Are most classic theories on education fundamentally flawed? Meet the Puer Educatione

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?

11 thoughts on “Are most classic theories on education fundamentally flawed? Meet the Puer Educatione

  1. Absolutely, you are on to something. Realizing that I held implicit philosophical beliefs about education that weren’t rooted in the reality of how people really learn was a major revelation for me.

  2. I think you’re on to something, yes.
    My own research into the concept of motivation shows a similar bias towards the well-meaning individual who acts rationally and in a socially supportive way in order to maximise self-development and (economical) sefl-fulfilment. The most popular theory on motivation (self-determination theory) states that individuals strive for self-actualisation as the highest goal, and that reaching this goal fulfills three basic needs: autonomy, competence and relatedness. My limited research so far has shown that this does not apply to all individuals. For some esteem of colleagues and friends is more important than self-realisation. For others the social aspects – having a group of close friends – is more important. You see similar things happening in a classroom setting. Some students learn for the intrinsic pleasure of learning, others seek the esteem of the teacher or their peers, a third group wants to gain acceptance in the social group, others still seek the (physical / emotional) safety of a classroom situation. Starting from the unrealistic assumption that ‘of course, students want to study hard, so they can get good jobs in life’, may be a similar misconception as Rousseau’s tabula rasa?

    1. Thanks,
      Can you give more examples from your research?
      I think that motivation not only gives this idea a beautiful example, but also creates an intriguing link between teaching and learning.

      One thing that came to my mind was the mentioning of motivation in the book “Letter to a Teacher by the
      Where the writers laugh and reject the mainstream demanded motivation, calling it the career reach boys motivation.
      So maybe there are many “motivations” and ignoring the social world and beliefs is one of a misconception?

  3. One of the reasons why Behavioral economics seems so interesting is because you can achieve a great effect with small nudges. By breaking through (irrational) patterns of thought, you change people’s behaviour. Add one sentence to your tax bill and increase the number of people submitting in time by 15%. (Source: pdf)

    In education, it is much more difficult to carry out such striking, publishable and mediagenic experiments because so many more child, teacher and school factors are involved. And perhaps the groups are too small, and you can ask questions about whether experimenting with students is ethical.

    Nevertheless, I think there is a great need to introduce insights from behavioral economics in education. Especially in distance learning and online education there will certainly be opportunities to optimize the online platforms.
    But as you say: just stopping thinking that people (and thus also students) make rational decisions would be a first step.

  4. This sounds very interesting and promising, a friend of mine did some research for his phd and found out that people make decisions based on emotions and afterwards the use ratio to defend them.
    So maybe education is more about managing emotional states.
    To bring students in a state of learning.
    And probably, the students will learn a lot easier because they are in the right state, or you bring them with the next nudge back in the right state.
    You can also do that on a group level.
    There has been done a lot of research about Large Groups Awareness Training. Writen down in the book: 9780471095101 Bradford, Leland Powers T-Group theory and laboratory method : innovation in re-education.
    If you start such a project, I really want to follow it.

  5. I liked the premise but lost your thread on group work which looked a little confused:
    “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 ”
    Group work (beyond 2?) is not liked as children are either left feeling their inital isolation as amplified or are paired up with those they are not otherwise socially attached to. They need to be steeled/hardened to work with strangers and undesirables that they will encounter in their future careers. An unfortunate pragmatic.reality?

    1. This wouldn’t be a bad thing if the goal is preparing them for an unfortunate pragmatic reality, but often the goal lies not in the group work itself but in the goals we want to achieve trough group work.

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