This document gets fairly technical. If you're interested in educational philosophy or have a background in educational administration, by all means, feel free to read ahead. We encourage you to also feel free to read the headlines below, then close this window or click your Internet browser's "back" button to keep reading about Integral Learning™ where you left off. This page explores five difficulties faced by any educational planning process oriented around goals and measurable outcomes:
I. People never stop learning.
Structuring education to meet desired outcomes is difficult when those outcomes can never be completely met.
Being a "good citizen" or "proficient worker" includes ongoing, active engagement with one's self and one's world. Being a culturally informed critical thinker includes keeping abreast of cultural shifts as one draws upon history for insight. And being a "good worker" in today's global economy includes the ability to adapt to drastic social and economic shifts. People never "arrive" at the end of an assembly line as complete "products" of education. We don't store up knowledge and begin (or "commence") using it when we receive diplomas at commencement ceremonies. We're learning all the time… for the rest of our lives. Education must thus empower learners with an understanding of the process of learning and who we are as learners.
The actual meaning of "education" is "to draw out," which assumes every learner is unique and, thus, is capable of contributing in ways that no other person can to his or her family, friends, and community. Few, if any, learners are capable of "anything they put their minds to." However egalitarian our society, our innate tendencies, abilities, likes, dislikes, physique, race, gender, family, culture, and national or ethnic origin inescapably shape who we are and what we are destined to do. Part of the task of education is to help students discover their unique, God-given bents, then to "draw out" from within them everything they're capable of—including helping to continue this ongoing process of self- and communal discovery.
II. Progressive & classical education have irreconcilably contradictory goals.
Structuring education to meet desired outcomes is difficult when commonly promoted outcomes contradict.
Ideally, the goals of progressive and classical education aren't mutually exclusive—people can be (a) good citizens and proficient workers and (b) culturally informed critical thinkers. Historically, however, culturally informed critical thinkers have been independent thinkers; they foment change. Their knowledge of history empowers them to anticipate problems with government and management decisions, and their command of language and understanding of human interaction empowers them to question decisions of those in power both clearly and persuasively. A populace of culturally informed critical thinkers is difficult to control.
By what means would it be possible to reduce such a volatile presence in the populace? How might a group of leaders with government connections and a thirst for power unchecked by a sense of morality effect this? How might they motivate an entire populace to choose isolated lives of little influence, well below each person's unique potential? How might they realize the vision articulated by U.S. President Woodrow Wilson in an address to The New York City High School Teachers' Association on January 9, 1909:
"We want one class of persons to have a liberal education, and we want another class of persons—a very much larger class, of necessity—to forego the privileges of a liberal education and fit themselves to perform specific difficult manual tasks."
Wilson and his cadre didn't need to engineer this. Humanity's tendency to destroy ourselves is strong enough without an unseen, conspiratorial hand. Nevertheless, it's instructive to consider how such an elite group might have set about to reach their goal—because the beliefs and practices that would have been most effective to dumb down the populace are the very beliefs and practices we consider "normal" today:
A. We unquestionably believe that how our brain naturally develops shapes our ability to learn, and not the other way around. Thus, we wait for the brain to develop before we kindle certain knowledge, skills, habits, awareness, relationships, or practices of faith. We ask "What is developmentally appropriate for learners at this age?" and largely ignore the classical, alternative, belief that what and how we learn in many ways shapes our brain development. We rarely consider how the strategies and thinking skills we kindle actually structure our brains.
B. We unquestionably adopt practices that keep us busy and dull our awareness of what's going on.
1. Repeat exposure to rapidly shifting images can "train away" the desire and, eventually, the ability to pay attention to language for the time required to understand and analyze sound argument. TV and video games are great at this. (Click here to listen to a 26-minute talk on the dangers of modern TV. Click here to download the required RealPlayer for free if your computer cannot play the audio.)
2. Pervasive labor-saving devices and readily available entertainment make choosing short-term fulfillment easier. A glut of information, championing every possible perspective, makes getting an accurate picture of what's happening—a cornerstone of scholarship—more difficult. And entertaining "news," with well-timed punchlines, easily dismisses serious scholars. Together, these forces can "train away" the desire and, eventually, the ability to pursue truth through dilligent study and determined scholarship.
