The Great Rethink in Education
The premise: to create a venue for deep discussion and debate about real substance. Too many education conferences tacitly assume that the big questions in education have been answered, or are uncontroversial, or even that the contours of the debate are clear. But in fact, education badly needs more philosophical thinking, more first principles debate, and an open, illuminating clash of big ideas.
Dan Willingham on endemic unclarity about the purpose of education
Joe Connor on the new school choice policy landscape
discussions on everything from new approaches to adolescent education, the history of classical education, discussions of diversity in the canon, access vs. innovation, the parent vs. the state, and more
The conference went incredibly well, which means that we’ll be doing it again. This first one was a sort of stealth experiment, but we’ll announce information on the next one here. So subscribe if you haven’t already.
Below, find an abbreviated version of my opening remarks.
Effecting Enlightenment in Education, 400 Years Late
The Enlightenment never properly reached education.
We got the scientific revolution, an entirely new consensus about how to approach and understand the natural world. The industrial revolution changed everything about how we live, work, travel, build, and more. We got waves of social change: the replacement of the Old World with many interrelated New Worlds, political revolutions, new conceptions of universal citizenship, human freedom, dignity, and rights.
Education, though? It’s changed, but not that much. In many respects, we’ve regressed in terms of clarity.
For roughly two thousand years before the Enlightenment, education—especially what we would today call primary school, that is, roughly K8 education—was relatively stable. Its two main jobs were the language arts (i.e. literacy and rhetoric), and moral elevation through engagement with a cultural canon. It was drill and kill, with far more sticks than carrots. But you learned how to read, speak, and write, and you committed some things to heart that were supposed to improve it—Homer, or the Bible, or Pilgrim’s Progress, or other things depending on exactly where and when you were getting schooled.
The Enlightenment brought a culture-wide emphasis on fresh thought, an optimism about progress, a radical appreciation for discovery and experiment, a valorization of freedom as a moral ideal. All of these ideas have implications for education. Thinkers like Comenius, Locke, and Rousseau theorized about these implications—but not much changed in practice. Primary education remained largely classical for another three centuries.
It wasn’t until the late 19th century that it was blindingly, glaringly obvious to most everyone that education needed a change. But by this time, the Enlightenment had become more complicated and contentious. The clear direction of individualism, freedom, and discovery had faded. The preferred ideals about education had some Lockean flavors, but were mostly dominated by other ideas. Some prominent ones:
a concern for a democracy that emphasizes collaboration and compromise as much as or more than freedom
a desire for social reform and equality along the lines of culture, race, class, and sex
a (now-condemned) bent towards social selection and control
a need for vocational training in a rapidly changing economy
a new understanding of and reverence for the psychology and biology of child development
doubling down on the older tradition, on transmitting a civilizational core as the job of education
making the knowledge curriculum much more science-centric
These ideas often conflicted, and even where they didn’t conflict, it was not clear which were most fundamental or how they were to be integrated. And this medley of ideals came to characterize the discourse on education precisely at the time that education was being universalized, scaled, and bureaucratized. The moment that we transitioned away from fragmented, one-room schoolhouses and towards something somehow different, was also the moment that the philosophies that underpin education were at their most unresolved.
The result of this dynamic is that our education system today is beset by two very difficult problems. There’s a philosophy problem, and an engineering problem.
The philosophy problem is the one I alluded to above: unclarity about the purpose of education. This is a philosophical problem because it’s a problem of ethics. There’s no way to answer this question of the purpose of educating growing human beings without some sense of the good life at which they ought to be aiming. Even on more delimited views of the purpose of education, e.g. to equip you for material success, you need at least some sense of what success means and why it is worthwhile enough to be devoting a large portion of childhood to it. Education is complicated, so if you lack that sense, you’ll end up at cross-purposes with yourself.
Another major area where philosophy comes up is epistemology: what does it mean to equip a child with knowledge, and how does one do this? Many Enlightenment thinkers coalesced around a view of knowledge being built from experience, and therefore gravitated to educational methods that took experience more seriously. The progressives also talked about experience, but meant this in a very different way, one that was more pragmatic and social. With the always-looming Old Way—you learn things from teachers and books—how does this work, exactly? Are there better and worse ways to do it?
