Gian Piero de Bellis
Education, Schooling, Learning
The word "education" (from latin: e-ducere) means properly :
"leading out or drawing out the latent powers of an individual." (1)
In the ancient times this was thought to be accomplished by the whole range of experiences a human being goes through during his/her life time.
So, for many centuries the story of education has been the story of humankind developing his potentialities in the struggle for life.
"Children learned by experience, by practice and by imitation of adults, mainly in the home." (2)
During that long period no separation was established between life and education, between places where to live and places where to be educated.
"It was only with the invention of writing that a new kind of education arose, first in Egypt and Babylonia and later in Greece, which gave rise to schools since the work of teaching was now too skilled to be carried out at home." (2)
The existence of schools since the antiquity shouldn't cover the fact that, for the large majority of people and for a very long span of time, the only kind of education received would still have been only that arising from life itself, at home, in the fields, in the workshops, in the streets.
The scenario started to change radically in the western world following the appearance of two realities:
- the birth and consolidation of nation states;
- the emergence and spread of industrial factories.
The idea of national states in western Europe goes back to the late middle ages (Machiavelli, Bodin) but is only in the XIX century that the struggle for national entities succeeds to such an extent that, before the end of the century, Europe becomes a continent dominated by national states.
At the same time the industrial revolution, with his roots in England, spreads throughout Europe. With regard to this reality, the state, even if upholding neutrality (laissez faire, laissez passer), intervenes either mediating interests between the various sectors of the ruling élite (landowners - industrialists) or in the form of factory inspectors in order to put under control the worst excesses of the factory system.
What the H.M.Inspectors often reported was the brutal exploitation of children employed in the production, with the connivance of their parents, and this made the request of elementary general education through schooling an imperative for the most progressive minds.
In the beginning (first half of XIX century) it was the foundation of schools by broad minded people (like Robert Owen and his son Dale in Scotland).
Later on, with the expansion of the industrial mode of production (mechanization) and the enlargement of the role of the state (bureaucratization), the trend towards national education, that happened to mean state schooling, seemed not only possible (given the higher productivity achieved) but also recommendable (given the need for some basic technical skill in the working force).
Since the beginning of XX century the state has more and more intervened in the area of schooling (funding institutions, selecting personnel, approving curricula, granting access, validating diploma) to the point that, from that moment and for many people, education has become mingled/identified with schooling and school attendance.
The classic school system (^)
The state school system that has emerged in the last and has consolidated during the present century shows many similarities with the industrial system along which it developed.
The main points characterizing the ideal-type (3) school system in the age of national states and industrial expansion, need now to be highlighted in order to lay down the basis for a critical assessment that will lead to the formulation of present potentialities and future possibilities.
The life of a schooled person and the life of the school itself are regulated by a precise beating of time.
As remarked by L. Mumford,
"the clock, not the steam-engine, is the key machine of the modern industrial age." (4)
And this seems to be true for the factory as well as for the school.
There is an age time to get admitted and an age time to complete the process.
Time dominates the internal organization; the bell rings to mark the end of the lesson and the start of the new one as in the factory the hooter (replacing the sun in a rural productive setting) signals the beginning and the end of a working day. Following the Ecclesiastes, one could say that there is a time to learn, a time to work and a time to rest and all these life periods have been (compulsory) fixed by the state (school/employment/retirement). This rigid division of times means also a division/opposition between learning/resting/working activities.
In the pre-industrial world the work of the artisan is performed at home and so it goes until the existence of the cottage based system of production. After that, the industrial factory, a centrally located place, puts an end to the dispersion of the working force.
The same happens for the school. Education at home or in the many places where life takes place, is supplanted by education in a specific centrally located place: the school. And like the factories get bigger and bigger, so do the schools that become sometimes complex of many buildings, a walled citadel in which access is regulated by all sort of means (age, wealth, social status) and in which specific raw materials (data, minds, behaviours) are manipulated and processed.
Especially after the discovery of the printing characters, the written word expressed in books has been the principal moulding and communicating instrument adopted in schools.
And along with the book, the spoken word, mainly in the form of lecturing to an audience more or less compulsory assembled.
This situation finds his peak within the state school system at his apogee with the mass production of textbooks and the delivering of the same lectures over and over again.
