Here are a few quotes from a very interesting article that I was reading to prepare myself for the upcoming Global Plenary Debate at Open Educa Berlin on Thursday November 28th. The topic of the debate is: ‘This House Believes That an Obsession with Economics Is Harming Education and Undermining the Skills We Need for the Future’ .

The article was written by a very knowledgeable educational psychologist and sounds as if (s)he were a soul-mate (pardon my vintage hippy jargon here) of mine and my colleagues arguing against 21st century skills and discovery learning and for direct instruction. Unfortunately (s)he isn’t, but could be / have been. See if you can guess who that was and when (s)he said it.

WHAT shall the content of adult education be?
I shall not, within the space of a magazine article, try to give a complete answer to this question. What I shall try to do is to present the case for something which is now despised and rejected by many of those active in adult education and in education in general; namely, mere knowledge of facts, mere habits of conduct, mere skill and good taste in small particulars of art.
It is customary among the elite of educational reformers to disparage these particular, small, specialized items of achievement in favor of higher and more far-reaching powers, such as the ability to discover and organize and apply knowledge, versatility, readiness to change to fit a changing world, and creativeness. And probably a certain amount of such disparagement is healthy. But some of it seems to me to deserve attack as un­ ill advised, and misleading…

It is also customary to contrast mere knowledge, habit, skill, and the like, un­ favorably with intellectual power, character, and personality. What we should do, it is said, is to give men and women power to think, not a  package of ideas; to make their characters good and strong and benevolent, not to improve petty habits; to develop healthy, integrated personalities adjusted to the  real world of things and men, not to work piece­ meal at this,  that,  and the  other  detail of behavior and attitude…

We all desire, in order to meet the needs of a rapidly changing civilization, to make people adaptable, able to adjust themselves to changes, open-minded, and versatile. How shall we  do  this? The hoary fallacy answers, “By training the power of  adaptability.  Abandon your laborious inculcation of knowledge that will be outmoded in a decade or two. Cultivate versatility instead.”…

There is not space here to rehearse the facts and principles of psychology which demonstrate this.  I  may simply appeal to my readers’ good sense. Which group would be more likely to adjust themselves well to a totally new theory and treatment of cancer: a dozen men who now know all the different theories and treatments; or a dozen who have been taught only: “There is likely to  be  a great change in the theory and  treatment of cancer, and so we will learn nothing about it”? Which  group would be more likely to be versatile in any useful sense of the word whatever:  a score of men who had studied something­ sciences,  languages,  arts,  technology, or anything else-thoroughly, so as to know the truth that is known now; or a score of men who had tried to keep their minds open either by keeping them empty, or by indulging in exercises in pure  adaptability  devised  by adherents of the doctrine of adaptation for adapt­ ability’s sake?

The author was Edward Lee Thorndike and the article “In Defense of Facts” was published in the Journal of Adult Education in October 1935! If you’ve never heard of him, these are the first sentences in the Wikipedia lemma about him:

Edward Lee Thorndike (August 31, 1874 – August 9, 1949) was an American psychologist who spent nearly his entire career at Teachers College, Columbia University. His work on comparative psychology and the learning process led to the theory of connectionism and helped lay the scientific foundation for educational psychology.

You can download the whole article here.

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