Environment and Children: Passive Lessons from the Everyday Environment


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Spencer's Principles of Psychology is spotted with examples of his conclusions applied to pedagogy, in the form of appealing brief scenarios of a kind still familiar in Education texts. Reflections on logic lead him to invite his readers to suppose "I am giving a child a lesson in Mathematics, carried on after that concrete method which teachers, were they wise, would habitually adopt as an initiation" , Vol. II, p.


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He sits with the child playing marbles. The child has fifty marbles and Spencer demonstrated that one can make squares of four marbles on each side and see that these squares have sixteen marbles in them.

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With fifty marbles one can make three such squares and have two marbles left over. Or one can make five sided squares, two of which will use up all fifty marbles. One can classify the marbles and form sets based on those that are chipped or have striped designs, and so on. Thus Spencer begins the child's understanding of mathematics in play with familiar and simple concrete objects, showing how "sensible experience" carries the child's mind "to the numerical truths" , Vol.

Of course this use of play as a paradigmatic form of natural learning is hardly new. Plato observed that one shouldn't "use force in training the children in the studies, but rather play. In that way you can also better discern what each is naturally directed towards" Plato, The Republic, a. Plato also described this as a procedure practiced long ago by the Egyptians.

The ideal example of an educational practice that violated all Spencer's principles, but was still commonly used, was "the vicious system of rote learning" a, p. Rote-learning has remained for progressive educators the epitome of the unnatural, forced, and meaningless: "To repeat the words correctly was everything; to understand their meaning nothing" a, p. The related epitome of bad educational practice was to teach rules first and examples later, as in "that intensely stupid custom, the teaching of grammar to children" Spencer, , p.

The student should also experience the particulars not simply be told them. The educational principles he had outlined would, Spencer believed, overcome the horrors of the daily Press and the useless, ornamentally-educated minds that were prevented from seeing so much of what Nature was thrusting on their attention.

References

Like Karl Marx in announcing the specter of Communism stalking Europe, before most people had even heard of it, Spencer announced the imminent universal success of the new principles of learning:. The forcing-system has been, by many given up. The once universal practice of the learning by rote, is daily falling more into discredit. All modern authorities condemn the old mechanical way of teaching the alphabet.

The multiplication table is now frequently taught experimentally. In the acquirement of languages, the grammar-school plan is being superceded by plans based on the spontaneous process followed by the child in gaining its mother tongue a, pp. Spencer might be saying the same today, as many do.

Why, he and his modern followers wonder, cannot educators attend to the principles of learning exemplified so straightforwardly when children are active and at play in their everyday environment? Why, instead, do teachers become caught up forcing an artificial curriculum into children's minds using out-dated methods, making the learning painful and inefficient for the child and the teaching frustrating and inefficient for the adult? Part of Spencer's success in stimulating a revolution in educational theory if not in practice was due to his rhetorical strategies. Apart from his own conviction, and his presenting learning as some kind of binary moral choice between the traditional, passive, forced, and vicious, and the progressive, active, effortless, and pleasurable, he constantly intersperses his arguments with attractive and plausible images of the new methods at work.

In contrast with an image of frustrated and unhappy children toiling indoors over dull textbooks. Consider this typical example of Spencer's descriptions of his proposed methods at work:. Every botanist who has had children with him in the woods and lanes must have noticed how eagerly they joined in his pursuits, how keenly they searched out plants for him, how intently they watched while he examined them, how they overwhelmed him with questions a, p.


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  • Who could be against methods that promised such scenes of eager learning? But consider, as something of an astringent drawn from reality, Beatrice Webb's account of just such an outing with Spencer. When Beatrice and her siblings were released from their governess' traditional classes and given over to Spencer's educative care, she exuberantly describes how "the philosopher found himself presently in a neighbouring beech-wood pinned down in a leaf-filled hollow by little demons, all legs, arms, grins and dancing eyes, whilst the older and more discrete tormentors pelted him with decaying beech leaves" p.

    This might indeed have been of more value in some ways to the children than lessons with the governess, but Webb's account of Spencer's pedagogy leaves one to wonder:. Obviously it is unfair to use this example as typical of what happens when Spencer's principles are put into practice.

    But the gap between the predictions of what will result from engaging children's "natural" learning and the result from trying to do so in practice has been consistently very wide. To committed progressivists, it is also something of a puzzle, and each generation who recommends much the same principles has to give a new explanation why their predecessors failed to produce the promised results in the past.

    Spencer himself took many of his principles from Pestalozzi. How to explain this failure? Even with "the choicest tools, an unskilled artisan will botch his work" , p. Derek Bickerton bemusedly concludes that "for a species that spends so much of its time thinking, we don't have much of a handle on the subject" , p.

    Introduction

    We might say the same about "learning," while adding that we don't have much of a handle on how to distinguish the things we call "thinking," "learning," and "development. I mention this because I will introduce my single point about learning by stealing a few paragraphs that might equally well appear in the following chapter on development. Spencer's homogeneous to heterogeneous law requires that human beings start life outside the womb with virtually nothing in the way of mind and then gradually learn from the environment's tutelage the array of knowledge of the typical adult.

