It always amazes me how our new discussions are almost always repeats of older ones. Even this, of course, is an old topic—I’ve even heard people argue that almost any topic we might contest today can be found in Plato. Me, I generally don’t go back that far in my search for prior argument: the fifties and sixties, I usually find, will do.
Right now, I am exploring two books that seem to work well side-by-side, helping me sharpen my muddled thinking on education: B. F. Skinner’s The Technology of Teaching and Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed. The former, as I wrote in a post a few days ago, concentrates on method while the latter deals with the systems of education. They both, however, recognize the problems of education in the 1960s—the problems, it turns out, of today as well. And they make similar points, though often from quite different perspectives.
It is important that the student should learn without being taught, solve problems by himself, explore the unknown, make decisions, and behave in original ways, and these activities should, if possible, be taught. But when? The traditional strategy has been to teach thinking while teaching subject matter, and some sort of conflict is then inevitable. Instruction designed simply to transmit what is already known has often neglected the teaching of thinking. Some recent reforms have swung to the other extreme: in making sure that the student learns how to think, they neglect the transmission of what is known. (116)
Only dialogue, which requires critical thinking, is also capable of generating critical thinking. Without dialogue there is no communication, and without communication there can be no true education. Education which is able to resolve the contradiction between teacher and student takes place in a situation in which both address their act of cognition to the object by which they are mediated. Thus, the dialogical character of education as the practice of freedom does not begin when the teacher-student meets with the students-teachers in a pedagogical situation, but rather when the former first asks himself what he will dialogue with the latter about. (81-82)
“When” and “what.” Eventually these lead both thinkers to “how.” Both recognize, as most of us who teach do, that there are differences between transmittal of information and encouraging thinking. Skinner never did see programmed instruction as sufficient to education, only as an adjunct allowing successful transferal. Just so, Freire never claimed that it is the goal of the “banking model” that is so bad, but the method.
Though it has been over 40 years since these books were written, we have not progressed beyond the state of education as it was when they were writing. Why? Even if we do, in fact, have a number of different “how’s” around, some of them stemming from Skinner, some from Freire, and some from elsewhere, we haven’t made substantive changes in our educational structures and methods for generations.
Why not? The information is out there. We know what works. But we don’t seem to have the will to institute it. Instead, we keep exploring, pretending we are seeking reform but, finally, doing no more than repeating what has already failed.
If education is to improve, it is going to require much more than simply reform, but complete restructuring. But that takes guts and vision. Skinner and Freire had both. Has anyone today? Anyone, that is, who can actually effect change?
I don’t know. But, reading these books, I am becoming re-radicalized... and am looking about for that someone who can lead us out of our contemporary educational morass.