There seems to me to be one central question that figures into every philosophy of education, from Plato to modern times. The various answers given to this question affect everything we do in education. The question is: What exactly does it mean for a child to learn?
Is the child an empty vessel, his mind a tabula rasa (blank slate) as taught by the British philosopher John Locke? The blank-slate answer says that the teacher’s job is to transmit knowledge from the adult world into the vessel of the child-learner’s mind. For much of the twentieth century, I believe we followed this model.
Funderstanding.com’s “Education History” article puts it this way:
Our current education system dates back to the Industrial Revolution. At the time, our country needed to prepare its agricultural workers for factory jobs. So we built a school system that catered to the mass production mentality.
However, a second approach is the child-centered or learner-centered answer. In this theory, we must tap into the child’s innate capacity to discover his world for himself. The teacher should be a collaborator in this. I believe this approach is going to dominate the twenty-first century, as we now have much to learn from our children.
Communication technology is turning the tables on knowledge. Children are teaching their parents how to use the internet, and the 15-year-old entertainer Miley Cyrus (Hannah Montana) was listed as one of Time Magazine’s 100 most influential people of 2008.
I admit I’m not a big fan of Miley Cyrus’ music, but I think her success serves as an important reminder to us as adults: youth have a world of their own, a context in which their life, their values, and their thoughts are wrapped up. In order to reach them with our thoughts and our values, we’re going to have to step inside their world a bit.
I’m not advocating that adults abandon their own values completely in favor of young people’s values. But I am saying that we need to acquire the ability to listen, to engage youth by finding out what they are interested in, and what they already know.
I believe that only through the continual and sympathetic observation of childhood’s interests can the adult enter into the child’s life and see what it is ready for, and upon what material it could work most readily and fruitfully.
Tapping into the child’s interests is only the beginning, but it is an important beginning. We also need to assess what they already know about the subject, their prior knowledge. And we need to introduce new subjects to them not as something foreign or alien, but as a natural extension of what they have already experienced in life.
The philosophy of Constructivism suggests that we should modify curriculum, instruction, and assessment to all reflect that learning is a process of a child making meaning out of new experiences and adjusting his or her mental model to “fit” those new experiences.
Instead of a dry curriculum of pre-determined subjects, constructivism teaches that curricula should be fit to the student’s prior knowledge, and that much of the curriculum should involve hands-on learning experiences.
Instruction, instead of consisting of lectures for students to regurgitate, would focus on getting students to clarify for themselves — verbally and in writing and in small groups — how new experiences in the classroom have changed their own mental models.
Finally, assessment would be built into the curriculum as a before-and-after process of assessing what the student knows prior to class, and how that understanding has evolved as a result of new experiences gained in the class. Students would often be encouraged to assess themselves, to determine the extent of their own learning.
Constructivism, the Socratic method, and adults stepping inside the child’s world to engage them at the level of their pre-existing interests, are all ways of making education more “learner-centered,” and therefore more fruitful in allowing children to unfold their own capacity to think and make meaning for themselves.