The humanitarian inclination of many social reformers for general education, matched with the industrial need for the training of basic skills within the work force, have brought forward laws that have made schooling compulsory, up to a certain age level.
Since the beginning of this century (and especially from the second half) the number of schooled people has been on the increase all over the world. This means that an increased amount of resources (human, material, financial) have been allocated to the school system. Uniformation (curricula)
To cater for a growing market, made even bigger by the extension of the age of compulsory schooling, the need to standardize the provision of educational services has been imperative.
This has meant the planning of standard/uniform curricula valid for every student in that age-class and in that study-area. The standard curriculum could be considered as the equivalent, in a different context, of the Ford T model, available in every range of colour provided it was black.
The reason for a standard curriculum (input) , a part from its practical simplicity and economic feasibility, rests mainly in the desired product (output) the school system aims at: the transmission and replication of the same pattern of thinking/behaving assumed from the previous generation.
As expressed by Durkheim, the task assigned to the school by the society (that means by those having power in the society) is to reproduce and perpetuate itself: "la société ne peut vivre que s'il existe entre ses membres une suffisante homogénéité: l'éducation perpétue et renforce cette homogénéité en fixant d'avance dans l'âme de l'enfant les similitudes essentielles que réclame la vie collective." (5)
Besides homogenization, the industrial society needs more and more specialization, i.e. people with specialized skills. It is still Durkheim who remarks it: "Mais, d'autre côté, sans une certaine diversité, toute coopération serait impossible: l'éducation assure la persistance de cette diversité nécessaire en se diversifiant elle même et en se spécialisant." (5)
This has been achieved with the administration of specific curricula to different people in different study-areas. As the production process gets divided into bits in order to achieve a higher productivity, the learning process at school gets fragmented in subjects, each one of competence of a different teacher.
This means that reality itself gets fragmented in order to be mastered and possessed as items of knowledge.
The factory, in his classic model, is organized on the line of the division between manual and intellectual work, as clearly depicted by the advocates of "scientific management."
In the same way, school separates theory from practice, learning from doing. Learning is considered an abstract process that takes place in the minds and that has to do exclusively with the absorption of data and manipulation of symbols in an abstract way.
For this reason a high consideration is attributed to the ability of memorization/speculation while practical experience and the solving of practical problems are very low ranked and generally avoided as an impure interference with the noble world of pure ideas.
Points of dissatisfaction (^)
The classic XX century school model was the product of an era in which massification, standardization and fragmentation were the dominant features of social and economic life.
As stated by M.McLuhan and G.Leonard:
"Mass education is a child of a mechanical age. It grew up along with the production line. It reached maturity just at that historical moment when western civilization had attained its final extreme of fragmentation and specialization, and had mastered the linear technique of stamping out products in the mass." (6)
The reasons lying behind this model seem to be the same for both systems, namely:
- economic feasibility;
- technological practicability;
- cultural attitude.
But the systems encapsulated in both cases a series of negative aspects that are becoming more and more evident (and unacceptable) in coincidence with changes in the economic/technological/cultural scenario of western societies.
The negative aspects are mainly related to two basic characteristics of the classic school model.
They refer to:
Everybody is dealt with in the same way. The only differences taken into account are those of wealth (this results in assignment to different schools) and age (this result in assignment to different classes). Anything that has to do with personality (motivation, attitudes, interests, etc.) is considered practically irrelevant and of impediment to a smooth running of the school.
Every subject is presented in the same way.
Reading/listening/memorizing/repeating : this is the methodological learning quartet, the pillars that sustain the learning of every different subject. What cannot be reduced to this quartet (e.g. manual dexterity, body balance, intuitional insight, creative thinking, etc.) is considered outside the range of the schooling system and of no educational relevance.
The classic model has been repeatedly under attack by a series of pedagogues, the most remarkable and forerunner being John Dewey.
The school's critics have gained such a momentum that, starting from the late 60's, the idea of a society without schools has spread rapidly and acquired a vast audience and many advocates.
In educational psychology, since the late '50s, the cognitivist approach has emerged in opposition to a behaviourist view of learning.
