Walter Bender's question 22:
What "shoulders of giants" should we stand on? What is it that children should learn? Are there any universals? How do children decide whom and what to believe?
I've been providing what I think is a good answer to these questions for some time now but often the response is muted and contradictory. It's not my original answer, it originates from Alan Kay and his analysis originates from anthropologists.
The answer is not that children should learn universals but there needs to be more focus on what Kay has called the "non universals". From anthropological research of over 3000 human cultures, Kay presented two lists, the first were universals, the things that all human cultures have in common. This list included things like:
- tools and art
- religion and magic
- case based learning
- play and games
- differences over similarities
- quick reactions to patterns
- loud noises and snakes
- supernormal responses
- and more (about 300 of these have been identified across cultures)
What Kay said about this list, transcribed from his EuroPython 2006 keynote:
In effect anthropologists have been studying humans for about a Century now and firstly 3000 human cultures seem to be very very different. Then they start realising that they seemed surprisingly parametric. Every culture had a language, every culture told stories ... (goes through some of the items on the Universals list)
If you look at these you can see our modern internet culture - it's basically social, it enables us to communicate in various ways and so forth, basically a story based culture.
He then presented a list of non universals, the things that humans find harder to learn. This list was shorter and included:
- reading and writing
- deductive abstract mathematics
- model based science
- equal rights
- perspective drawing
- theory of harmony
- similarities over differences
- slow deep thinking
- legal systems
What Kay said about this list:
What's interesting is to look for things that are not universal, that seems to have some importance as well. Most people have lived and died on this Earth for 100,000 years without reading and writing, without having deductive maths and model based science .... (goes through non universals list)
These are a little harder to learn than the ones on the left because we are not directly wired to learn them. These things are actually inventions which are difficult to invent. And the rise of Schools going all the way back to the Sumerian and Egyptian times came about to start helping children learn some of these things that aren't easy to learn. It can be argued that if you are trying to be utopian about education what we should be doing is helping the children of the world learn these hard to learn things. Equal rights is a really good one to help children learn. No culture in the world is particularly good at it.
The non universals have not arisen spontaneously, they have been discovered by the smartest humans after hundreds or thousands of years of civilisation. Hence, it follows that children need guidance in learning them, they will not be discovered by open ended discovery learning. There is an objective need for some version of "school" - where advanced knowledge is somehow communicated from those who know it to those who don't.
The resolution of the tension (between how children learn and the complex, non spontaneous nature of the development of advanced scientific or Enlightenment ideas) is to develop an honest children's version of the advanced ideas. For some of these ideas (not all) the computer can aid this process. Which ones? The list would include the laws of motion, turtle geometry, calculus by vectors, exponential growth, feedback and system ecologies. I think this should be the starting point or at least one of the starting points for thinking about how computers should be used in schools.
Part of the discussion here is establishing that computers are not currently used to their full potential in schools. IMO once the above vision of how computers could be used in schools is understood then it becomes obvious that they are currently poorly used in schools.
I've been wondering why this particular idea, the non universals, is not spreading more. I think it's because it goes against the culture of pseudo progressiveness which advocates that process is more important than content, that discovery is more important than knowledge and/or that education should be entertaining or at least laid back, that we shouldn't put too much pressure on children. The problem is how to teach the non universals without sounding like a "back to basics" fundamentalist. But that is a real problem that needs to be faced and resolved.
Is this an example of the unsane, the mental state where our ideas don't fit reality, the map doesn't represent the territory. We like to think of ourselves as mostly "sane" and contrast that with a few "insane" personal moments or the more permanent state of a few unfortunates. But the "unsane" idea makes room for a different self perception. What if more often than not we are unsane?
I've created a page on the learningEvolves wiki whose purpose is to expand and elaborate further on the meanings and educational implications of the list of non universals.
The author, Bill Kerr, teaches at Woodville High School in Adelaide, Australia. He previously contributed an article on "Tidying Up the Constructionist Suitcase" and his blog can be found at billkerr2.blogspot.com.