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How Much?Why Some Things Should Not Be for SaleWisdom, Intuition and EthicsWithout ConscienceWomen and Borderline Personality DisorderWomen and MadnessWondergenesWould You Kill the Fat Man?Wrestling with Behavioral GeneticsWriting About PatientsYou Must Be DreamingYour Genetic DestinyYour Inner FishYouth Offending and Youth Justice Yuck!
Writings on liberal education are not in
general a delight to read. It is too
easy to decry what we manage to do, or fail to do, in our various educational
institutions; it is too easy to offer sententious uplift with that lack of
social realism that is endemic to educational discourse. It is pleasing to report that here we have a
book that actually repays reading, though it includes the usual condemnations
and even acknowledges its utopianism.
Smith's collection derives from a
conference honouring the work of Blouke Carus.
The conference centred on a paper by Carl Bereiter who has long been
associated with Carus' educational and publishing activity. So, after a brief introduction by Harold
Henderson and the editor, we have Bereiter's exposition of his new vision for education,
six diverse reactions to it, one of which (Scardamalia's) is more an
elaboration of how it has been implemented (for which one can visit the Institute for Knowledge Innovation and
Technology website; its resources page provides several relevant texts,
including more by Bereiter), and then Bereiter's response to his
colleagues. The volume ends with the
first English publication of a 1983 paper by Bereiter and Scardamalia, which
represents an earlier stage in Bereiter's thinking, but one that seems
consistent with the new position.
As befits one who stands in the tradition
of Plato and Dewey, Bereiter is a great synthesizer. At the stage in his career represented in
this book, he is juggling with "futuristic business literature,"
themes from cognitive science, and Popper's "World 3" construal of
our conceptual heritage. What emerges
is the proposal that schools, all schools from first grade up (p. 230), should
become sites for the production of knowledge.
Fashion schools on the model of a research laboratory. Bereiter stresses that schools should be
doing the real thing, not just simulating it by disguising traditional learning
in a project dress. In a striking autobiographical
comment in his replies, he notes that the way such projects are constructed may
permit "a lively program of inquiry and analysis" but "it leaves
two questions unaddressed, virtually unaddressable: What is this idea (concept,
theory, principle) good for? How could
it be improved?" (p. 234). He
insists that this open-ended perspective, too rare at any level of our
educational system, become the norm for the "knowledge age."
Bereiter is at pains, particularly in his
reply, to distinguish his proffered reconceptualisation from currently
fashionable notions. He claims that Popper's
"worlds" permit him to make his point more clearly than any
alternative. Taking evolution as an
example, he contrasts teaching about World 1, what actually happened on earth,
with teaching about a denizen of World 3, Darwin's theory. What we find in schooling is a focus on
World 1 and World 2, getting the appropriate beliefs into people's heads. Our failure to teach World 3, to enculturate
students in that World, to make them active participants in its work, leads, he
says, to students who do not appreciate the originality and profundity of
Darwin's theory, who do not learn that the comparative evaluation of theories
requires not just a confrontation with reality but with other theories, and who
do not grasp the explanatory principle of natural selection that is at the
heart of Darwin's theory (pp. 224-5).
Too many students learn that what the theory says happened is what
happened, but not why. They do not
appropriate the theory as part of the furnishing of their mind. In the 1983 paper the authors speculate that
such students hardly develop a mental life of their own, in the somewhat
idiosyncratic sense of a "super-context" which extends over and
alongside the various blinkered contexts of day-to-day life (p. 259).
The complaints are not new, as Bereiter
acknowledges. Nor is the recognition of
the "institutionalised stupidity" of
"regulations, curriculum guidelines, textbook adoption procedures,
achievement tests, credentialing, teacher education, and teacher
development" (p. 239) that stands in the way of making any but cosmetic
changes to the reality of almost all schools.
Bereiter admits the danger that comes from reducing a good idea to a set
of procedures, and the difficulties of further relaxing authority and control
in classrooms, yet he hopes that one can point to exemplars, and provide a
technologically supported environment in which some lucky teachers and taught
can embrace a common intellectual mission of his preferred sort.
I have tried to focus on what Bereiter
sees as central to his utopian vision.
The book also contains a number of other interesting discussions and
ideas, not least the "World 2" oriented joint paper from 1983 which
engages most fully with psychological issues.
Bereiter and Scardamalia focus on how the mind gains control over its
own workings, relating their ideas in particular to research in metacognition,
but expanding the scope of their concern from knowledge to motivation, affect,
and other aspects of what they call "intentional cognition".
In the main part of the book, two
economists, Edwards and Ogilvie, question the reality of the imminent
transition to a "knowledge society" and also offer a refreshing
change of perspective on schools as institutions for creating consumers rather
than producers. James Miller's
narrative includes some provocative thoughts on the pressures against liberal
education and universities that embody free and active critical dialogue. Wells, Reck, and Bereiter himself offer
criticisms and explorations of Popper's "worlds" that deserve a
hearing if one wants to evaluate the metaphor itself. A.W. Carus provides an ambitious argument for thinking that
morality is a matter of expertise; he also confronts notions of a liberal
education and argues for our adopting a science-based world-view, despite its
conflicts with many traditional communities.
Bereiter's comments take the discussion forward on many of these issues,
while he also displays the difficulties of keeping, and being recognised to
keep, various apparently opposed notions in some sort of balance. One might well think he has not here
successfully negotiated a way between the emphasis on classrooms as places
where knowledge is produced and the desirability that that knowledge incorporate,
fit in with, or in some way depend on where "we" have reached in the
search for knowledge outside the school system. He apparently doesn't expect students to reinvent universal
gravitation or the rise and decline of feudalism (p. 238), so little seems left
of the distinctiveness of his view, apart from its well-taken insistence on the
importance of second-order issues of the type he refers to in the case of
Darwin. Bereiter's own comment here
draws attention to our failure to make explicit for students the overall
framework ("canon" is the word he uses) within which our culture
operates. Since our canon is apparently
one of "the continual breakdown of established beliefs, and the unending
clashes between world views", one can appreciate why it is not central to
public schooling in a world, most of whose population still adhere to various
While there is not much debate about the
nature of liberal education itself, Bereiter draws on other contributors to
suggest that our conception of what it means to be an educated person has
shifted from a traditional view, "an embodiment of an inherited high
culture", through post-Sputnik demands for keeping up with progress, to
his futuristic proposal that the "educated person of the twenty-first
century is one who can help create progress" (p. 239), a participant in
culture rather than a tourist, player rather than audience. But again, when one pushes this contrast,
does it yield much more than the second-order emphasis? If schools are not to become unpaid
alternatives to actual research laboratories or business development teams, we
need to keep students' options open; so how to help create progress across the
board other than by paying some attention to the nature of that which one might
one day contribute to?
Let me not end negatively. Bereiter's own last remark contrasts
pedagogy, law, or politics with medicine and engineering. The first group of activities work well or
badly, and may need occasional reform, but unlike the second, "have no
internal dynamic that generates progress" (p. 242). Bereiter wants us to take pedagogy out of
this rut and demand that the limits of the possible may change in education,
just as they routinely do now in medicine.
It is an attractive thought.
Review by Ed Brandon with acknowledgements to Nicole Parris for
comments on an earlier version.
© 2004 Ed Brandon
Brandon is, by training, a philosopher, and now is working in a
policy position in the University of the West Indies at its Cave Hill Campus in