On adulting our way to learning
Or, 'Think like a ___________________'
Progressive education seems to be about breaking down boundaries - the boundaries between subjects and domain-specific thinking skills, the boundaries between school and the world of work, the boundaries between the present and the future. But the most pronounced boundary that is broken down, and the one that I think has the most impact on pedagogical decisions and student learning, is the breaking of boundaries between the world of the child and the world of the adult.
At first, this might seem counterintuitive: for an ideology so firmly rooted in Rousseauian childhood innocence, one might think boundaries would be firmly drawn between child and adult. According to Rousseau, children were best left in their natural state, uncorrupted by civilisation and its repressive structures. This valorisation of the natural has been extended to education, where adult professionals are perceived to have somehow emerged naturally and fully-formed as creative, problem-solving engineers, geneticists, even novelists. In other words, naturally, and by discovering their talents independently of any kind of intervention other than the guide on the side.
This idea of “thinking like a (INSERT STEM PROFESSIONAL)” is most tenuous in the fields of science and mathematics. Greg Ashman has written about prog-creep into the Australian Curriculum in more detail here. The progressive curse of knowledge is strong, and distinguished professionals with many years of education are often advocates for woolly ideas like ‘curiosity’ over domain expertise. It’s the kind of luxury belief that I have written about here. Something tells me NASA prefers to employ experts who know a few ‘facts’ about how to get rovers to Mars.
On the surface, the adulting approach to reading is less tenuous. I say on the surface because there is some (flawed) support for whole language approaches. If you have a spare 40 minutes, you can learn from The Reading Ape about the early science that initially seemed to justify whole language instruction. Strong adult readers do seem to be able to recognise whole words. And did you notice the word, “adult” there? One of the most insidious issues with whole language instruction is that a small chunk of students will survive poor reading instruction, so it is hard to eradicate entrenched practices. But surely we want the vast majority to read?1
Writing instruction has also been held back by the workshop approach, used by fluent, adult writers who have intrinsic motivation and interest, and who are able to draw on a wealth of vocabulary, knowledge and experience. You can read more about it here, but anyone familiar with the idea that writing is just a ‘muscle’ that needs a regular workout will recognise this approach. I don’t know about you, but my first piece of advice to students when embarking on a creative writing unit is, “Don’t write about what you know.” It’s only recently that writing has gained currency as a teachable skill, and like with the lauded ‘thinking skills,’ we need some knowledge to write with.
I suppose the message here is that progressive education can’t have it both ways. Students can’t be blank slates, uncorrupted by the adult world, using their innate curiosity and natural and autonomous learning abilities to emerge from the chrysalis of schooling as neurosurgeons. Next time you hear a colleague promoting ‘adulting’ as a pedagogy, ask whether they’d be willing to fly with someone who was only qualified to ‘think like a pilot.’