And there are other philosophical questions. A big one is the nature and importance of choice, the sense in which children do (or don’t) need to be voluntarily active in their learning and growth.
So: volition, knowledge, values. What are their natures, and, for educators especially, what is their genesis in a developing person?
These are contentious questions, obviously, but the thing to note here is that these are difficult questions. Attempting to answer them takes hard work. It’s notable that, today, there don’t seem to be too many people interested in doing that work. In most schools, philosophical questions about the purpose of education are overtly eschewed, and even in schools where they are not, it’s uncommon to find formulations clear enough to provide direction and common ground.
Besides this thicket of perennial philosophical problems, there’s also what I call the engineering problem. Assuming you can articulate what’s important about human nature and life, how do you actually reliably help someone grow into it?
People tend to think of this primarily as a research question, and to some extent it is. But it has more in common with problems of invention, with product development. You need a method, which involves at least some curricular materials, learning exercises, best practices for teachers and related training, mechanisms for record-keeping and assessment, classroom routines and policies, and an architected learning environment.
Figuring all of this out is largely a process of design thinking: of trying things out, problem-solving issues, explicitly testing how well solutions generalize, making all the elements fit well together, and iterating this process continuously.
The greatest example of this type of work in the 20th century is Montessori’s approach. Drawing heavily from pioneering work in special education by Seguin, she spent years fleshing out a new approach to early childhood education in tremendous implementation detail. The Montessori approach is striking partly for its specificity. It’s a whole system and a finely tuned one, where the details matter as much as the big picture approach. Montessori considered herself a scientist. She was a scientist, with notable empirically grounded contributions to developmental theory. But the sense in which she was most a scientist is that she took a broadly scientific approach, a design thinking approach, to her pedagogical engineering.
Like philosophy, engineering is hard work. And, like philosophy, it’s work that, surprisingly, is rarely done in an ambitious way. At the level of actual implementation and practice, it’s rare to find a Montessori type. (Many of the more philosophically minded educators and educational theorists in recent history have seemed notably less interested in this sort of work. This has resulted in a massive theory-practice split between schools of education, which extol more progressive ideas, and actual schools, where it is often very unclear what it would mean to implement these ideas systematically.)
These two things—novel, clear philosophical thinking coupled with novel, broadly scientific methods of innovation—were the drivers of the Enlightenment revolutions in other domains. Insofar as education suffers today, it suffers because of this lack.
But even though it’s late, it’s not too late. And it’s definitely better late than never.
Actually, I am incredibly optimistic about the education landscape today. For all the ways that it is confused and all the ways that it causes harm to students, overall, I think it’s probably never been better.
The education system by and large is seriously problematic, and I think more harmful than most realize. But an honest look at the history of education reveals that it has never been great. Just for reasons of there being a low bar for progress in the field, probably even on average primary education is at a historical high point, or at least close.
But it’s definitely true that it’s never been better if you look towards the cutting edge. If you’re thoughtful and resourceful, there has unquestionably and obviously never been a better time to be a parent or educator. There are so many great resources and ideas to draw from. There is a wealth of theory, of practice, of materials, of technologies, of communities, of alternative approaches and schools. And, right at this moment, in 2022, all of this is on an upward trajectory. There are more homeschoolers and microschools and policy is becoming more friendly to both. Skepticism is on the upswing, not just about both the tired status quo methods but also half-baked alternative methods. There is a cultural openness to fresh thinking in education.
This kind of openness has happened periodically for the last hundred or so years. And the innovations of the last century, even if they are spotty and unevenly distributed, are real.
For those of us on the cutting edge, the opportunity is to finally do the work. It’s to do the philosophical thinking and pedagogical engineering to finally start a real educational revolution. It means not being content with mere criticism or incompletely articulated and realized ideals. It means follow-through of a kind that education has, I think, never seen.
And it means hard thinking. It means disagreement and debate. It means having real, serious product development cycles on long time horizons. Like the other Enlightenment revolutions, this is probably a 100-year process—but also like the other such revolutions, progress starts right away.
My selfish desire for this conference is to be a place that fosters this ambitious thought and work in education. Idealism and futurism are common in education, but serious ambition is not. And serious ambition thrives on camaraderie, on argument, on caring about the problem so much that we get clear enough to disagree on solutions.
Thanks for coming. I’m looking forward to a weekend of deep discussion.