    In his scheme, we start from "low and vague beginnings" , Vol. Perhaps the most famous exposition of this notion is William James's description, in his Principles of Psychology of infants perceiving only a booming, buzzing confusion. If vagueness and confusion are the prime criteria of intellectual development, I fear that I'm heading in the wrong direction; "booming, buzzing confusion" seems an increasingly good description of the state of my mind.

    No-one familiar with research on infant cognition during the past quarter century or so can take Spencer's views seriously. It is precisely the infant's intelligent staring at particular features of their environments that has provided a tool to investigate their early learning. In the next chapter, I will detail some of the cognitive competencies of infants, which decisively undermine all those schemes based on babies' supposedly blank minds. What is particularly interesting, for my present purpose, is that the accumulating evidence of infants' surprising range of knowledge and intellectual competence should not be seen as evidence of general cognitive abilities.

    That is, what infants can do, while surprising in light of millennia of theories that asserted the "blank slate" or empty condition of the mind at birth, is nevertheless limited and quite precise. As Howard Gardner puts it: "Try to get an infant to recognize faces upside down, or a toddler to speak a language which does not make phonemic distinctions or which requires that the child attends to every other word.

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    You will soon discover the powerful, specific constraints on cognition in Homo sapiens sapiens" , p. That is, effortless ease in one kind of intellectual act goes together with incapacity in acts that can look very similar. How are we to explain this? My purpose is to show that the process Spencer described, and on which he then based his central claims about methods of learning and teaching, is wrong.

    And I want to focus on its wrongness in such a way as to raise problems for the methods of learning and teaching that remain largely taken for granted today.

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    So I want to emphasize the irregularities, the peculiarity, and the differentiations in forms of human learning. The mind we have inherited from our evolutionary history is not one whose accumulation of knowledge and understanding proceeds in some gradual, regular, spontaneous, and undifferentiated way. This should be easier to recognize now as it is generally accepted that our evolutionary history is also quite unlike the gradual process Spencer imagined. Rather, in the process of our evolution we have experienced "radical reengineering of the whole brain" Deacon, , p.

    Our brain is like the product of an ingenious bricoleur, a scavenging odd-job tinkerer, reshaping and reusing old parts for new purposes, adding bits, attaching new to old bits, gerrymandering a functional, occasionally inspired, occasionally clumsy, organ. As Merlin Donald puts it: "modern human cognitive architecture is highly differentiated and specialized.

    The most straightforward challenge to the belief that we have a single, undifferentiated learning process comes from theories such as Fodor examines, which I mentioned earlier.

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    That the mind deploys some different modes for learning different things, particularly early in life, is an idea whose current prominence owes much to Noam Chomsky's work. Influential in the crumbling of behaviorist beliefs about learning was Chomsky's argument that children's experience of language was too fragmented and sparse for them to build up the complexity of regular syntactic structures evident in the average three or four-year-old. Also one can observe patterns in children's language-learning that make no sense if one assumes their learning is shaped entirely by their environment.

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    And in learning certain forms of language, they virtually never make mistakes. For example, if one child has a single doll and another child has three dolls, and you say "Give me a doll" or "Give me the doll," even three year olds will not be confused whom you are addressing. Chomsky argues that as these features of language-learning cannot be accounted for in classical theories, they must be explained by something else. The best candidate for "something else," he and others have argued, is a part or parts of the brain "pre-programmed" for language-learning. That is, we don't simply run some general learning program that we use to master language and then turn to learning algebra or phone numbers or faces or names or what hairstyle is fashionable.

    Language and faces seem to require very little effort. It is as though experience acts less as the whole source of such learning and more as a trigger with minimal information that kicks the program into action. Similarly, learning faces just isn't, notoriously, like learning names, or phone numbers, even though the last two contain much less information than the first.

    The power of our predisposition to learn language is evident in the cases of deaf children who have no signing parent. The relative specificness of language centers in the brain is indicated by results of localized brain damage in deaf adult signers.

    somozaci.tk They can imitate the physical movements involved in a sign but have become incapable of using such signs for linguistic purposes Poizner et al. Karmiloff-Smith suggests that such findings support the theory that we possess a "domain-specific, innately guided process that can get language acquisition off the ground even in the absence of a model. Ljubljana: Debora. Bida, G. Prikriti kurikulum, ideologija, prostor [Hidden Curriculum, Ideology and Space].

    Sodobna pedagogika, 63 1 , 96— Bizjak, H.

    Environment and Children: Passive Lessons from the Everyday Environment Environment and Children: Passive Lessons from the Everyday Environment
    Environment and Children: Passive Lessons from the Everyday Environment Environment and Children: Passive Lessons from the Everyday Environment
    Environment and Children: Passive Lessons from the Everyday Environment Environment and Children: Passive Lessons from the Everyday Environment
    Environment and Children: Passive Lessons from the Everyday Environment Environment and Children: Passive Lessons from the Everyday Environment
    Environment and Children: Passive Lessons from the Everyday Environment Environment and Children: Passive Lessons from the Everyday Environment

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