10/08/2010 11:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Education, What are we Talking About?

Many people today are unaware that most schools do not operate with a standardized curriculum that is tied to a particular educational philosophy. Most schools' teaching and learning methods are in fact a hodge-podge of educational theories, with teachers recreating the teaching methods used by their teachers. Of course, there are schools that specialize in a certain method such as Montessori Schools and Waldorf Schools -- but most schools have no uniform theory. If the United States is to improve education, then people will have to simply know more about it. There are questions we should be asking, such as what educational theory backs up standardized testing? Before we make longer school days, let's determine what we will be doing during this time and discern what theory supports our work. If America is to tackle the education debate, we will simply need more education to know what we are talking about.

For the average parent or citizen concerned with education, here is a very abbreviated walk through educational history presented with the hope that an understanding of today's classroom becomes a bit more clear. The history of education is naturally a multidisciplinary study that combines philosophy (what is important for people to learn), psychology (how our personalities and social systems affect our learning), and science (how the brain actually functions).

Chinese Roots
Educational theory has a history that can be traced back to the fifth century BC, when Confucius developed a method of study in which students read examples of problems and then worked hypothetically to solve them. This evolved into the modern-day practice known as the case study, which is becoming widely accepted in business but has its greatest application in the study of law. Another prominent fifth century thinker was the philosopher Lao-tzu who wrote, "If you tell me, I will listen. If you show me, I will see. But if you let me experience, I will learn." This is perhaps the first recorded learning theory, demonstrating that
the concept of experiential learning has been around for a very long time.

Greek Pillars
Socrates and his most prominent student, Plato, entered the educational history scene around 300 BC. Socrates involved his students in the learning process by asking them engaging and thought-provoking questions. Today we refer to this approach as the Socratic method. The process assumes that the answers are within a student, and if he wrestles with them, he will
jog his mind and the mind of his classmates into understanding by searching for the answers. Plato took this idea a step further when he developed a theory and a practice known as the dialectic. Plato posited that real learning happened in the exchange between students, not just the individual probing for answers to questions, but in a dialogue about the questions. This theory led to the founding of the first known university, the Academy, in Athens around 385 BC. Plato also believed that all knowledge is innate and it is through various experiences that we release this knowledge. In addition, around this time Aristotle emerged as the first known advocate of the "whole-person" approach to education. He believed that education should involve the mind, body, and soul (head, heart, hands) and that in order to nurture each aspect we must use play, physical training, music, debate, and the study of science and philosophy. Aristotle was therefore the first person to make the history books that divided learning into separate categories intended to nurture different parts of our growth.

Empty Bucket
When schools became organized (around the tenth century), the methods of Socrates and Lao-tzu were laid to rest in exchange for a method that maintained that students are "empty vessels" and that the teacher can "pour" knowledge into them. Learning happened through transmitting content from teacher to students. This approach to learning is called pedagogy and infers that the teacher is responsible for all decisions about learning because the teacher is the one who knows best. This is the method still used by most classrooms today.

Blank Slate
John Locke, the English philosopher who lived in the late 1600s, advanced the hypothesis that people learn primarily from external input. In "An Essay Concerning Human Understanding" (1690), he asserted that at birth a child is a blank slate and empty of ideas. We acquire knowledge, he argued, from the information that our senses take in about the objects in the world. Locke believed that individuals acquire knowledge most easily when they first consider simple ideas and then gradually combine them to form ones that are more complex. Much of today's curricula is organized around this concept.

Father of the Progressive Movement
John Dewey is considered the leading progressive educator of the twentieth century, although his ideas reach back to fifth-century BC China and the Greeks. Dewey believed that two essential components in education are the experience of the learner and critical inquiry. He emphasized hands on learning and opposed blank-slate and empty-bucket methods in teaching. His ideas prompted a drastic change in the United States educational systems
beginning in the twentieth century. Dewey's theory that education must engage with and expand experience has continued to be a significant theory informing current educational research. Dewey criticized educational methods that simply amused and entertained students, a practice commonly referred to by progressive educators as the "sage-on-the-stage" syndrome. He also believed that education should fulfill and enrich the current lives of students as well as prepare them for the future.

Gestalt Principles
In 1912, the German psychologist Max Wertheimer founded Gestalt psychology, based on the idea that everything is an integrated whole. In education, this introduced the concept that rote memorization is not as effective a learning tool as problem solving. In the former, the learner learns facts without understanding them. Such learning is stifling and easily forgotten. In the Gestalt model, students are introduced to the underlying principles embedded in all the concepts they study. They go deeper into the content to see how it integrates with other content. This type of learning comes from within the individual and is not imposed by the teacher. Information learned this way is generalized and therefore remembered for a long time.

