No one 'best' way to teach
Current competition among theories of learning reflects entrenched philosophical differences.
Socrates taught by asking questions.Skip to next paragraph
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Plato, his student, warned against training youths by "force and harshness." Meanwhile, Sophists argued for teaching facts and lecturing.
Fast forward to the 16th century, and the Dutch humanist scholar Desiderius Erasmus was bucking the rigid educational practices of his day, berating teachers who taught by "hammering [grammar] rules into children's heads." He recommended playing games as part of Latin studies.
Remarkably similar battles continue today.
In the intellectual wrestling over educational philosophies, old theories never really die - they just keep on shifting, adding new layers and new ideas as the centuries pass.
"The reformers come at you, saying, 'Have I got a proposal for you!' and there's often a feeling among educators of dj vu all over again," says David Tyack, professor of education and history at Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif. "It's clear that people often rediscover the same ideas later."
Take the revolution that was occurring in education in 1762. Jean-Jacques Rousseau had just published his landmark book, "Emile," in France. Expounding his "natural" approach to learning, Rousseau wrote that the child is innately good, but his teachers - like all adults - are corrupted by the institutions of "civilized" society.
Because of this, educational processes should be child-centered, not teacher-centered or content-focused, Rousseau argued. Learning should happen in a natural environment. It should flow out of a child's development, not from a group of contrived experiences. To motivate children, teachers should rely on innate curiosity, not force.
Sound familiar? It might to Plato. And it might to many people today.
But Rousseau's natural approach was a revelation then. And so were the views of early 20th-century American educator John Dewey. Like Rousseau before him, he decried rigid, rote-oriented school systems, and advocated a "child-centered" education.
Around 1920, the push began in the US to dump stiff teaching and desks in straight rows. But in the 1950s, cold-war concerns and societal conservatism led to rejection of progressive education. Progressivism resurged in the 1960s, marked by innovations like open classrooms, cooperative learning, schools without walls, and whole-language reading instruction.
"The vocabulary changes, but the basic tension remains the same," says Nicholas Burbules, professor of educational policy at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. "It's not too much of an oversimplification to say that the battle playing itself out today between the discovery-oriented view versus the didactic view is just the latest incarnation of Plato and Socrates versus the Sophists."
In 1983, the landmark report "A Nation at Risk" cited a long decline in test scores, precipitating another pendulum swing back to basics. And with that push, back-to-basics is poised to thrive in the new millennium. But while Rousseau, Dewey, Plato, and others seem on the run, they are perhaps not entirely routed by back-to-basics legions.
An example of this dichotomy can be found in Washington, which, like dozens of states, is in the middle of a massive shift to "standards based" education. Legislators have mandated that schools teach specific knowledge, and test to make sure students learn it. Sophists rule.