As remarked by Tessmer and Jonassen:
"The mechanistic behaviourist model of human learning, with its view of learning as a simple, reflexive and quantifiable activity, was replaced by an active and organistic model. In this view, learners have organized knowledge bases and actively participate in the construction of their reality." (7)
The cognitivist approach to learning takes into consideration the
two aspects ignored by the classic school model, namely those referring
to the who (people) and what (content) of learning.
This is accomplished through the explicitation of two concepts:
Learning styles (who/how)
Learning styles refer to the learning actor and the way he/she deals with his/her experience.
Analyses of cognitive processes have shown that different people have different approaches to learning that originate from the individual differences (some constitutional, some acquired) of the learners (age, sex, social background, previous knowledge, motivation, etc.) and are in relation to the type of learning.
Learning types (what/how)
Learning types refer to the content of learning and the way it is processed and mastered by the learner.
R.Gagné (1970) lists eight types of learning arranged in a hierarchical order:
The problem with the classic school system is that neither learning styles nor learning types are acknowledged and put to use.
1) signal learning. Pavlovian conditioned response.
2) stimulus-response learning. Acquisition of a precise response to a discriminated stimulus.
3) chaining. Acquisition of a chain of two or more stimulus-response connections.
4) verbal association. Learning of chains that are verbal.
5) discrimination learning. Learning to make n different identifying responses to as many different stimuli.
6) concept learning. Acquisition of the capability of making a common response to a class of stimuli that may apparently differ widely from each other.
7) rule learning. A chain of two ore more concepts.
8) problem solving. Combination of rules into a great variety of higher order rules.
Similar to the "one best way" of the taylorian work organization, what dominates the teaching/learning process in schools is generally the one learning style (memorization) and the one learning type (stimulus-response).
On the contrary a new system should take into account:
- the plurality of learning styles;
- the variety of learning types;
- the interacting balance between them.
Moreover, all these aspects should be part of a learning framework that constitutes the essential conditions within which effective learning could take place.
They seem to refer to:
- freedom throughout learning experiences;
- motivation towards learning experiences;
- activation within learning experiences.
As expressed by Carl Rogers, significant learning :
- has a quality of personal involvement ("the whole person in both his feelings and cognitive aspects being in the learning event");
- is self-initiated ("even when the stimulus comes from the outside, the sense of discovery, of reaching out, of grasping and comprehending comes from within");
- is pervasive ("it makes a difference in the behaviour, the attitudes, perhaps even the personality of the learner");
- is evaluated by the learner ("he knows whether it is meeting his need, whether it leads toward what he wants to know");
- its essence is meaning ("when such learning takes place, the element of meaning to the learner is built into the whole experience"). (8)
Towards a new educational model (^)
The main aspects of an alternative system/environment for learning, that are already emerging as result of economical, technological and cultural changes, will now pointed out with the aim of sketching a new educational model contrasting the old one.
Time rigidity vs. time flexibility
The idea that there is a defined time (start-end) for education, shorter than one's life time, did not make much sense to almost any educationalist. Now, even the idea of a standard defined time for schooling is falling apart. Permanent education, adult education, recurrent education, alternation of studying and working periods and all sort of various combinations and flexible arrangements have broken down rigid partitions of time allocation. Perhaps, is the pace of change (social, cultural, etc.) that is forcing people to go back to the old idea of education as a lifelong process.
Place concentrated vs. space disseminated
If schools are transformed into workshops and offices become places where information is treated and knowledge engineered, the idea of a physical separation between learning and working places collapses.
And this is what has started to happen in many places.
Moreover, with the development and extension of communication tools that continuously involve the perceptual apparatus of an human being, education (in the form of information absorption) plays already a considerable role in the total living environment as it does in the total life span of a person.
Unidimensional vs. pluridimensional
Since the early '60s M.McLuhan has stressed the end of the mechanical information era based on the printing character and the emergence of an electronic global village. The new communication devices (senders/receptors) taken as extended senses of the human being can be used like powerful learning tools. And, because of the existence of different learning styles and learning types, a multi-media approach comes to be considered much more effective for educational purposes.
Massification vs. personalization
By the cognitive sciences, learning is assumed to be a personal autonomous process (performed individually or in group) of discovery and construction of meaningful realities.
And what to discover, how to do it, at what pace, for what purposes, all this can be different from person to person.
