Normative Theories of Education
The other day, I was surfing Medium looking for something interesting to read when I happened to stumble on Western Philosophy Caused Alternative Facts by Riley Haas. While not equipped to evaluate Haas’ description or analysis of normative philosophy, Plato’s theory of Forms, or essentialism, I was struck by the following statement:
Normative philosophy is the study of what “ought” to be. And that’s where we encounter our first problem. The vast majority of ancient Greek philosophers — like the vast majority of human beings throughout history — strongly believed that there is “what is” and “what ought to be,” and that these two things are different.
Haas then goes on to demonstrate how philosophies such as libertarianism, conservatism, and socialism/communism are grounded in what should be, not what is, making evidence-based discussions problematic. The statement struck me because I can see how many of our theories in education are also grounded in what should be, not what is—but I can’t bring myself to think in those terms! Could Haas be correct? It would certainly explain a lot.
What should be
If you’ve been reading my articles, then you’ve probably noticed I’m fairly irritated at naive proponents of self-directed learning. I consider them naive because, by failing to examine their own thinking and treating self-directed learning as some kind of magic bullet to fix everything, they’re holding onto naive mental models (theories) instead of using data from the real world to make their mental models more robust and sophisticated.
Black Boxes and Dysfunctional Schools
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I’m a huge proponent of self-directed learning, but I believe we need some minimal support before we can direct our own learning effectively and powerfully. I’m not being paternalistic here or passing a value judgment on what kids are capable of doing—my belief is grounded in what I see as what is, which means it’s evidence-based, and if you present compelling evidence I’m mistaken, I will revise my mental model.
Seeking Mountains; Will Travel
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In Seeking Mountains; Will Travel, I describe a vertical learner as someone who develops advanced learning skills and…
One method I use to test a belief is to think about the evidence I’d expect to find if the belief is true. If we are all capable of learning effectively and powerfully without any support or guidance, then most of us would learn to establish healthy relationships and deep connections. Healthy relationships are highly relevant for most people and something we learn about outside of schools. Okay, but what if schooling impairs our natural ability to direct our own learning? Then, we’d expect to find consistently healthy relationships in communities before universal schooling, and less healthy relationships after. Again, I’m not seeing it, but I will if you show me the evidence. We shouldn’t construct theories based on what should be, but what is.
When I think about what is, I like to think about why what is. Why might we need some minimal support before directing our own learning? Recently, Howard Johnson wrote a comment in which he likened students to icebergs. Growing as writers, students develop writing skills visible at the surface, but those writing skills are backed by the development of thinking skills invisible below the surface. If a self-directed learner isn’t aware of what’s happening below the surface, he or she might struggle to improve as a writer regardless of time and effort spent at the surface.
I tested this hypothesis when I asked 8th-grade students to write their own résumés. By placing students in a context where they became aware of the bottom of their icebergs, they were then able to direct themselves and grow as writers. Is this proof? No, but it is evidence.
What could be
After reading Haas’ article, I had a brief panic attack. I knew there was a well-known quotation by Robert F. Kennedy about not seeing things the way they are, which I loved. Was Kennedy advocating seeing what should be? I had to look up the quotation immediately.
There are those that look at things the way they are, and ask why? I dream of things that never were, and ask why not?
Phew! My interpretation is that Kennedy is talking about what could be and not what should be—and what could be is firmly grounded in what is. For example, someone like Elon Musk is able to envision what could be, but only because he sees what is more clearly than most.
Another person who saw what could be is Seymour Papert. He saw that kids in American middle schools taking French learned French differently than kids growing up in France learned French. Because he saw what is, he asked what could be if kids learned math growing up in Mathland. Then, instead of simply stopping there, he created the computer programming language Logo to test his hypothesis in the real world.
Based on the evidence he gathered, Papert believed all kids could learn math as easily as kids learned French in France if they were surrounded by Mathland materials. In Mindstorms, he wrote:
But “teaching without curriculum” does not mean spontaneous, free-form classrooms or simply “leaving the child alone.” It means supporting children as they build their own intellectual structures with materials drawn from the surrounding culture. In this model, educational intervention means changing the culture, planting new constructive elements in it and eliminating noxious ones.
In Papert’s vision, it’s not adults who provide the support as kids develop into effective and powerful self-directed learners; it’s Mathland materials in the environment which enable kids to construct the underlying intellectual structures, below the surface, they need.
Later on, Papert veers from what could be to what should be when he posits kids may be be able to construct Mathland materials for themselves, which I point out in Where Seymour Papert Got It Wrong. Unsurprisingly, the people who naively argue for self-directed learning completely ignore what could be for kids in Mathland, and only notice what should be for kids and computers.
I’m still not sure if normative value-based theories are preventing us from improving education. I guess it would depend on whether the theory that some people learn math or French more easily than others is based on what is (our experiences) or what should be (our beliefs about learning and human variation). If we’re holding onto theories about aptitude and effort because of what should be, then we have a significant problem—normative value-based theories won’t change simply with evidence.
What do you think?