I have been working on a scientific paper for 2 years now, but I just can’t seem to finish it. Not because it is such a difficult thing to write, but because… well I have been very busy lately getting my PhD, writing books and teaching. Still I wanted to share the basic idea behind my paper and invite people to the discussion as if I’m correct most classic theories on education are maybe fundamentally flawed and this flaw could explain the gap between science and practice often felt in education.
Ok, big gasp. What?
Let me first introduce you to the Homo Economicus or the economic man. Wikipedia defines this as
the concept in many economic theories portraying humans as consistently rational and narrowly self-interested agents who usually pursue their subjectively-defined ends optimally.
But are most people consistently rational and narrowly self-interested? Researchers such as Kahneman, Tversky and Thaler say we are not. This sparked the now popular field of Behavioral Economics in which economy and psychology find each other to describe which kind of mistakes people often make that make us less rational in general. Maybe putting it to blunt: the idea is that the homo economicus doesn’t exist, but that we should look at how actual people react.
Ok, now let’s get back to education, not to introduce behavioral economics, but to ask if we haven’t made the same mistake as many classical economical theorists in building theories on non-existing kids.
Let’s take two very classic theorists on education: John Locke and Jean Jacques Rousseau. Both had a clear vision on what a child was. Locke described children as if they were a tabula rasa, a blank slate, which could mean everybody could learn anything. Rousseau with his Emile described a child as inherently good, but society and education can and often will corrupt the child.
Sorry, but children aren’t all born as blank slates, check genetics, nor as inherently good. But maybe you now will think, you are talking about theories that are centuries old. Yes, but if you look at neo-Rousseauian thinkers such as Sugata Mitra or Ken Robinson (I published arguments for this classification in a scientific paper in Dutch) they often still have the same reasoning as J.J.. If you look at the work by Anders Ericsson, e.g. his recent book Peak, you will notice that he only wants to accept a very limited amount of influence of nature on what people can achieve (e.g. length for playing basketball).
But let’s make it more practical and have a look at something that has been promoted for a long time in classrooms: group work. On paper it is a great way of teaching and a good idea to get everybody involved. But… students often hate group work because that just doesn’t seem to happen all of the times. It seems that we made a theory on group work but have build this on an image of perfect children while the children in your and mine classroom don’t seem to be so perfect but human, widening the gap between theory and practice. The reaction often seems to be that we start giving tips and advice to shape the children into the image so group work can work out fine.
I would like to describe the educational version of the homo economicus the Puer Educatione, although there is a big difference. As I have been checking many classic theories on education for a long time now, I haven’t discovered one single that returned in every theory, as in my examples of Locke and Rousseau I could already describe a big distinction.
Maybe we are ready in education to have a behavioral-turn such as we are seeing now in economic-theories. I do think evidence-based or maybe even better evidence-informed education has potential to fuel this turn, but I’m not convinced this will be enough as I think that there are Pueris educationes present also in the minds of many teachers and researchers.
Well, what do you think? Am I on to something?