On the Science and Culture of Learning – Kieran Egan

According to Kieran Egan, the reason “why so many research findings seem to have had no discernible beneficial impact on education is that most of the research on learning, development, and so on is not about education.” (p.182)

Concluding his educational history, Getting it Wrong From the Beginning, Egan writes:

For most of our human and prehuman ancestors’ past, the mind’s evolution has been a product of the codevelopment of the brain and culture. With major growths in the brain we find some evidence of greater tool use, and no doubt there were other cultural artifacts or behaviors that have not survived in any records we currently have access to. In the past sixty thousand years, with accelerating speed from about thirty thousand years ago, and with every-increasing speed in the past three thousand years, a significant disjunction between brain and cultural development has grown. The brain’s evolution continues in its purposeless and slow Darwinian way, but culture is developing in a purposeful and fast Lamarckian way – what is learned in one generation is passed on to the next. And this trick has been accelerating rapidly due to writing, in which we can record, with greater or less adequacy, our memory, experience, and thoughts and pass them on to future generations. Of course, we have that natural substratum on which all cultural development rests and rides, but as Edward Skidesky has put it, ‘Biology has supplied us with the tools to transcend biology’ (2000, 27). We have learned the trick of transcending our brain’s evolutionary pace. Understanding human development is increasingly a matter of studying how culture influences and constitutes the mind.
A recent result of our cultural development is science. That is, people have worked out methods of refined observation, experiment, and inference that disclose a reliable kind of understanding of the natural world we live in. When these scientific methods are [-p.184] applied to the cultural world we have made, and of which they themselves are a part, they are not quite as impressive. They are good at exposing the nature of things but less good at exposing the culture of things – the human meanings of which so much of our consciousness consists. When they have been applied to trying to understand the processes involved in education, they seem less impressive still.
Discovering the nature of learning, or ‘the natural psychological reality in terms of which we must understand the development of knowledge’ (Piaget 1964, 9), has been assumed to be the way to go to make education more effective. I have given a series of reasons why I think this has been and is unfruitful. I have also given a series of reasons for doubting or discounting the main implications this approach has yielded for educational practice.
In the alternative view I have been recommending, the education of children today is a matter of ensuring that they make their minds most abundant by acquiring the fullest array of the cultural tools that can, through learning, be made into cognitive tools. I have drawn on Vygotsky in trying to make this argument, because he more than anyone seems to me to have had an understanding of the process whereby the cultural becomes cognitive and an understanding that it is the cognitive tools we acquire that most clearly and importantly established for us the character of our understanding.
I noted in the Introduction that the central belief – the most fundamental tenet of progressivism – is that to educate children effectively it is vital to attend to the nature of the child, particularly to the child’s modes of learning and stages of development, and to accommodate educational practice to what we can learn about these. I claimed that I would show that belief to be mistaken. The flaw in progressivism is the belief that we can disclose the nature of the child. Whatever is the substratum of human nature is less [-p.185] accessible and less useful to the educator than understanding the cultural-cognitive tools that shape and mediate our learning, development, and everything else to do with the conscious world of educational activity. And because all tools are not equal, we need to be guided by an overarching theory of education when conducting any educational inquiry.” (pp.183-184)

Ref: (italics in original; emphases in blue bold, mine) Kieran Egan (2002) Getting it Wrong From the Beginning: Our Progressivist Inheritance from Herbert Spencer, John Dewey, and Jean Piaget. Yale University Press: New Haven and London

Note also: Egan refers us to his site, www.educ.sfu.ca/people/faculty/kegan


About backyardbooks

This blog is a kind of electronic storage locker for ideas and quotes that inform my research... literary research into fiction for young adults (with a special focus on New Zealand fiction). Kiwis are producing amazing literature for younger readers, but it isn't getting the academic appreciation it deserves. I hope readers of this blog can make use of the material I gather and share by way of promoting our fiction. Cheers!
This entry was posted in Metaphors and Narratives around children and learners, Understanding Education and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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