Imagine a small circle representing a child’s world; then imagine next to it a much larger circle containing the knowledge that human civilisation has accumulated over the millennia. The accompanying diagram is not to scale: the accumulated knowledge is obviously much larger, while the child’s reality is of an indeterminate size. But the overlap is where the thing that we call ‘education’ must take place.
Education is the interface between the reality of the individual and the wider world.
We can derive some interesting things from this diagram if we accept its basic premise.
The role of a teacher is to stand on the cusp of the overlap, encouraging the child to take on board the accumulated knowledge of the larger circle. This can mean simply transposing data from the larger circle into the smaller circle, or it can mean bringing about an awareness in the smaller circle of what the larger one contains and inspiring the smaller to make the larger his or her own.
We see a similar pattern in both fiction and business: in standard fiction, a protagonist meets a wise old man who introduces him or her to the larger world of the story with all its implications; in business, the marketer or salesperson reveals the usefulness and wonder of the product to the customer. The principle is the same: the colossal is shown to the diminutive; the grown is introduced to the growing; what is already there is revealed to the newcomer. Hence the teacher is a gatekeeper; it is his or her job to open the door to the wider world and urge the student to go through.
Recent research into how children learn gives new insight into this process. Traditional educational methods have students learning straightforward tasks through repetition and gradual extension; according to this view, students first have to master basic skills before moving on to higher-level skills. Schools based on a traditional model are structured around this, with curricula building up knowledge layer by layer, each layer dependent upon what went before. Assessments of various kinds measure whether the basic skills have been learned. Once basics are learned, more advanced knowledge is shown to the students. This is so basic to the school model that we have ceased to ponder it: it has simply become the ‘way things are done’.
However, the last twenty years of research indicates that children tend to have a more intuitive understanding of science, language, numbers and other subjects based on prior experience. A child’s thinking process does not necessarily depend upon a mastery of earlier skills. Pre-existing ideas about how learning takes place are being challenged. Children develop algorithms and their own understandings about life even before schooling begins. This kind of learning occurs when children are in circumstances where, as in infancy, they simply have to engage with the environment. An infant interprets, judges, makes meaning, and argues on an intuitive level long before they start an official ‘education’.
All those things which, as human beings, we are required to do outside of and prior to any mainstream system of teaching takes over are a ‘pre-education’ form of learning. Instead of just focusing on a few aspects of intelligence, especially the ones which are more externally visible and detectable like logical analysis or language, learning embraces spatial relationships, using the body, the understanding of music and sound, and intuitive understanding of other people, of themselves, and of relationships. Multi-dimensional intelligence, as it could be called, means that individuals are not quite what the traditional methods of education have asserted that they are.
What does this mean for schools? In an educational setting which encouraged multi-dimensional intelligence, students would be given notebooks, urged to record thoughts and theories, inspired to set up their own experiments and to engage with the world around them in new ways. A ‘project-based’ model, in which loose and broad topics would be covered by individual and group exploration, would tend to replace the authoritative ‘teacher/chalkface’ model.
To some extent we see this in modern museums. Packed with interactive exhibits, children are encouraged to get involved and to learn through action, observing displays of actual objects, manipulating objects, solving problems in an exhibit, getting excited about and asking questions of the world around them. Multimedia, the internet, networking technologies, and social media are now powerful enough to bring the two circles above closer together, with less fear of the larger overwhelming the smaller.
The key is context. One student might learn a process through working with numbers, another by seeing an example, another by participating in a game about it. All those options and more would need to be available so that students of varying capacities and make-ups could all learn new ideas as well as reinforce old ones. In this interesting time, the whole way in which we educate both young and old can be re-explored and re-designed.