A hard look at the history of education

While reading Langer’s article on mindful learning, I realized that the whole structure of schooling and education in the present sociocultural context might be a result of mindlessness.

The past causes the present and the present leads to future. Thus to understand the present structure of education, I believe it is imperative that we also analyze and spend some thoughts about the history of education. From the beginning of human history for ages and ages, children have been educating themselves through self-exploration. The only concrete and documented form of imparting knowledge from one generation to another was through the means of stories, fables and fairytales.

But as humankind began to develop and form civilizations, children were put to work as labors alongside adults, in agriculture and industry. They began to master the necessary skills of livelihood. And thus came about the definition of “good children”: the hardest workers, the most disciplined and dutiful ones, the ones that grew out of their curious and unruly childhood all too soon. And while the practice of schooling as a structure of education for children grew and spread all around the world, the societal norms of what was considered “good” were already deeply instilled by then. Schooling replaced labor jobs as “work” for children. There remained no scope for playful learning, no place for willfulness of children. Education became restricted to schools, delivered in form of lessons from teachers to students thus establishing the hierarchy of greater knowledge. Everything outside of school, even reading storybooks became “extracurricular”. The concept of school was designed in the minds of children as some morbid place that is not meant to be fun at all.

And this concept lives up to this day! We have all hated the strict boundaries and rules of school life at some point, we have all dreaded the exams and the penalties of getting low scores on a test. With the advancement in science and technology, and the standard of human lives, schools are predominantly focussed now on the colossal amounts of information they have to disperse to students. Stories, which were the most prevalent form of learning in the past, is not even recognized as an important tool for learning anymore.

While reading about the history of education in Wikipedia, I found the most profound statement: it talks about the Hindu scripture Upanishads dated back to 500 BC as “an exploratory learning process where teachers and students were co-travellers in a search for truth. The teaching methods used reasoning and questioning. Nothing was labeled as the final answer.” This states three very important pillars of what learning should be about and what the current culture of education have mindlessly ignored! Education should be curiosity-driven; there doesn’t always have to a binary right/wrong; peer-learning rather than mainstream teacher-student hierarchy.

Thus, I want to end the article on the note that instead of just brainstorming ideas of revolutionizing education to come up with “new and fun alternatives”, may be we take a look way back in the ancient human history to gain a better understanding of learning; may be we realize that learning is nothing but fun and play and stories and fables!

20 Replies to “A hard look at the history of education”

  1. Riya, thank you for your post! I think this is excellent insight about what learning should be about. Ever since I took philosophy and read the “Allegory of the Cave,” I have often thought about how all “knowledge” is a story about how we perceive the world to work. Psychology studies confirm that memory is constructed, rather than a snapshot, so even our memories are stories we tell ourselves about our lives–not the actual truth. Furthermore, the world and the experiences we have within it are limited by the “stories” our senses can pick up. We cannot know the actual truth of how the universe works, only the story of how it works as filtered by our limited human perception and our guesses based on logic of how it could behave (we know there are sounds softer and louder than 20-20,000 Hz, but we cannot directly experience them). So yes, all learning is “fun and play and stories and fables.” It is the bureaucracy of formal education in a modern society that has done away with the “mysticism” of seeking out the truth in the name of efficiency. However, I do think you go too far in saying that “stories [are not] recognized as an important tool for learning any more” because in every class, in every discipline, when explaining a concept, teachers present analogies for how things work (for example, the ATP synthase enzyme in biology is like a motor). Analogies are stories, and they are recognized as crucial for learning. Furthermore, English and philosophy classes solely use stories as examples of good writing or ways of teaching symbolism. So, the story is still recognized as an important tool, but it unappreciated and unrecognized (for example, as analogies) in many fields.

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    1. Thank you Heather for the insightful comment! And I agree there exists analogies to explain complex topics, but I was thinking use of stories as a more influential tool for learning, something on the terms of: may be to test the understanding of a topic, ask students to come up with a fully functional experiment that involves all the concepts taught (this is an exercise I came across in a recent TA assignment and started wondering why isn’t it done more often); or popularize scientific concepts in form of stories (something in the lines of this very fun book “Alice in quantumland”).

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  2. This is a beautiful post, Riya. The stories are so engaging and so it becomes easy to understand and become a part of them and learn a lot in the process. Even all the “Holy books” are full of stories because it is easy to relate to the stories. And I think stories are a part of our learning even today. Heather already mentioned the ways that stories are used in learning in some of the fields. One of the fields that relies heavily on story telling is Physics. I became interested in Physics because most of the problems in Physics are related to real life and so they have an inherent story in them. For example, Jack is driving his car at x velocity and Jill is driving at y velocity, what is their relative velocity? The problem is telling the story of Jack and Jill and it becomes so easy to understand and relate. I think other fields should also include stories while teaching or assessing.

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    1. Thank you Adbhut for the comment! Yes weren’t those problems fun to solve? But if you think about it, the scope to which such problems are used is very limited (pretty much to kinematics and Newton’s Laws; I don’t remember ever coming across a magnetism/quantum problem involving Jack and Jill or any living being for that matter :D). I guess my point is, extending the breath of use of stories by coming up with more creative ideas.

