You will have an interesting challenge when you start teaching. The challenge is this: what kinds of experiences do students need to have to come to understand that which you want them to understand?
You see, there is a foundation in schooling that isn’t a foundation in educating. That is: learning requires experiences from concrete to abstract, or from simple to complex. It sounds reasonable, doesn’t it? But is it?
By the end of this lesson, you will have a deeper understanding of the implications of the ‘simple to complex’ idea. You will also be better able to recognize when this foundational idea is playing out in the classroom.
Foundation: Simple to Complex Learning
Let me speak briefly to the simple to complex/concrete to the abstract foundation. It is the foundational idea that learning moves from homogeneity to heterogeneity. That is the way that Spencer put it. That is the way that Dewey adopted the idea. Put another way, it is a belief, again based on evolution, that the evolutionary process moves from simple to complex. You see, Spencer was one of the proponents of evolution in the 1800s. The idea of evolution, simple life forms to more complex life forms, contributed to his educational beliefs, simple ideas to abstract ideas.
What did this mean for schooling? It means, as John Dewey believed, that children learn best by starting with simple activities and ideas and only then moving into more complex ideas. It led to the idea of ‘doing’ and ‘hands-on’ learning that we often hear about. As you know now, however, Dewey got this wrong as did Herbert Spencer. The body/brain learns by moving from that which is understood to that which is being understood. A third-grade child can understand the three branches of government as long as she develops her understanding from that which she already understands (animals in the forest trying to get along so they make up some rules to ensure that they can live in harmony for example). It does not mean that the child is incapable of complex ideas or requires hands-on types of schooling activities of the concept to understand the concept. Furthermore, we have had curriculum that is forcing students through the simple to complex ideas (often most noticeable in math) that continues to fail students’ achievement by privileging activity over understanding, or by allowing rote memorization over understanding.
I would like to introduce you to Herbert Spencer’s writings on education. Some of his ideas had a direct influence on the foundations of schooling. This will provide you with some depth of understanding.
I think you will find this very interesting, because in the future when you look at particular activities in classrooms, you will know just where some of the ideas came from. What might surprise you, as you read the following few passages, just how long ago Spencer was putting these ideas forth. He was publishing his theories in the mid-1800s. And, he was enormously popular, having his writings read by the most well-known educational philosophers and theorists of the time.
As we read this, let’s read this as if we are looking to see how many of these ideas are still an active and current part of current schooling practices. I want to develop your depth and breadth of classroom understanding by asking you to do this next question. I am hoping that when you walk into a classroom, you will immediately recognize that teachers and students are doing certain activities as a result of some of the foundations developed by Spencer.
So let me give you the response question first:
Questions (Third Set Continued)
9. List 5 specific things mentioned in the following few passages about Spencer that still apply to current schooling practices.
(I am taking these passages from Kieran Egan’s book “ Getting It Wrong From the Beginning: Our Progressive Inheritance from Herbert Spencer, John Dewey, and Jean Piaget.”Yale University Press, New Haven, 2002.)
Beginning with the natural process of the child’s development rather than with the knowledge one wants the child to learn, Spencer argued, creates a recognition that children are naturally inquiring, constructing, and active beings. So the developing powers of children provide the basis for his educational philosophy.
Education, he believed, is concerned with the whole person, not just the intellectual part. We should be concerned primarily not to produce scholars in the old sense but rather with what a person most needs to know to be able to perform his or her duties in life most adequately. Spencer’s curriculum, they would no longer follow fashions of culturally prestigious subjects, such as Latin and Greek and details of European political history: “The births, deaths, and marriages of kings, and other like trivialities, are committed to memory, bot because of any direct benefits that can possibly result from knowing them: but because the absence of such knowledge may bring the contempt of others. . . . Men dress their children’s minds as they do their bodies, in the prevailing fashion” (1928, 2).
If we grant that there are observable regularities in children’s development, then Spencer pointed out, “it follows inevitably that education cannot be rightly guided without knowledge of these laws” (1928, 23). He felt that these laws were largely ignored in the educational practices of his time, and that, if only they were adhered to, the whole process of education could be made more efficient, effective, and pleasurable to the child and teacher. He emphasized how easily the child learns about “the objects and processes of the household, the streets, and the fields” (24) and argued that the educator should observe such effortless learning and explore how it could be replicated by sensible teaching.