As stated by C.Rogers: "I have come to feel that the only learning which significantly influences behaviour is self-discovered, self-appropriated learning." (9)
Uniformity vs. variety
The trend towards personalization is matched and sustained by a trend towards variety in the paths through a knowledge network. Thanks to technological/ideational devices the restraints imposed by a standard curriculum have evaporated as those for a standard product. Writing at the beginning of the '70s, McLuhan and Leonard stated that "already, mechanized production lines are yielding to electronically controlled, computerized devices that are quite capable of producing any number of varying things out of the same material." (6)
In the field of educational technologies, fixed curricula in the form of programmed learning are giving way to flexible customized coursewares.
Conformity vs. creativity
The transmission of data and the adaptation to a static social environment are performed satisfactorily by studying the past, learning through conditioning and learning by rote.
A mismatch arise only when education for replication (ideas-behaviours) is made operative in a society that undergoes continuous changes. In this case what is required is a new learning process based on creativity and future oriented. This doesn't mean to suppress the study of the past or to abolish repetition and memorization (some tasks are better and easier learned in that way). It means only that the task of living in a changing environment requires the development of the ability-creativity to face new occurrences (cope-ability in Toffler's words) and to solve new problems (or old ones in a new way).
Fragmented vs. holistic
The falling down of barriers and boundaries as seen referring to time and places of activities, is involving also the way knowledge is treated. The fragmentation in distinct subjects and, inside a subject, in parts and sub-parts, even if shouldn't be dismissed being an useful way to master reality, is giving place to a more integrated approach that interconnects domains left, up to now, apart.
The same process of ricomposition-reintegration is happening in the factory with the advancement of automation and robotics.
Theory vs. practice
In this respect, J. Dewey has been the most famous advocate of an educational process inside the school that links theory with practice. In 'Democracy and Education' (1915) he remarks that
"education is not an affair of 'telling' and being told but an active and constructive process" and notices that this "is a principle almost as generally violated in practice as conceded in theory." (10)
But, to put this principle into practice means to get rid of the school as a separated sanctuary of frozen knowledge. And this, underlying the abolition between manual and intellectual work, would represent the culmination of a radical revolution in people's lives and in the entire social structure.
The etymology of the word 'education' is taken from
Cassel & Co. The Encyclopaedic Dictionary - vol.III - London 1904.
For the subtle changes in the meaning undergone by the word, see 'educated' in
Raymond Williams Keywords - A Vocabulary of Culture and Society - Fontana - Glasgow 1980.
For the history of the educational thought from origin to modern times, dealt mainly through the works of philosophers and pedagogists, it has been referred to
Elizabeth Lawrence The Origins and Growth of Modern Education - Penguin - Harmondsworth 1970.
A survey of the early period with a witty chapter on contemporary educational problems can be found in
E. B. Castle Ancient Education and Today - Penguin - Harmondsworth 1969.
For the industrial revolution, a part from the general introductory text by
T. S. Ashton The Industrial Revolution 1760-1830 - Oxford University Press - Oxford 1948
the main references have been
Adam Smith The Wealth of Nations - Book I - Penguin - Harmondsworth 1981
Karl Marx Capital - Book I - Lawrence & Wishart - London 1977.
The role played by mechanical devices and their influx on society is in
Lewis Mumford Technics and Civilization - Routledge and Kegan Paul - London 1955
The progressive views on education during the industrial revolution can be found in
Brian Simon (editor) The Radical Tradition in Education in Britain - Lawrence and Wishart - London 1972
a compilation of writings by W.Godwin, T.Paine, R.Owen and his son Dale Owen, R.Carlile, W.Thompson, W.Lovett and W.Morris.
For the origin of the state school system see
James Bowen A History of Western Education vol. III - Methuen & Co. - London 1981
A.V.Kelly Education - Heineman - London 1987.
For references to the industrial organization in the age of mass production, it has been referred to
Henry Ford (in collaboration with Samuel Crowther) My Life and Work - Heinemann - London 1922
Frederick Winslow Taylor Scientific Management - Harper & Brothers - New York 1947.
The parallel between school system and factory system is in
Marshal McLuhan and George Leonard The Future of Education - Look 1967
Alvin Toffler Future Shock - The Bodley Head - London 1970.
