Last week’s podcast ended by posing this question: Do we want our education systems to produce battery hens or free range chickens?
Picking up on that question this week, John takes a deeper look into the role of education and explores what kind of education we – as individuals, families, communities, nations – might want for our children.
Casting his eye back over the last 50 years, John argues that making consumption our way of life has helped us become less and less happy.
He then links this to the work of cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham whose book Why students don’t like school has shaped the UK’s education secretary Michael Gove’s thinking on how to develop education.
Willingham believes knowledge comes before imagination (which is counter to Einstein’s thinking) which has become a justification for Gove to focus on fewer subjects in the school curriculum and increased testing.
This is potentially devastating for the future wellbeing of society as we need to educate children to make connections between how they are being brought up, the world they are going to inherit and the world they are going to shape.
John has put this to Willingham – the opening discussion is below – and will be following it up in the coming days and weeks.
Listen to the podcast
listen to ‘Where do we really think we want to go?’ on Audioboo
- HMC Conference presentation, St Andrews, UK
Conversation between John Abbott and Daniel Willingham
Dear Professor Willingham,
No doubt you have heard much from my countrymen about the influence, correct or incorrect, your book has had on Michael Gove, the English Minister of Education, and probably don’t want to hear more! I was away lecturing in British Columbia when his comments about the significance of your book hit the headlines…hence my delay in writing.
I am a former secondary school headmaster of an ancient Grammar School founded in 1588. Which is largely irrelevant in comparison to the fact that for the last 27 years I have led multi-disciplinary research team into the nature of human learning, and for four years worked with the Johnson Foundation of Wingspread, Wisconsin during which time I got to know well Bruce Alberts President of the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, and Rod Cocking who master-minded the NRC report “How People Learn; Brain, Mind, Experience and School”. From them I learnt that the specifically sharp focus on schooling came about at quite a late stage when it became necessary the financial sponsorship of your Dept of Education, a subject on which at a later stage the US Secretary of Education, Dick Riley, elaborated to me.
In England I am often assigned, by teachers and educationalists, a space to comment on the more extreme utterances of Ministers (which gains me no bonus points from the politicians!). I don’t know how much you know, or want to know, about English educational politics, but having lived in Virginia for four years and visited your country very many times over thirty and more years you ought to know that the tension generated by successive right-wing, or pseudo right-wing Ministers seizing the control of public education from the local Councils generates tensions similar to those over States Rights in Civil War days.
I have recently been asked to write the lead article for the National Primary Heads Association…that informal clustering of the majority of this country’s 30,00o elementary teachers feeling that they are fighting tooth and nail for their beliefs that education is about much than simplistic, quantifiable test results….i note that you don’t assign as much authority to Einstein as I do, yet I will rest part of my case on his declaration that,” not everything that can be counted, counts, and that not everything that can be counted ,counts”
In time, once you have had the opportunity to read the enclosed, I would be interested in your response. If you wish to follow up where all this thinking comes from might I suggest you go to responsiblesubversives.org , proceed to The Ideas, select the Timeline and go to Folder 4 and look at the Synthesis that emerged from the Wingspread conferences, and then the Policy Paper that summarised all this in Folder5. If you strayed into Folders 13 and above you would get a better feel for the muddy waters this side of the Atlantic.
If you have the time to respond I will then look forward to continuing the discussion.
Thanks so much for writing. You’ve asked for a response to the article you attached.
The article touches on a wide-ranging set of issues that would require a long reply in its turn to reflect my own thinking on all these issues. But briefly:
1) I don’t think that the role of evolutionary theory in cognitive theory is settled or without controversy.
2) I think that even if it were and learning were deeply understood there’s not a straight path to application of the knowledge in education. Cognitive science is a natural science and education is an applied endeavor. As such, education always entails goals, and the same scientifically sound conclusion can be taken to mean very different things in the classroom.