Spencer underlined the centrality for successful learning of direct experience. We must recognize, and act on the recognition, that “the words contained in books can be highly interpreted into ideas, only in proportion to the antecedent experience of things” (1928, 24). Spencer made a central principle of his pedagogy that children’s understanding can expand only from things of which they have direct experience. Words in books about things of which they have no experience can be learned only in an arid sense. We can teach children to repeat back what is learned as might a parrot, but they may understand the meaning of the rote-learned words no better than would the parrot.
Traditional education, as Spencer put it, is primarily concerned with making “the pupil a mere passive recipient of other’s ideas, and not in the least leading him to be an active inquirer or self instructor” (1928, 25). But becoming such inquirers of self-instructors, children become active in making sense of their experience, just as they so effectively do in the home, street, and field.
. . . .
Spencer laid out seven principles for intellectual education. The first is that “we should proceed from the simple to the complex. . . . The mind develops. Like all things that develop it progresses from the homogeneous to the heterogeneous” (1928, 58). We must, then, recognize the gradual development of the mind and build our teaching and curricula so that they conform with and support that developmental process.
The second principle is that the “development of the mind, like all other development, is an advance from the indefinite to the definite” (1928, 59). Spencer believed that from original chaos order gradually emerged — an idea he carried over to the child’s mind in his belief that children’s cognition is initially indefinite, chaotic, and vague and gradually becomes more definite, ordered, and clear.
Spencer’s third principle is that “our lessons ought to start from the concrete and end in the abstract” (1928, 60). This he considered crucial for all teaching, especially in the early years. He argued that abstract ideas are accessible and meaningful only in the later years of schooling, and even then he pointed out that instruction of new material should begin with concrete aspects of it from the student’s experience and then move gradually toward abstractions. Elementary school lessons should deal always with the practical and the concrete, with children’s everyday experience, which they understand by dint of their own explorations and active involvement: . . .
Fourth, the “education of the child must accord both in mode and arrangement with the education of mankind, considered historically” (1928, 60). Spencer believed that the child’s experience was like that of our distant ancestors faced by the phenomena of the world around them and trying to comprehend them. . . . The recapitulate, to use Spencer’s term, in a few years a process that has taken humankind millennia. Education may, then, learn from the process of cultural history how best to help the child’s mind navigate the process of intellectual development.
Fifth, “in each branch of instruction we should proceed from the empirical to the rational” (1928, 61). We cannot organize knowledge meaningfully until we have first made it our own and understood it inner own way. “Every study, therefore, should have a purely experimental introduction” (62). So science begins with experiments in the everyday world around the child, geography begins with the immediate environment the child lives in, history begins with the events that impinge on the child’s life, and so on. It is the practice, meaningful world of the everyday life of the child, in which can be found the originating material for our explorations out toward complex, organized knowledge.
The sixth principle is that “in education, the process of self-development should be encouraged to the uttermost. Children should be led to make their own investigations and to draw their own inferences. They should be told as little as possible, and induced to discover as much as possible” (1928, 62). This principle was to be a foundation stone of the new pedagogy. The teacher was not to be the most active members of the classroom. The teacher must not spend time telling students what they are to learn, as though telling were sufficient for learning; that simply makes children, in Spencer’s words, “mere passive recipients of our instruction” (63). In the new educational scheme, the teacher will be the facilitator of the child’s active learning. . . .
“Progress,” of course, captures something essential about Spencer’s educational beliefs. No wonder the educational movement to incorporate his principles most fully was called “progressivism” in the United States.
As you read this, you probably felt as though Spencer’s ideas could have been written yesterday, they sound so familiar and reasonable. I bet you even thought about the three branches of government story here. But even though these ideas sound reasonable, and we see them playing out throughout our schooling system, is there a problem here?
Dr. Egan says there is. Listen to this:
Spencer believed that his studies of evolution, biology, and psychology had given him the answer. He confidently claimed “that the evolution of intelligence in a child . . . confirms to laws; and it follows inevitably that education cannot be highly guided without knowledge of these laws (1928, 23). When children fail to learn in schools, the fault usually lies in the methods of instruction or in the failure of the curriculum to conform with the laws whereby children’s intelligence and learning work.
The answer Spencer proposed was to devise methods of instruction, learning environments, and a curriculum that did conform with the underlying laws of children’s learning and development. Once methods and curricula more hospitable to children’s natural modes of learning were in place, their desire for knowledge would be released, and a revolution in learning would occur.
