Thursday, September 12, 2013

What's Holding Education Back? (Hint: Check Your Assumptions about Learning & Teaching)

Orlando-Ferguson-flat-earth-map edit

The World Has Moved On, But Education Hasn’t 

The world has changed dramatically during the past century. Most domains have changed right along with it, thanks in part to major advances in science and technology. Architecture, for example, has evolved with the invention of new kinds of materials, powerful computer-based design tools, and more sophisticated models of environmental impact.

Modern medicine, with innovations like brain scanners, artificial hearts, and gene therapy, would be virtually unrecognizable to a physician from the 1900’s. We could tell similar stories about the transformation of engineering, agriculture, and even business administration. Take a practitioner from the 1900’s in any of these fields and bring them into the present day and they would be thoroughly bewildered and unable to perform the job.

But what about education? If we transported a teacher from the 1900’s and put her in front of a classroom today, she would be able to take over the class without much trouble. There have been some changes, of course. Whiteboards and projectors have replaced blackboards, for example, and students now use laptops and iPads instead of slates. In World History, there’s over a century’s worth of new material to cover. But changes like these are largely cosmetic. Superficial differences aside, the way we educate today is fundamentally the same as it was one hundred and fifty years ago.

What’s Holding Education Back? 

Why has education stayed basically the same for so long while other domains like architecture and medicine have been completely transformed?

One possible explanation is that there’s simply no room for improvement – that education is already as good as it gets. We’ve explored this in previous posts, though, and based on the evidence I’d say this can’t possibly be true (for example, read this, this, and this).

A second possibility is that we don’t know enough yet – that we are still waiting for the big breakthroughs in science and technology that will enable education to advance the way architecture and medicine have. But the fact is that we already know far more about effective learning and teaching than we actually apply in mainstream educational practice. The root problem does not seem to be a lack of good ideas or proven methods.

I’d like to suggest a third possibility. What if education is being held back by a number of common assumptions about learning and teaching that seem completely obvious to most people but that are nonetheless completely and utterly wrong? What if these assumptions are so obvious and so deep-seated that many people aren’t even aware they are assumptions, and what if education can’t move forward until we surface these assumptions, examine them critically, and get people to revise them?

If this sounds far-fetched, consider these cases from the history of science:

  • Geography & Navigation: People assumed the earth was flat because if you look around it’s obvious to anyone that it is flat. Because of this assumption, sailors wouldn’t sail out of sight of land for fear of falling off the edge. Challenging this assumption freed people up to sail anywhere – it opened up the whole world to humanity.
  • Astronomy: People assumed the earth is stationary and sits at the center of the universe. Just look up in the sky – the earth is obviously holding still and everything else is circling around it (otherwise we’d all feel pretty dizzy, right?). Even after this assumption was challenged and evidence collected to demonstrate how wrong it was, it took a few centuries to bring everyone around. Changing it opened up the heavens to humanity. Space exploration and communications satellites are just two technologies that would not be possible today under the original (obvious but erroneous) assumption.
  • Biology & Medicine: Quite recently – at least as late as the 19th century - people generally assumed that a disease epidemic like cholera or the Black Death could be caused by a miasma – a cloud of toxic air released by rotting material. After all, if there is a bad smell in the air where a lot of people are getting sick, the most obvious explanation is that the air causing the bad smell must also be causing the bad illness. Once again: obvious, but wrong. Public health has improved greatly since people stopped trying to avoid miasma and started trying to avoid physical contact with people who are carrying disease-causing viruses and bacteria.

The list goes on and on…

So - what about education today? Is it possible that humanity is at this very moment living with some assumptions about learning and teaching that are so obvious and so deep-seated that they are not even recognized as assumptions but taken as incontrovertible facts?

I believe we are.

And not just one such assumption – loads and loads of them. And I propose that these obvious, virtually universal, and yet entirely misleading assumptions are a major reason education has stalled while nearly every other major domain of human endeavor has raced ahead. The same way that the flat earth assumption left most of the world unexplored, these assumptions lead us to educate students in ways that leave most of the subject matter unlearned.

These are bold claims. Let me provide a specific example.

It’s obvious to most people that engagement drives learning. It’s a very widespread assumption. In fact, it’s what leads people to take boring materials like math or chemistry flashcards and routinely attempt to inject “fun” into them by adding unrelated cartoons, competitions, sticker prizes, and the like.

But what if that obvious and deep-seated assumption is wrong? What if the learning actually drives the feeling of engagement instead of the other way around? Moreover, what if trying to artificially inject fun into the mix only gives the illusion of successful education – while actually degrading the quality of learning? There are reasons to believe that this is, in fact, the case.

Do Our Assumptions Really Make a Difference? 

You might well ask, "Does it really matter which is true - whether learning drives engagement or engagement drives learning?"

Yes, it matters a lot. To see why, let’s pose a similar question about one of our historical examples: “Does it really matter whether we assume the earth is flat or round?”


If the earth is flat, then we should stay close to shore.
If the earth is a sphere, then we can sail anywhere.


If engagement drives learning then we should be able to produce high-quality learning even if we start with low-quality material by over-compensating with fun.

On the other hand…

If learning drives engagement, then we actually have to start with high-quality learning experiences if we expect to produce high-quality learning outcomes. Instead of “injecting” fun to make the learning happen, we’ll know the learning is happening when we see students engaging deeply with the subject matter itself. In this view, “fun” (or engagement) is not something one puts into the teaching so much as something one expects to see coming out of the learning.

The two different assumptions lead to two contradictory conclusions about how to educate effectively. Assumptions are important because they determine the strategies we use to pursue our goals, and some strategies work much better than others.

As the historical examples cited above illustrate, one way to change the world is to change widespread assumptions that seem obvious to everyone but in fact are simply wrong. It may be that easy – and that difficult – to start bringing education into the twenty-first century.

What do you think?