructionism often produces people unwilling and unable to apply what they know to solve real-world problems or to work with others to effect meaningful change. And the days when such a central systemic flaw can be tolerated are drawing to a rapid close.

In a world facing profound challenges — dwindling resources, international tensions, existential crises, we need a different kind of culture — one of communal collaboration — to address and solve these challenges. That means we need a different kind of culture in our schools.

In my next post, I’ll explore the nature and benefits of an “Aristotelian” constructionist approach, building toward a strategy for implementing this approach in schools. I’ll also address the understandable resistance “Platonic” instructionist teachers might have to adopting an “Aristotelian” model, offering a path so these colleagues can help in the vital work of transforming our schools.

Age of Awareness

Stories providing creative, innovative, and sustainable changes to the education system

William Rankin

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Bill is a learning designer whose Unfold Learning Group works to improve access, humanity, and agency in learning, replacing the Taylorite education factory…

Age of Awareness

Stories providing creative, innovative, and sustainable changes to the education system

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