26 December 2017

A Perennial Education Debate

As John Dewey put it in 1938, “The history of educational theory is marked by opposition between the idea that education is development from within and that it is formation from without: that it is based upon natural endowments [versus] a process of overcoming natural inclination and substituting in its place habits acquired under external pressure.” (p.1)

When Self-Determination Theory co-founder Richard Ryan teamed up with fellow psychologist Martin Lynch in 2003 to examine this age-old controversy in light of research they set the stage thus:

“Views on autonomy and control in education are strongly connected with answers to some prior questions. If one assumes humans are naturally inclined to learn, allowing students to learn autonomously makes sense. However, if it is assumed that students are inherently unmotivated or disinclined, then control is more readily justified. If one believes that society depends on the specific body of knowledge or skills that must be disseminated, or character traits that must be inculcated, then using force to compel learning might be in order. However, if one assumes that useful knowledge takes many forms and is ever-changing, then controlling what must be learned makes less sense. Similarly, if one’s goal is not obedience but moral autonomy, one will be less concerned with control, though one may regard moral autonomy as the ultimate goal while holding that some degree of control must be exercised in preparing children for later autonomy. Philosophers' views of the matter have divided especially around the matter of what motives are spontaneously present in children and whether control is helpful or unhelpful in educating children for autonomy.” (p.263)

They found that, “the use of external controls to motivate students is often associated with a distrust of human nature that assumes students will not absorb, and teachers will not teach, what is essential unless strongly guided to do so through external controls. By contrast, the advocacy of autonomous learning depends on a view of humans as inherently desiring to know and disposed to assimilate ambient social values and knowledge, whenever they are properly cared for. … [A] teachers philosophy of education and motivation readily results in a self-fulfilling prophecy.” (p.269-70)

The conservative fear that an education lacking structure could lead to poor results is well founded. The progressive fear that an education characterized by too much control could lead to poor results is also well founded. These fears result in pedagogues and policy makers fighting over how much control to impose (the currently dominant view in mainstream schools) versus how much freedom to impose (a marginal but growing segment of the industry). These reactions are understandable given those fears.

The problem arises from how actions taken in response to these fears are applied in a manner that undermines the psychological foundations of deep learning. I suspect that everyone would agree that deeper learning is the desired result (at least for their own children). I take it as a basic tenet of fairness that the same psychological conditions need to apply for all children, since the aspect of psychology I am concerned with is universal, not culturally contingent. Therefore, I contend that we psychologists do not need to take sides in the pedagogical debate, we need to ensure that the psychological foundations are universally solid and then let the pedagogues work it out amongst themselves.

If conservative pedagogues want to offer a standardized test-driven curriculum then they should be free to do so, as long as they are able to show that they maintain the psychological conditions that are necessary for deeper learning of that curriculum. They would need to show that their students and teachers maintain their intrinsic motivation and engagement for the typical activities of schooling. If the intrinsic motivation and engagement of students diminish over time then they need to figure out how to do their thing in a manner that maintains those psychological conditions for deeper learning.

The same is true of the progressive educators pedagogues who are inclined to impose freedom. If they can show that their students and teachers are maintaining their intrinsic motivation and engagement for the typical activities of schooling then they are doing fine.

Given the psychological research I've seen so far I suspect the conservative pedagogues will have more difficulties with this kind of accountability, but that might not be the case over the long term. They might figure out how to do it. They have the advantage of being closer to the default image of schooling in most people's minds. They just have to figure out how to get that institutional arrangement to work in terms of motivation and engagement. The point is to eliminate the abuses of power that can go with the structures they favor.


The same elimination of abuses of power is crucial to the long term success of the progressive pedagogies that make freedom their raison d'être. In the past this side of the pedagogical spectrum has tended to equate structure with a lack of freedom and conclude that freedom requires a lack of structure. Psychological research has shown that this attitude was in error. Their challenge will be figuring out which kinds of structure are the most useful for achieving their goals and getting the use of those structures to become a commonly accepted image of schooling.  
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