The Best Approach to Education You’ve Never Heard of

Kinder klettern eine Leiter hoch

Do you know what educational approach or framework you are using? Do you know the history and philosophy behind the teaching methods you use? It is called Instructionalism, a silent specter behind most everything you do in the classroom. It also is a major influence in the way we parent our children. It was formalized by The Committee of Ten in 1892, a group of college educators who decided that lecture style teaching was the only way to go. Field work, experiential and observational learning and apprenticeships were all but forbidden, both in college and secondary school. The courses that were emphasized at Harvard, the same four that dominate education today, were to be taught in a lecture and test

manner. Education was to prepare a student not for life but for college and a career. Sound familiar? How little has changed in the last 120 years.

No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top
and Common Core Standards, like so much “educational reform”, are nothing more than the bastard offspring restatements of The Committee of Ten’s core belief, Instructionalism. The core ideas behind instructionalism are:

  • The Blank Slate – children have empty minds that require an adult to fill with information
  • Content is King – kids should learn specific, narrow and often irrelevant sets of factual information
  • Tests Tell All – the only measure of success is test scores

We have learned a lot about children in the last hundred+ years. We know that children are born with immense learning capabilities, including, language, social and emotional skills, perceptual and imaginative abilities, skilled movement and hundreds more. We know that most learning takes place in social and exploratory situations where relevant and contextual content is rapidly absorbed. We know that content that is divorced from these innate ways of learning is quickly forgotten and rarely helpful in their personal lives and careers. We also know how to learn the things that our ancestors didn’t have to learn, like algebra and JavaScript. We also know that what really contributes to kids’ ability to succeed in life, (which we will define in another blog post) is the capability to continually problem solve and flexibly learn in a million situations and develop an understanding of themselves, the orderly natural world and the erratic social world.

Now you know about Instructionalism and are gaining insight into another approach to education, called the Capabilities Approach. This model replaces the Blank Slate, abstract content and short term evaluations with a set of capabilities that profoundly benefit children, as children and adults. Instead of a blank slate belief, a Capabilities Approach takes the incredible innate learning, problem solving and meaning-making abilities of children and nurtures them using our best understanding of how their minds mature. Their minds have been developing these abilities for millions of years of human evolution. Let’s take these primal capabilities and expand on them using our most advanced understanding of their minds.

No more telling kids, “you have to wait

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to enjoy life until you graduate from college and get a job.” Instead the message is that children can have a successful life now and tomorrow if we work together to develop these capabilities. We teach content in ways that build capabilities and “real” learning that sticks and is beneficial.

What kind of capabilities are we talking about? There are four major areas:

  • Embodied, Engaged, Exploratory and Experimental Capabilities – You know – the way that babies and lab scientists learn. This is active, embodied and engaged learning.
  • Sense Making Capabilities — An enriched ability to process sensory information, to listen, converse and tell stories in creative and imaginative ways.
  • Meaning-Making Capabilities – Connect with the subconscious, and use big picture/systems thinking that leads to reasoned decision-making.
  • Social-Emotional Capabilities – As social animals, our greatest need is to develop an understanding of ourselves and others, so we can navigate relationships and regulate our emotions.

How do we “teach” these capabilities? We develop them using dozens of wonderful methods that promote Big L Learning (more in a future blog) – learning that engages multiple systems of the brain, both emotional and rational, perceptual and motivational, big picture learning that is creative and personally meaningful. Sounds hard? Nope. It is as easy as learning how to speak. Stay tuned for the full message.

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