Developmental Stages
Jean Piaget was a Swiss psychologist who lived to see a number of developments in educational history during his lifetime, from 1896 until 1980, and his teachings still influence the field of educational philosophy and child development. Piaget stressed a holistic approach to education. He believed that children construct understanding through many channels: reading, listening, exploring, and experiencing their environment. A Piagetian-inspired curriculum emphasizes a child-centered educational philosophy or what we call "teaching the whole child." He is considered the father of constructivism. Constructivism is a theory of learning that says that children learn in stages and that these stages are closely aligned with a child's age. This idea is combined with the cognitive developmental theory that suggests that children cannot be filled with information they are not ready for. Instead, people must "construct" their own knowledge through experience, building on existing knowledge and beliefs, and cannot grasp the next level of thinking until they've mastered the step before
it. Piaget's theories about developmental stages spawned many educational movements in the early 1900s, many of which are still in existence today.

Montessori Method
Maria Montessori, like Piaget, saw children as natural learners. In 1907, the Italian physician-philosopher-educator opened her first school in Rome. Her method developed to expand Piaget's developmental theory by assigning age ranges to a child's learning stages, from birth to adolescence. She believed that children had three-year periods of sensitive development, and she grouped them in age groups, accordingly: birth to age three; age three to age six;
age six to age nine; and age nine to age 12. Like the Greeks, Montessori saw children as competent beings, and her instructional methods encouraged maximal decision-making. She also believed that the environment children learn in makes a significant contribution to their ability to learn. She was the first to introduce children's furniture into the classroom.

Waldorf Education Picks Up on Piaget's Concepts
In 1919, Austrian-Swiss philosopher and educator Rudolf Steiner founded a progressive school for the workers at the Waldorf-Astoria cigarette factory in Germany. Although the school was shut down during World War II, it regained acceptance afterward, and more such schools followed worldwide. Like Montessori, a Waldorf education's curriculum follows a pedagogical model of child development. Steiner's model divides childhood into seven-year developmental stages rather than three-year ones, each having its own learning requirements. Waldorf education subscribes to the Aristotelian notion of educating the whole child and emphasizes education that inspires creative and imaginative development in addition to the analytic development that most contemporary schools prefer. Waldorf aims to integrate practical, artistic, and intellectual approaches into the teaching of all subjects.

Under the Right Conditions, We Can Learn Anything
In the 1950s, American psychologist-educator-inventor-poet B. F. Skinner established his own philosophy of science, which he called Radical Behaviorism, and advanced his theory of "operant conditioning." Conditioning is the scientific term for learning, and operant refers to the concept that people perform actions that change their environments -- for better or worse. Each environmental change gives a person feedback. When the feedback is positive, it reinforces the behavior and increases the likelihood it will be repeated. If the feedback is negative, it will decrease the chances the behavior will reoccur. Skinner believed that when behavior was positively reinforced, it was apt to be repeated. This led to the practice of positive reinforcement and introduced to teaching the concept of punishments and rewards. He also believed that the reinforcement must be immediate. This approach led to the idea that through the use of behavioral objectives (descriptions of what a person is being asked to do) and immediate, positive feedback, everyone should be able to learn anything and everything. This philosophy permeates much of our curriculum today and is partly responsible for the idea that given the right amount of learning in a small enough
dose, everyone can master the entire curriculum.

Bloom's Taxonomy
In 1956, American educational psychologist Benjamin Bloom published his "Taxonomy of Educational Objectives." Building on Skinner's theories, the taxonomy identifies a ladder of mental steps that a learner goes through to reach full understanding of a concept. The taxonomy begins with simple concept definitions and works its way up to the student's ability to synthesize and evaluate the concepts. This taxonomy is widely used today as a way for teachers to build lesson plans ensuring that learners are moving past rote memorization and toward synthesis of information, thus enabling them to reach the highest cognitive level possible. The taxonomy proved to be extremely valuable in the specification and analysis of student goals and outcomes and the need to design classes to attain them. This approach
provides teachers a way to match what they want the student to learn with the plan they have for teaching.

Multiple Intelligences
Howard Gardner is a professor of cognition and education at Harvard University and co-director of Harvard's Project Zero. He is widely known for his theory of multiple intelligences, introduced in his book "Frames of Mind" (1983). In his book, Gardner proposes a novel notion: that "intelligence" should be formally measured in more ways than simply through the widely accepted logical-linguistic IQ-type formalized tests used in most school systems. Frames was very well received by those in the educational arena. Gardner suggests that everyone has elements of each of the intelligences, and we use them depending on our preferences and the kind of tasks we are called to do. This viewpoint is in direct contrast to many of the language and logic theorists who believe that there is only one kind of intelligence, that we either have a lot of it or not that much, and that there is virtually very little that we can do about it.

While this timeline is not by any means exhaustive, it informs our conversations regarding standardized testing, homeschooling and charter schools. We have a great deal of history and theory to inform us about what is best for children. This is followed up by recent studies in brain research that adds scientific findings that are affirming the assumptions of these theories by unpacking how the brain develops. Any real debate about testing and accountability, teaching and learning should keep educational theory in mind if the decisions are truly for the benefit of the learner.