Education in Ireland

Perspectives on the Irish education system distilled through the crucible of experience,leavened with the empirical wisdom of the perpetual student!

Friday, August 25, 2006

Why no pedagogy in Ireland?

A Reflection on an essay : Why no pedagogy in England


Simon uses the term “pedagogy” in the sense of the “science of teaching”. In the educational tradition of the continent, “pedagogy” has an honoured place stemming from the work of such notables as Pestalozzi and Herbert. This is not the case in England (Ireland draws most of its ideas from England). The most striking aspect of current thinking is its eclectic nature. Simon goes on to give a brief history of why this is historically so in England.

Until the early years of this century the rational foundation for pedagogical theories – for the concept of education as a science – was associationist psychological theories about learning; however it was just at this time too that two other major influences arose that led to the demise of associationism as a major determinant of pedagogy. These new trends were:

1. The rise of philosophic idealism which denied the material basis of mind and rejected the model of human formation of the strict materialists of the late 18th century (with its emphasis on man as a passive product of external stimuli) and
2. The triumph of Darwinism with its emphasis on heredity. This also gave rise to the eugenics movement.
In the field of educational theory psychometry (mental testing) became established. The triumph of psychometry was tied in with a new stress on individualism. This spelt the death of pedagogy in England. If education cannot promote cognitive growth, as psychometry infers, its whole direction is lost.

Simon suggests that the current technological revolution makes conditions ideal for a major breakthrough in terms of pedagogy. The requirements for a new pedagogy are:
1. Recognition of the human capacity for learning – the opposite view to psychometrics.
2. Recognition that in general terms, the process of leaning is similar right across the human spectrum. It is therefore possible “to envisage a body of general principles of teaching” (Stones 1979, p.453)

Leading educational psychologists today broadly accept both of the above conditions. Bruner stated that “any subject can be taught to anybody at any age in some form that is both interesting and honest”, he was speaking in the context of a positive assessment of the human capacity for learning and deliberately pointing to the need to link psychology with pedagogy. Bruner stressed that “developmental psychology without a theory of pedagogy was as empty an enterprise as a theory of pedagogy that ignored the nature of growth”. “Man”, Bruner said, “is not a naked ape, but a cultured clothed human being, hopelessly ineffective without the prosthesis provided by culture”. The major problem humanity faces is not the general development of skill an intelligence but “devising a society that can use it wisely” (Bruner, 1972, pp 18,131, 158) Bruner was clearly concerned about social change and the contribution that pedagogical means might make of this.

We might do well to reflect that although the ideas of the associationist psychologists are no longer acceptable in the same form as originally promulgated, yet the concept of learning as a process involving the formation of new connections in the brain and higher nervous systems has not only retained its force but been highly developed by neuro-physiologists and psychologists specifically concerned with learning.

The work of Bruner and others point towards a renewed understanding of the power of education to effect human change and cognitive development and of the need for the systematisation and structuring of the child’s experiences in the learning process. From this standpoint it is necessary to form a critique of certain standpoints, especially the trend towards “child-centred theories”. This movement reached its apotheosis in the Plowden Report.

Child-centred education derives largely from the work of Froebel who held that children were endowed with certain qualities which will mature given the appropriate environment. The child develops best in a “rich” environment. The teacher should not interfere with this maturation, but act as a “guide”. The function of early education, according to Froebel is “to make the inner outer” (Froebel, 1912, p.94). Hence the emphasis on spontaneity and on stages of development, and on “readiness” – the child will learn specific skills when he is “ready”. There is a convergence between this view and the theories embodied in Intelligence Testing. (Intelligence testing also embraces the notion that the child is endowed with certain innate characteristics and that the process if education is to actualise the given potential or in the sense of Froebel to “to activate and realise the inner”. Both views deny the creative function of education, the formative power of differential educational (or life) experiences.

The theoretical or pedagogical stance of the Plowden Report represents an extension of those ideas. Plowden takes the child-centred approach to its logical limits, insisting on the principle of the complete individualisation of the teaching/learning process as the ideal. In their analysis the hereditary/environmental interactional process is interpreted as exacerbating initial differences so greatly that each child must be seen as unique and be treated as such. Matters are rendered even more complex by Plowden’s insistence that each individual child develops at different rates across three parameters, intellectual, emotional and physical. In determining her approach to each child each of these three facets must be taken into account by the teacher! The task for the teacher with an average class of 30 children is “frighteningly high” in the words of the report itself. (Plowden, 1967) By focusing on the individual child and in developing the analysis from this viewpoint Plowden created a situation from which is was impossible to derive an effective pedagogy. If each child is unique and each requires a specific pedagogical approach appropriate to her/him, the construction of an all embracing pedagogy, or general teaching principles is impossible.

Starting from the standpoint of individual differences is to start from the wrong position. To develop an effective pedagogy means starting with what children have in common as members of the human species; to establish general principles of teaching and from these to determine what modifications of practice are necessary to meet individual needs. Individual differences only become important if the pedagogical means are found not to be appropriate to a particular child or children.

The starting point for developing the curriculum for cognitive development lies in the proper definition of the teaching objectives. Vygotsky said “Pedagogy must be oriented not towards the yesterday of development but towards its tomorrow”. “What the child can do today with adult help, he will be able to do independently tomorrow” This concept of the “zone of next or potential development” implies in the educator a clear concept of the progression of learning, of the mastery by the child of increasingly complex forms.

With the advent of new technology there is the question of the individual’s responsibility for his own activities, the development of autonomy, of initiative, creativity and awareness; the need for access to knowledge and culture, the arts and literature etc. The means of promoting such human qualities cannot be left to the individual teacher, on the grounds that each individual child is unique so that the development of a pedagogy is both superfluous and impractical. The new pedagogy requires carefully defined goals, structure and adult guidance. The goals need to be structured to take account of the new technologies and the part they have to play in the potential development of the curriculum in order to allow children to use their resources to the full to achieve their potential.

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