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  3. Hi Riya,

    I really appreciated your post, especially lines you drew between education and this long history and tradition of education that is largely ignored today. Your three takeaways are on point: it’s about sparking creativity, there’s never just 1 answer or a right/wrong answer, and the gift of peer-learning (for students and teachers alike!)

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  4. Great post Riya, I like going through this post and think about the history of learning and how it was. Some old friends told me many stories how they were learning in the past before the technology and Internet came. It was hard, but it was extremely effective learning environments.

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  5. That is a really well-written post, Riya. I think the rules and regulations of traditional education are too stringent and need to be altered a little bit if possible. Technology and active learning are doing that somewhat. But creative, practical and peer learning should also be incorporated into the regular classroom teaching. In the end, as you said it is all about fun, play and learn.

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    1. Thanks Japsimran for the comment! Yes, as Thomas and Brown mentions in the ‘New Culture of Learning’ : “the challenge is to marry structure and freedom”, to create something for the better than the present. Or I would like to think, the challenge is to somehow create an environment of freedom in learning that encourages students to create a structure of their own accord.

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  6. Thanks for the post. I would like to focus my comments on a comment you made near the beginning of the post. You said “From the beginning of human history for ages and ages, children have been educating themselves through self-exploration. The only concrete and documented form of imparting knowledge from one generation to another was through the means of stories, fables and fairytales.” I strongly agree with this. I learn the best when I know the context of the knowledge. If I don’t have the context, I feel like I am learning in the black hole of abstraction which is difficult to make memorable. I would also like to share quick story that I heard from one of my favorite professors during my undergraduate degree. He said that as part of his doctoral dissertation at Stanford in Iberian Peninsula (Spain) culture he flew to meet with a distinguished author of literature. Apparently this author was world famous and getting an appointment with him was a big deal (though admittedly I didn’t recognize his name and can’t remember it now). The author was kind enough to let him visit him at his home and when he went inside the first thing he noticed, as would be expected was the massive library. The thing that was interesting to him; however, was that in the middle of the library was collection of contemporary American television series. Some of the ones that he mentioned were “24”, “Lost”, and “Alias”. My professor asked him about it. He asked “why would these be in your collection?”. The author’s answer was that the best writing ANYWHERE today is in American tv. This story stuck with me. I have learned that the medium of communication doesn’t matter as long as it is effective. The stories that have been told to me over the years have been some of the teaching moments that I have ever had and many of the them were through the medium of TV, other through books, others spoken word, etc… Thanks again for the post.

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    1. Thanks for sharing the story! And you are absolutely right, irrespective of the medium of communication, good stories stick with you. As long as we humans can attach relatable emotions to something, we learn from it.

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  7. I agree with you that it is a good idea to learn some pedagogy basics from history. However, we should keep in mind that students of today with all the technology they have, will not respond as students of the past. It is needed that we be up to date with the technology and use it for learning purposes.

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    1. Thanks for your comment! Yes definitely, we need to keep up with the new generation of technological advances but we need to use them creatively and carefully in a constructive way.

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  8. Great post! Enhancing learning should be the primary focus of any education system. It also should focus on developing critical thinking among students so that they can select for themselves what and how they want to learn. The role of the educator should be to provide mentorship to the students so that they can select for themselves. It’s not a hidden fact that today’s education system is focused on imparting knowledge and treating students as banks to deposit knowledge rather than enhancing learning among them to develop critical thinking among them.

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    1. Thanks for the comment Pallavi. You are right, the main focus in most classrooms is to finish the syllabus. But a lot of factors have led to such a scenario, growing population, growing competetion for better paying jobs so on and so forth. Critical thinking is so much lacking in a generation of education defined by tests based on formula sheets and mcq’s.

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  9. You’ve got so many great comments here, so I’ll just note that I really love this post. Reminding us that storytelling has been essential to human learning and understanding from the beginning helps us appreciate why thinking critically about the way we inscribe meaning to those stories is so important.
    And this from the Upanishads: “an exploratory learning process where teachers and students were co-travellers in a search for truth. The teaching methods used reasoning and questioning. Nothing was labeled as the final answer.” You made my day. Thank you!

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    1. Thank you Dr. Nelson for your comment!! Yes, stories are and have always been very important life lessons. Like Drew pointed out, it is the stories that always stick with us.

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  10. Great post, Riya! I really enjoyed reading this. I couldn’t agree with you more that education should be fun. In fact, this is explicitly stated in my teaching philosophy – “I want a class that is intellectually challenging and stimulating while at the same time fun and interesting for students.” I try to make my class fun by allowing my students to self-construct their own knowledge. I do this by discussing course concepts briefly (say 5 minutes at a time), then allowing them to discuss in pairs or groups of fours. We then converge as a class and try to explore the truth together. Many of them have reported enjoying the conversational nature of my class (from my SPOT evaluation), so it’s a practice I hope to continue. Thank you for this.

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  11. Excellent post! I love the beginning of the post where you talk about children and self-exploration. The way that children learn is to play, to explore. To do this the children must be given the space to play and be allowed their innocence which is part of the “space” to play. I have two small children and my own observations of them match what you are discussing. Part of the space that I was mentioning before includes turning off the TV adn freeing their minds to explore the world. I believe that conformity has its place. It is how we function as a society, but I have to agree that conformity taken to far can become toxic. Thanks for the post. Well done.

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