Willingham: Is a paradigm shift really needed?
By Daniel Willingham
Several people have sent me this video, either because they thought it brilliant and wanted to be sure that I saw it, or because they thought it foolish and wanted me to criticize it.
It’s a cleverly animated summary of a talk delivered by Sir Ken Robinson, a British author, former professor of education, and authority on innovation. Robinson suggests that what’s needed in education is a “paradigm shift.”
Maybe so, but Robinson makes a poor case. T
The set up for Robinson’s solution will be familiar to anyone who follows education:
(1) We have lots of problems (enormous prison population, flat academic achievement, alienated kids) and; (2) Things are changing (e.g., growing population, rapidly evolving technology the effects of which we do not understand, unprecedented demands on our natural resources).
These circumstances are so extreme, Robinson suggests, we do not simply need to fix or improve our schools, but to completely rethink how they operate.
He further suggests that all of us hold unrecognized assumptions about what schooling is for and how it is organized, and that these assumptions cause many of our problems.
Robinson says education was modeled on the interests of Industrialism and in its image. There is a production line mentality in education. Schools are organized as factories: ringing bells, strict specialization, the kids sorted by age, or “date of manufacture,” as Robinson half-jokes.
This model rests, he argues, on a view of the mind that grew out of the Enlightenment. Logic and rationality reign supreme. Pursuits that depend on logic are “intellectual” and therefore superior to non-intellectual pursuits.
Robinson argues that our current paradigm of schooling, rooted in this view of the mind, is killing kids’ creativity, and diminishing the capacity of many people whose minds don’t match the Enlightenment view. They think they are stupid when they are, in fact, “brilliant.”
Robinson concludes his talk by arguing for three changes. First, give up on the “mythical” separation between academic and non-academic thinking and tasks; second, recognize that most great learning happens in groups; third, change the habits of our institutions to implement these changes.
I find myself agreeing with some of what Robinson says, for example, the idea that educational institutions should be more tuned to an individual student’s interests and abilities. It’s hard to see how you could disagree with that goal. The question is how that goal is to be met, and whether the way forward is clear. And that’s where I find myself losing confidence in Robinson.
I lose confidence because the framework in which he puts education and education reform is not in the least revolutionary.
Robinson pegs the current system as a product of the Enlightenment, but curiously the word “Romanticism” never comes up. Romanticism was an intellectual movement of the second half of the 18th century that arose in response to the rationalism of the Enlightenment. It elevated emotion and feeling, and also emphasized the sublimity of Nature and all things natural.
Indeed, Romanticism gained strength in reaction to the Industrial revolution, the very movement that Robinson criticizes as an inspiration of our erroneous education paradigm.
Romantic views of education, typified by Pestalozzi and Rousseau, emphasize personal experience as crucial, and decry the sublimation of the individual to conformity. More generally, progressive educators from the early 20th century to the present have emphasized instruction that follows the child’s interests, includes more real-world tasks, and more group work.
So Robinson is not suggesting a revolutionary, entirely new approach. In fact he’s tapping a very rich, very old vein of thought.
It’s not important to me that he fails to acknowledge his intellectual forbears. It’s important to me that he fails to acknowledge that many many people have tried to create schools inspired by these ideals before. A few were spectacular, inspiring successes. Most crashed and burned. And, as is so common, what made the successes work well seemed difficult to pin down, and dashed attempts to replicate the success elsewhere.
I want Robinson to tell me what’s going to make things different this time around.
My other problem with this video is that some of the details are inaccurate.
Robinson suggests that although the great majority of psychologists and pediatricians believe that Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder is a bonafide disorder, “it’s still a matter of debate.”
It’s hard to find debators willing to take the other side. You’ll be hard put to find them at the American Medical Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the World Health Organization, the National Institutes of Health, the Center for Disease Control, or any of the other national and international organizations that recognize ADHD as a medical condition.
He also strongly implies that one of the reasons for the high incidence of ADHD today is that kids are overstimulated by technology. It’s not a factor.
As evidence that education kills creativity, Robinson cites a study showing that, as kids age, they score lower on the “alternate uses” task, in which the subject is asked to think of alternate uses for a common object, for example, a paper clip. The goal is to produce the maximum number possible, but responses are scored for plausibility. Robinson suggests that scores drop as kids age because schools drum into kids’ minds the idea that there is always one right answer.
That may be a factor, but there’s an alternative explanation. Thinking of alternative uses is easier if you are unfamiliar with the typical use for the object. If you know what a paper clip is, every time you say to yourself, “Hmm, what might one do with this?” the idea “fasten papers!” intrudes.
Thinking only of the typical use for objects is called “functional fixedness” and other data show that kids are less susceptible to it, and become more susceptible to it when you show them the typical function. So it’s probably not that education drums into kids that there is one right answer. Education teaches kids (among other things) what objects are for, and yes, under some circumstances, that gets in the way of solving problems. But usually knowledge is good.
Getting details wrong makes me less confident that Robinson is getting the big things right, and failing to acknowledge previous attempts to change the paradigm makes me uncertain of his vision.
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| October 25, 2010; 11:33 AM ET
Categories: Daniel Willingham, Guest Bloggers, Learning, Learning Disabilities | Tags: cognitive science, daniel willingham, reformation, renaissance, rousseau, school reform, sir ken robinson
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