Grist for the cognitive mill

A book that influenced many of my opinions on education is Kieran Egan’s, The Educated Mind: How Cognitive Tools Shape our Understanding. Egan says that Western education is based on three incompatible ideas:

  1. Education as Socialization (age cohorts, class groupings, team sports)
  2. Education as learning about Truth & Reality, based on Plato (varied subjects, academic material, connection to culture)
  3. Education as discovery of our nature, based on Rousseau (personal sense-making, teacher as facilitator)

One of these ideas may be dominant at any given time but no education system can foster all three at once. Therefore we keep trying to re-balance something that can never be balanced. It’s a constantly shifting three-legged stool. In addition, each one by itself is inadequate in a modern society, writes Egan.

Socialization to generally agreed norms and values that we have inherited is no longer straightforwardly viable in modern multicultural societies undergoing rapid technology-driven changes. The Platonic program comes with ideas about reaching a transcendent truth or privileged knowledge that is no longer credible. The conception of individual development we have inherited is based on a belief in some culture-neutral process that is no longer sustainable.

I think Egan’s recommendations for a different system make more sense than any other I have read over the years and it’s a shame his work has not been picked up by educators. However, my aim in this post is not to review these. I’m interested in a conversation Dave Cormier has initiated because this is what Egan has articulated in the first chapter of his book. Dave asks:

 The why of education should be the first question that we answer in any discussion in the field. The answer to the ‘why of education’ question should be debated, mulled and hammered, on and on, and be at the centre of the work that we do. Sadly, it seems to be very difficult to say anything about “what learning is” and “why we educate our children”.

I don’t think it can be adequately answered because our society has not gone beyond the initial three incompatible ideas. Until we address these, we will keep spinning in circles. Dave suggests a shift to a nomadic education model and this might work, but not without addressing the baggage of the three core ideas. Maybe we need three distinct school systems. Perhaps we can examine Egan’s model that breaks from the three core ideas and suggests one where there is no set curriculum and any subject is “grist for the cognitive mill”.

B.H. Liddell Hart, military historian, wrote that “The only thing harder than getting a new idea into the military mind is getting an old one out.” And so with the educator’s mind.

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