Why Should Techies Care About Education Theory?

Earlier this year, I penned a post titled “The Audrey Test” in which I laid out a number of topics with which I argued education technologists (particularly ed-tech entrepreneurs) needed to be familiar if I was to take them at all seriously. The response – both in the comments section and elsewhere – were fairly revealing, I thought, particularly as some folks sneered at the notion that learning theories, histories, or sciences were at all relevant to building ed-tech products, services or businesses. “Too academic” was one response. “Anti-engineer” was another. Also: “I don’t have time to learn this. I’m too busy building my company.”

There are lots of other places where you can see this conflict play out – those who know little about education history, theory, practice but claim this makes them “disruptive innovators” versus those who are entrenched in educational institution – both in higher ed and K–12, as teachers and researchers – who worry that their experience and expertise are being dismissed. (A recent example: the back-and-forth about Khan Academy pedagogy in the op-ed pages of the Washington Post and in various blogs.)

Although “The Audrey Test” doesn’t have a set of definitive answers (and although I am often tempted to add more questions), I am currently working with Software Carpentry’s Greg Wilson to pull together a guide based on it and related issues. We’ve solicited input from a number of people who’ve been working in this field since long before this latest flurry and excitement over the impending “ed-tech revolution” – folks who can give some historical perspective, some research-based insight, and some clear definitions on key terms and topics in education, technology, teaching, and learning. Our goal is to have this finished by September, which means I’ll be spending the next few weeks working on many of the entries.

Below is a look at 5 of the most important education theorists of the 20th century. And yes, I realize there are others who’ve contributed to the field. I’d love to hear suggestions from readers about “who’s missing.” Even better? Offers to write those sections of the guide. You’ll find this and other articles in our work-in-progress-wiki.

Why Should Techies Care About (20th Century) Education Theory?

Debates about education are by no means new: What’s the best way to teach? What’s the best way to learn? What should the curriculum be? Who should have access to specialized knowledge and specialized training? How does technology impact all of these questions? (See Plato’s The Republic, for example, on what the education of “philosopher kings” should entail or Plato’s Phaedrus on the dangers to learning of technology (well, of writing).)

Rather than outline the history of education or the history of education theory from Plato the philosopher to PLATO the online learning system, here is a brief overview of 5 of the 20th century’s most important educational theorists. Their influence can still be felt today, both in how we view the educational system and the educational process. As is the case with most theories, these individuals’ work has been adopted, refuted, tweaked, and ignored to varying degrees.

Implied here, of course, is that knowing both the history of education and theories of education are important. The case for the former is made best, arguably, by George Santayana: “Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” The case for the latter: we all have theories about how and what people should teach and learn – whether we are conscious of this or not, whether we have studied the subject formally or not. In part, it’s because we all have experiences as learners and as students. Recognizing this and in turn looking to the work of those who’ve thought deeply and researched extensively on the subject can help us think critically about how we approach education – again, as a system and a process.

John Dewey (1859–1952)

The American philosopher John Dewey was one of the leading proponents of pragmatism, a school of thought that argues that theory and practice, ideas and reality are not divorced. His publications on theories of knowledge included How We Think (1910) and Experience and Nature (1925). Dewey may be best known for his writings on education, including The School and Society (1900) and Democracy and Education (1916) – but “best known” does not mean that his views have ever been widely adopted by the mainstream U.S. school system.

Dewey believed that schools were places in which children learned the habits of democracy – that is, how to participate fully in civic life. As such, schools are important institutions that reflect, but more importantly can reform society. It’s a mistake to see schools as separate from society, he argued, where students are trained to be good workers or good citizens. Rather, schools are an extension of civic society and students must have a stake in both the community (inside and outside of the school walls) and in the learning.

As such, schools not be a place where children merely memorize facts and ideas about civics or other aspects of the curriculum, according to Dewey. Instead, students should actively participate in building their own knowledge, relating it to their own experiences. Teachers’ roles are not to force students to learn material, but rather “the teacher is not in the school to impose certain ideas or to form certain habits in the child, but is there as a member of the community to select the influences which shall affect the child and to assist him in properly responding to these influences.” (1897)

Dewey argued that learning comes from doing, but the importance is less about gaining certain knowledge than experiencing the process of inquiry and problem-solving. As such, Dewey is often credited with developing the idea of project-based learning.

Who in tech has Dewey influenced?  the Maker Movement

Maria Montessori (1870–1952)

Italian physician and educator Maria Montessori first developed her ideas about learning while studying medicine, specifically pediatrics and psychiatry. Much of her early career was spent working with mentally disabled children and devising ways to instruct them. She started her first school in a working class neighborhood in Rome in 1911. The school was based on and the basis for Montessori’s “scientific pedagogy” and enrolled children between the ages of 2 and 7. While the school was originally equipped with many of the things we might recognize in contemporary classrooms – a blackboard, a teacher’s desk, tables for the children to sit at – Montessori redesigned the room in ways that the children could manipulate the furniture and all the other items in it.

That emphasis on student choice and on the learning environment remain two of the central pieces of the Montessori method of education. The Montessori classroom is designed so that children have freedom within certain limits and so that they can work uninterrupted at “purposeful activities” that develop sensory, practical, and intellectual skills. While most Montessori schools still focus on young children (in a multi-age classroom), programs do exist up to and through high school.