The progressive movement in particular, but many others, too, have been convinced of this idea, and in the twentieth century immense amounts of time, energy, ingenuity, and money were expended on trying to make learning in schools match children’ spontaneous learning in the household, street, and field. The holy grail of progressivism — to let the metaphors run free — has been to discover methods of school instruction derived from and modeled on children’s effortless learning and so bring about the revolution promised by Spencer and by progressives throughout the twentieth century. In spite of all this ingenuity, effort, and money, the revolution hasn’t shown much sign of occurring.
What is the error? Well, Dr. Egan mentions two here — I will point out the second:
The worse error I want to expose, in Spencer’s writings and today, is connected with the common belief that children’s minds have some preferred natural kind of learning and that if we can isolate and understand it we can then make the educational process more efficient and effective.
One of the main problems here, that I think we will be in agreement with is this:
A basic principle urged on educators is that we must make teaching and curricula “subservient to that spontaneous unfolding which all minds go through,” in Spencer’s words, or that methods in education are “ultimately reducible to the question of the order of development of the child’s powers and interests” (Dewey 1964, 435), or teaching and curriculum must be “subordinated to spontaneous and psychological development” (Piaget 1970, 716).
The point here, that I think we can relate to, given our previous explorations is this: part of the unfolding that Spencer and the progressives are referring to is a development of learning that necessarily moves from the concrete to the abstract. The problem that we run into is that neither ‘concrete’ nor ‘abstract’ are well defined. The problem that Dr. Egan rightfully points out is that children are quite capable of abstract thinking (depending on how we are defining abstract). He points out, for example, that children, by age four, “who are exposed to symbols do not confuse writing, numbers, and drawings. They have no apparent difficulty in grasping that symbols refer to things” p. 61. Another example given is children are quite capable of understanding stories that are clearly abstract and seemingly removed from their direct experiences, such as understanding Peter Rabbit or Hansel and Gretel.
Herein lies part of the problem with the ‘progressive’s thinking’ and Dr. Egan’s thinking. The problem lies in the way we define concrete and abstract and how background experience brings meaning to each. As we have found with our readings in neuroscience, and in our consideration of lived-body experience, it should be clear that we do need many different bodily experiences to enable us to weave together an understanding of the cinnamon bun. But we don’t need to have direct experience with the cinnamon bun as a distinct entity in and of itself to have some understanding of the cinnamon bun. You can see one of the important problems of the progressive thinkers — they have adopted a spectator view and are dealing with ‘things’ and independent objects. By reducing learning experiences to necessitate ‘concrete experiences’ with objects that are distinct (whole and independent), the potential experiences available are reduced.
Let me talk about this in terms of the three branches of government. The ‘progressives’ such as Dewey and Piaget, are suggesting that children can’t understand government until they have had concrete experiences with government. And if we were to adopt the spectator view of knowledge and understanding, we might be inclined to agree. But we know this is not the case. A child can understand the three branches of government, regardless of their abstract nature, as long as we draw together aspects of their previous experience that would help them weave together an understanding. This is not to suggest that the child could have a ‘complete’ understanding of government. But understanding is not an ‘either/or.’ Understanding is a progression from less advanced to more advanced.
As you can imagine, there was a time when it was very popular to think that students had to learn from the simple to the complex, the concrete to the abstract. We still struggle with these ideas in schools today. Let’s take a rather simple, and common example. In some math programs it is thought that one learns, hands-on, to do counting first, then addition, then subtraction, the . . . . I am sure you get the idea. One thing builds on the other. But this is a bit like saying that a child must first have experience with dough before moving on to shaping the dough. Then the child should move on to sprinkling cinnamon on the dough. This would be a move from the simple to the complex in an attempt to learn about cinnamon buns. It might seem to be a clearly mistaken idea when we think of understanding cinnamon buns, but this idea of moving from simple to complex has, as we now know, been foundational in schooling practice.
Let’s look at this in terms of math instruction.
To put your understanding to the test, and to help advance your understanding regarding this foundational idea of simple to complex/concrete to abstract, let’s look at the following video documentary and see how these foundational ideas are playing out in the authors’ descriptions of myths and realities as they apply to mathematics education for children.
Questions (Third Set Continued)
You might find this response question a bit more difficult. It is meant to be a challenge. I know from the responses I have been receiving from you that you are up to the challenge.
10. You be the judge. How are the teachers in the following video documentary using, or opposing, the foundational ideas you listed in your previous answer?
Until next time 🙂