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Teaching & Learning - Art or Science

Over the past 100 years or so, science has established a solid foundation for understanding how people learn. The principles are found in psychology and neuroscience, not education, with very few of the principles crossing over. Education is based on two long traditions – training clerics in the Middle Ages, and Prussian military efficiency – with the shorter tradition of the industrial model encompassing it. Nowhere, in that tradition, has research or evidence played a significant role. Education is built on tradition and anecdotes.

In the last 30 or 40 years, differences in learning among children have become an important part of the educational landscape. There are definitely differences in how people learn, but the differences are far smaller than the similarities. In case anyone hadn’t noticed, our society, and most of our societal power structures, are built on exaggerating inconsequential differences (race, gender, etc.). The same is true in education. Exaggerated differences in learning provide a great deal of power and resources to those who play the game. I have known many educational psychologists, and the game they play is to make as many students as possible

 label able (their term, not mine) in order for the local educational authority (school, district, etc.) to be able to draw down (considerable) extra money. Playing along with their exaggerated differences in learning doesn’t help any of us. It builds additional artificial grounds for discrimination that can be used to label people and keep them in their place within the existing power structures.

Many of the differences in learning that are brought to my attention are based on differences in interest or personality – which is not learning. Just as conformity is held up as a central tenant of learning within education – it has nothing to do with learning, it has to do with the enormous class sizes teachers are asked to deal with. So many things that are called learning have nothing to do with learning.

I read a commentator who suggested that learning is instinctual – which it is. We are born to learn. But, just like every other instinctual behavior, learning follows built-in principles that have proven to work for our species over millennia of generations. They are instinctual, but we want them to be something else. We want the principles of learning to match our methods of teaching. For this to happen, we have to study what the principles of learning are in a methodological, carefully controlled, scientific way. This has happened, but not in education. We need to bring those principles into education in order to make a difference in our learners' lives.

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