Under pressure teachers may make things too easy for their pupils by relieving them of the necessity of finding things out for themselves. By dint of brilliant teaching they succeed in almost eliminating the learning process, so that pupils come to depend on the teacher, not on themselves. The more accomplished such teachers are in getting pupils to pass exams, the worse they become as genuine educators1.
Why were the public schools so tenaciously wedded to the classical curriculum? For generations classicists had convinced themselves that their subjects alone developed habits of mind that were genuinely ‘transferable’2, which enabled their former pupils to use to good effect when dealing with contemporary issues. As evidence they cited that every prime minister, except Disraeli, had been educated at a public school, as had all but seven of the seventy men who held high office in education, and all but eight of the eighty bishops and cathedral deans. So, was it really lots of Latin and Greek, and very little science that made for superior minds? Might not some other aspect of that rich cocktail of public school life be responsible? Was it because they were boarders, or was it the sublimation of adolescent energy into games and team spirit, or the unremitting competition and physical toughness? Or was it simply in the boys’ genes, or the wealth of their parents… or was it because that, from their earliest years, they were simply told that they were the best, and came to believe it?
It was the research of a young American, Edward Thorndike3, published in 1901 (but conveniently ignored this side of the Atlantic for many years) that proved that ‘habits of mind’ were shaped by much more than the discipline of a single subject. Thorndike had been much influenced by the work of the Russian, Ivan Pavlov4, on conditioned responses in animal learning from which he went on to formulate two laws; one of these related to how an ‘association’ of ideas led to an automatic response, while the other showed how punishments and rewards could be used to strengthen a preferred (that is, desired by the teacher) conditioned response. Students who had learnt one foreign language well were in a good position to learn a second foreign language easily; whether or not they could later become good administrators of a distant colonial territory, was more dependent on the survival skills learnt in the rough and tumble of a boarding school, or in the back streets of an industrial town. Thorndike demonstrated that the degree of positive or negative transfer between one learning task and another is dependent on the degree of essential similarity between two situations; otherwise transfer is virtually nonexistent.
While Freud5 was postulating that human behaviour had to be understood in terms of instincts inherited from past generations, and reshaped during the lifespan, American psychologists saw this as being far too speculative. They wished to ‘reclaim’ psychology as a highly quantifiable, research-based discipline rooted in objective empirical evidence. Dominant in this was John B. Watson6 who repudiated almost everything set out by the earlier psychologists, especially the issue of consciousness which he dismissed as “neither a definable nor useful concept, and is simply another word for the ‘soul’ of more ancient times”. Any search for evidence of inherited predispositions was discarded. Henceforth psychology would be ‘a purely objective, experiential branch of natural science’7.
Behaviourism would emphasise the precise quantification of inputs (what was to be taught) and outputs (what was to be measured). Thorndike, after his ground-breaking work on transferability, went on to claim that this was the basis for a scientific model of learning. J. B. Watson, in his single-minded enthusiasm, made the boldest of claims ever to come from a psychologist when he said, in 1925, “Give me a dozen healthy infants, well-formed, and my own specified world to bring them up in, and I’ll guarantee to take any one at random and train him to become any type of specialist I might select ─ doctor, lawyer, artist, merchant-chief, and yes, even beggar man and thief, regardless of his talents, penchants, tendencies, abilities, vocation and the race of his ancestor”8.
The management of external motivation, and the construction of a closed environment, were the key components of the behaviourists’ model of learning. While Darwin’s theory of evolution, once understood, emphasised the importance of inherited instincts, behaviourist theoreticians gave overwhelming primacy to controlling the learning environment, the dominance of the teacher, the school as the pre-eminent place of learning and the curriculum as the definition of the dominant set of values held by that society9. Here was the ‘the perfect system’ to equip millions of young people for a straight forward life as producers and consumers in a modern society. Learning from henceforth became something schools did to you. In a perversion of the natural process of learning, teachers were now to become increasingly more important to learning than the students’ own responsibility for thinking things out for themselves. “The over-taught child is the father of the newspaper-reading, advertisement-believing, propaganda-swallowing, demagogue-led man, the man who makes modern democracy the farce that it is”, warned Aldous Huxley10.
Thesis 59: 24th August 2006