Who in tech has Montessori influenced?  Google co-founders Larry Page and Sergei Brin

Jean Piaget (1896–1980)

Swiss cognitive psychologist Jean Piaget founded the discipline known as “genetic epistemology” – that is the origins or development of knowledge. Initially interested in zoology (he published several academic papers on mollusks by the time he turned 15), Piaget’s interest eventually turned to children’s intelligence after he started teaching at a boys’ school and found while grading exams that young students made different types of mistakes than older ones and adults did. This helped spur his interest in cognitive development and his argument that children’s minds develop in stages, giving them the cognitive abilities to learn certain things only after passing through these stages, regardless of their intellectual capabilities.

These stages are: 1) sensori-motor (from birth to age 2) where the child learns to distinguish objects from the self; 2) pre-operational (age 2–7) where the child learns to use language and represent objects with words and the egocentrism associated with that first stage starts to disappear; 3) concrete operational (age 7–11) where the child can think logically about objects and events; and 4) formal operational (age 11 and older) where the child can think abstractly and systematically.

Piaget argued that children use the processes of assimilation and accomodation to create mental frameworks to understand the world around them. In other words, when faced with new information or scenarios, children draw on previous knowledge and experiences to make sense of things (that’s assimilation) or they adjust their previous schemas in order to make sense of the new information (accomodation).

Piaget’s work has been particularly influential in early childhood education and in thinking about how we scaffold learning so that it builds on previous knowledge as well as on students’ cognitive abilities.

Who in tech has Piaget influenced?  Seymour Papert

B.F. Skinner (1904–1990)

American psychologist and philosopher B. F. Skinner was a behaviorist – a “radical behaviorist” in his terms. Behaviorism is a school of psychology that sees all actions by an organism as behaviors that can be modified or shaped by reinforcement or by changing the environment. Among his best known inventions is the “operant conditioning chamber” (better known as Skinner’s Box) – where animals were observed changing their behaviors under certain conditions. Rats, for example, learned that if they pulled a lever, they got food; and so they pulled the lever quite frequently.

Skinner’s research was very influential in education, but as the inventor of the Skinner’s Box, he was sometimes criticized about treating humans the same way he treated lab animals. Skinner invented a crib, for example, that was meant to help keep a baby warm, clean, and safe, but when the Ladies’ Home Journal wrote an article about it titled “Baby in a Box,” the response was far from positive, and sales of the crib never took off.

Skinner also invented a “teaching machine” – a mechanical device that presented students with educational materials and study questions; students had to get the answers right to move on. Skinner argued that this machine provided positive reinforcement and individualized pacing, something that made the teaching machine superior to a traditional classroom setting. (Skinner believed that most correction in the classroom was negative, not positive behavior reinforcement.)

Skinner wrote in 1954 in The Science of Learning and Art of Teaching:

“If the teacher is to take advantage of recent advances in the study of learning, she must have the help of mechanical devices. The technical problem of providing the necessary instrumental aid is not particularly difficult. There are many ways in which the necessary contingencies may be arranged, either mechanically or electrically…The important features on the device are these: Reinforcement for the right answer is immediate. The mere manipulation of the device will probably be reinforcing enough to keep the average student at work for a suitable period each day, provided traces of earlier aversive control can be wiped out. A teacher may supervise an entire class at work on such devices at the same time, yet each child may progress at his own rate, completing as many problems as possible within the class period. If forced to be away from school, he may return where he left off. The gifted child will advance rapidly, but can be kept from getting too far ahead either by being excused from arithmetic for a time or by being given special sets of problems which take him into some of the interesting by-paths of mathematics. The device makes it possible to present carefully designed material in which one problem can depend upon the answer to the preceding and where, therefore the most progress to an eventually complex repertoire can be made.”

Who in tech has Skinner influenced?  Zynga, clearly. Also any company touting "adaptive learning" software

Paolo Freire (1921–1997)

Brazilian educator and philosopher Paolo Freire is probably best known for his book The Pedagogy of the Oppressed, published in 1968. That date of publication is important, as Freire’s work is intertwined with the liberation theology movement in Latin America as well as with larger anti-colonial movements, revolutions, and coups (in Algeria, in Vietnam, in Brazil, and so on) of the time. Freire worked with poor communities in Brazil, teaching them literacy, before being imprisoned and later exiled.

Freire’s book (and his life work) draws heavily on Marxist theory in which he makes the distinction between colonizers and the colonized in society and the role that education plays in furthering injustice. For Freire then, education is necessarily a political act, whether it’s one of oppression or (hopefully) liberation.

Among Freire’s important contributions to thinking about the politics of pedagogy is his opposition to what he calls the “banking model of education.” This idea that students are empty jars to be filled by teachers “transforms students into receiving objects. It attempts to control thinking and action, leads men and women to adjust to the world, and inhibits their creative power.” Like Dewey (and other theorists too, including Rousseau), Freire argued that students have to seize control of their own learning and by extension their own selves – “conscientização” or conscientization.

Freire’s work is the foundation of critical pedagogy, and according to bell hooks (in Teaching to Transgress), “teachers must be actively involved committed to a process of self-actualization that promotes their own well-being if they are to teach in a manner that empowers students.”

Who in tech has Freire influenced? Me.

Image credits: Wikimedia



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