For the relationships between education and society see
Émile Durkheim Éducation et Sociologie - Alcan - Paris 1938
or the chapters on 'education' in
T.B.Bottomore Sociology - A Guide to Problems and Literature - Allen & Unwin - London 1972
Michael Haralambos (with Robin Head) Sociology - Themes and Perspectives - University Tutorial Press - Slough 1984.
Critical analyses about education in the schools can be found in the classic work by
John Dewey Democracy and Education - The Free Press - New York 1966
and, more recently, in
Ronald and Beatrice Gross (editors) Radical School Reform - Penguin - Harmondsworth 1972
especially in the writings by J. Kozol, J. Holt, J. Henry, Mario D. Fantini and G. Weinstein.
For the same critical outlook refer to
Percival Goodman Compulsory Miseducation - Penguin - Harmondsworth 1973
Neil Postman & Charles Weingartner Teaching as a Subversive Activity - Penguin - Harmondsworth 1971.
An interesting collection of documents that highlights the students dissatisfaction towards the system of higher education is
VV.AA. Quelle Université? Quelle Societé? - Editions du Seuil - Paris 1968.
For a radical alternative to the school system the texts taken into consideration are
Everett Reimer School is Dead - Penguin - Harmondsworth 1971
Ivan Illich Deschooling Society - Calder & Boyars - London 1971
Ivan Illich After Deschooling, What? - Writers and Readers Publishing Cooperative - London 1974
They represent the most explicit claim towards the overcoming of the present system.
More on debating this perspective can be found in two collections of readings, namely
P. Buckman (editor) Education Without Schools - Souvenir Press - London 1973
Ian Lister (editor) Deschooling : A Reader - Cambridge University Press - Cambridge 1974.
On the theme of learning, a short introduction is
Brian O'Connell Aspects of Learning - Allen & Unwin - London 1973.
A humanistic organicistic approach can be found in
Carl Rogers Freedom to Learn - Merril Publishing Co. - Columbus Ohio 1969.
An outlook on learning styles is in
Asher Cashdan & Victor Lee Learning Styles - Personality Growth and Learning Units 1 and 2 - The Open University Press 1971.
Learning types are in
R. M. Gagné The Conditions of Learning - Holt, Rinehart and Winston - New York 1970.
Learning strategies and the debate on educational psychology are in
Martin Tessmer & David Jonassen Learning Strategies : A New Instructional Technology - World Yearbook of Education 1988 - Kogan Page - London 1988.
For definitions of concepts related to the word 'learning' see
Derek Rowntree A Dictionary of Education- Harper & Row - London 1981.
For an international perspective on the future of education see the report by
Edgard Faure et alii Learning to Be - The World of Education Today and Tomorrow - Unesco - Paris 1972.
A more recent report is that prepared for the club of Rome by
J.W.Botkin-M.Elmandira-M.Malitza No Limits to Learning : Bridging the Human Gap - Pergamon - Oxford 1979.
A comparison between old and new paradigms in education/learning can be found in
Marilyn Ferguson The Aquarian Conspiracy - J.P.Tarcher - Los Angeles 1987. (Appendix)
( 1) Cassel Encyclopaedic Dictionary - 1904 - vol. III
( 2) E. Lawrence - 1970 - p.12
( 3) M. Weber - 1904 - Archiv für Sozialwissenschaft und Sozialpolitik
"An idealtype is formed by the one-sided accentuation of one or more points of view and by the synthesis of a great many diffuse, discrete, more or less present and occasionally absent concrete individual phenomena, which are arranged according to those one-sidedly emphasized viewpoints into a unified analytical construct (gedankenbild). In its conceptually purity, this mental construct (gedankenbild) cannot be found empirically anywhere in reality."
(from Kenneth Thompson & Jeremy Tunstall editors, "Sociological Perspectives" - Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1983).
( 4) L. Mumford - 1955 - p.14
( 5) E. Durkheim - 1938 - p.48
( 6) M. McLuhan & G. Leonard - 1967
( 7) M. Tessmer & D. Jonassen - 1988 - p.29
( 8) C. Rogers - 1969 - p.5
( 9) C. Rogers - 1969 - p.153
(10) J. Dewey - 1966 - p.38