Before that, into the time of pre-history, we have archaeological evidence of manufacture, sometime very sophisticated and personal, showing dexterity, an appreciation of the world and spirituality, with painting and markings as well as 3D objects, seeking to answer challenging questions and possibly control events. These skills will have been the product of original thought, refined and passed to another, further refined throughout time. The originator became, by default, a teacher and the other a learner.
Interaction with the world has been a feature of human growth over many thousands of years. We can surmise that the sensory experiences ensuring survival would have been sharply honed, especially as our early ancestors were not always the hunters, but would have been prey to other predators. Looking, listening, manipulating, sensing, drawing/recording, making noises and sounds akin to music might have been part of daily lives. The control of fire would have been a significant forward step and would have given rise to discovery, of glass and metals.
Roll forward many thousands of years and we encounter the formalisation of learning into specific spaces, overseen by a significant older person, enshrining the teacher-pupil relationship ever since.
In 1897 John Dewey, American education thinker, wrote
“I believe that all education proceeds by the participation of the individual in the social consciousness of the race. This process begins unconsciously almost at birth, and is continually shaping the individual's powers, saturating his consciousness, forming his habits, training his ideas, and arousing his feelings and emotions. Through this unconscious education the individual gradually comes to share in the intellectual and moral resources which humanity has succeeded in getting together. He becomes an inheritor of the funded capital of civilization. The most formal and technical education in the world cannot safely depart from this general process. It can only organize it; or differentiate it in some particular direction.
I believe that the only true education comes through the stimulation of the child's powers by the demands of the social situations in which he finds himself. Through these demands he is stimulated to act as a member of a unity, to emerge from his original narrowness of action and feeling and to conceive of himself from the standpoint of the welfare of the group to which he belongs. Through the responses which others make to his own activities he comes to know what these mean in social terms. The value which they have is reflected back into them. For instance, through the response which is made to the child's instinctive babblings the child comes to know what those babblings mean; they are transformed into articulate language and thus the child is introduced into the consolidated wealth of ideas and emotions which are now summed up in language”.
My Pedagogic Creed- John Dewey-School Journal vol. 54 (January 1897), pp. 77-80
Although this article was written 119 years ago, it still has resonance, as it seeks to strip away everything to be left with a central theme, children and their place in the world, seeking to make sense of what’s happening around them.
Dewey goes on to say
“With the advent of democracy and modern industrial conditions, it is impossible to foretell definitely just what civilization will be twenty years from now. Hence it is impossible to prepare the child for any precise set of conditions. To prepare him for the future life means to give him command of himself; it means so to train him that he will have the full and ready use of all his capacities; that his eye and ear and hand may be tools ready to command, that his judgment may be capable of grasping the conditions under which it has to work, and the executive forces be trained to act economically and efficiently.”
Many of Dewey’s ideas have found resonance throughout the past 116 years, influencing many of the thinkers of their day, setting the ground for purposeful engagement with significant themes. Piaget explored child development, Bruner, language development, Skinner, behaviour, and now we have Hirsch working with social capital, while Hargreaves and Fullan have explored Professional Capital.
Dewey coined the term visualisation, as a precursor to developing thinking, retaining an image which can be manipulated. Without the image in one’s head, it is more difficult to abstract, link and refine ideas.
Howard Gardner explored aspects of this with his theory of multiple intelligences. It is worth reflecting on Gardner and the background to his thinking, based on his own words.
“I want my children to understand the world, but not just because the world is fascinating and the human mind is curious. I want them to understand it so that they will be positioned to make it a better place. Knowledge is not the same as morality, but we need to understand if we are to avoid past mistakes and move in productive directions. An important part of that understanding is knowing who we are and what we can do. Ultimately, we must synthesize our understandings for ourselves. The performance of understanding that try matters are the ones we carry out as human beings in an imperfect world which we can affect for good or for ill”. (Howard Gardner 1999)
As Gardner was working in the era of psychometric testing, with intelligence being seen in very narrow, testable forms, his work would have been seen as somewhat subversive.
Today, some commentaries seek to vilify his work as extreme, but perhaps that is because of the varied interpretations of it, commoditising it, which have resulted in VAK learning styles being advocated as essential components of classroom learning. It is not clear that Gardner was suggesting the adoption of specific learning approaches for individuals, but maybe highlighting a model, in which we all “see” the world in different ways. I have recently seen this stated as Individual Preference in learning approach, as an alternative model, but it can all begin to seem to be slightly semantic. To my mind, he was stating how each of us seeks to make sense of the world and the multiple sources of information that assail us daily.
Presenting information as images, auditory experience or through artefact or concrete experiences would seem to describe most classroom approaches. Perhaps it is in the means by which children are asked to respond to these stimuli that causes perceived or real difficulty, as peer pressure inhibits a less articulate child into muteness, putting pencil to paper can restrict a child whose self-view is that they cannot write or draw.
The speed with which we take concrete apparatus away from learners will determine their ability to retain and use the clarity of visualisation of concepts. This can be especially keenly felt in mathematics, where a rapid move to arithmetic as pure number can leave many confused, but also unable to add to this knowledge as the abstraction to numeric form has already forms=ed a barrier to their learning.
· I believe that ideas (intellectual and rational processes) also result from action and devolve for the sake of the better control of action. What we term reason is primarily the law of orderly or effective action. To attempt to develop the reasoning powers, the powers of judgment, without reference to the selection and arrangement of means in action, is the fundamental fallacy in our present methods of dealing with this matter. As a result we present the child with arbitrary symbols. Symbols are a necessity in mental development, but they have their place as tools for economizing effort; presented by themselves they are a mass of meaningless and arbitrary ideas imposed from without.
· I believe that the image is the great instrument of instruction. What a child gets out of any subject presented to him is simply the images which he himself forms with regard to it.
· I believe that if nine-tenths of the energy at present directed towards making the child learn certain things, were spent in seeing to it that the child was forming proper images, the work of instruction would be indefinitely facilitated.
· I believe that much of the time and attention now given to the preparation and presentation of lessons might be more wisely and profitably expended in training the child's power of imagery and in seeing to it that he was continually forming definite, vivid, and growing images of the various subjects with which he comes in contact in his experience.
Visualisation allows some access to imagination and mental manipulation, taking a step from the known towards the unknown. A broad base of experience supports this process and this cannot be guaranteed, either outside or inside school experiences, but needs to be considered to provide a baseline. It is perhaps worth considering whether it is possible to carry out a task to a fulsome conclusion if there is no clear picture of a plan of action.
Dewey suggested that school, “Fails because it …….conceives the school as a place where certain information is to be given, where certain lessons are to be learned, or where certain habits are to be formed. The value of these is conceived as lying largely in the remote future; the child must do these things for the sake of something else he is to do; they are mere preparation. As a result they do not become a part of the life experience of the child and so are not truly educative”.
Throughout human existence, humans have been seeking to make sense of the world around them. For children, experiencing life and learning for the first time, this introduction has to be purposeful, engaging, challenging and supported as necessary by an interested expert.
Learning has not changed significantly, perhaps, whether making a flint tool or operating a tablet.
Daniel T Willlingham in his blog post http://www.danielwillingham.com/1/post/2013/06/what-type-of-learning-is-most-natural.html offers the following insight, “when a more knowledgeable person not only provides information but tunes the communication to the knowledge of the learner, that is, in an important sense, teaching.”