3. Unsafe food helps ensure that our nervous systems, endocrine systems, and immune systems are frequently compromised, keeping us focused on relieving our own suffering, rather than pressing for change.
4. A manipulated economy and our insatiable cravings for more drive more of us into the workforce, increase our stress, and decrease what energy we have for choosing anything other than easy entertainment for short-term relief.
5. Finally, our acceptance of a credential-based economy and the value of extended, formalized schooling simultaneously saps our confidence in our own intuition and provides us a cache of "qualified experts" we can turn to for assistance.
C. In practice (though it's rarely stated), most of us believe unquestionably that misery is biologically inevitable—that physical and psychological pain just happen. We don't consider how the ways that we perceive, remember, choose, create, imagine, and reason shape our brains and, in turn, our very life experiences, and we don't examine systemic injustices that further human misery. We accept that biology determines our moods and behavior, and we thus return to the belief with which we began—that brain development beyond our control inexorably shapes our ability to learn. And we turn to more "experts" to help us with our brain biology—in this case, the profitable pharmaceutical industry—to cure our spiritual, social, and psychological needs with prescription drugs.
Most parents of struggling students find it impossible to sort through the mountains of information from various educational "experts" claiming to know what's wrong. There's so much information, in part, because different "experts" believe in different goals of education—some experts promote classical education and basic skills development; other experts promote progressive education and inclusion. Others pick and choose methods they think will work, with no thought to the coherence or aim of their methods. The McNatt Learning Center, Inc., in contrast, teaches a simple way to discern between times when the development of one's brain and nervous system largely determines thinking ability (as progressive educators emphasize) and times when the strategies and thinking skills we kindle actually structure our brains (as classical educators emphasize). Moreover, we teach effective ways to develop both—to improve neurodevelopmental function and to improve the thinking skills and strategies that both depend on and influence it.
III. Most learning theories exaggerate the extent to which learning is additive.
We're changed by learning; we rarely just "add" information to a mental storehouse.
Past learning often shapes a learner's current understanding, and current learning often shapes a learner's future discovery. Structuring education to meet desired outcomes is difficult when that "structuring" process assumes that learning is largely additive; i.e., 1 + 1 + 1+ 1 = 4. In many instances, learning proceeds more like 3 + 0.4) x 2 / 1.7 = 4. We can't simply see the answer (4, in either case) and deduce the best process for learners to get there. Only by understanding the process of learning can we effectively plan for change.
There really isn't a way to discern in what manner natural or mediated learning ought to proceed just from knowing the outcome we're looking for. Often, learners incorporate what they're learning now into what they've learned before. Imagine, for sake of analogy, that you want to figure out how to reproduce a succulent braise from a fancy restaurant. It wouldn't be enough, as any chef would tell you, to know the ingredients. One can't simply add ingredients and produce a masterpiece: the way that ingredients are added makes a difference (sometimes the difference). Most "rules" for cooking, like most "rules" for baking, gardening, raising animals, and other processes grounded in the natural world, describe what successful cooks, bakers, gardeners, etc., have noticed works.
It would be impossible for someone not intimately acquainted with these processes to craft a system of effective, prescriptive rules, as in "Let's see. We want a cake. So, we'll need to add flour, water, eggs, sugar…." It's not just a question of how much of each is needed, nor even of the order we should add these. The way we add them—folding them in, stirring, beating (and at what speed) matters. The process is important, and it can't be deduced from a desired outcome without reference to either
A. The knowledge, skills, habits, awareness, relationships, and faith that each learner already possesses, or
B. A commitment to explore each learner's uniqueness.
Similarly, we might know the skill set a learner will need to end up with—the ingredients that go into whatever career (s)he's interested in, for instance. It's possible to determine much of what that learner would need to know and even what skills (s)he would need to possess. But what would be the most effective ways of imparting that knowledge and training those skills? If some of the skills have a natural foundation (e.g., balance, agility, adaptability) or complex cultural foundation (e.g., creative thinking, problem solving), we wouldn't know how best to train these just because we identified them. Moreover, if we just started teaching them, we'd be likely to waste a lot of time and effort. Some skills depend on others in ways that are not obvious at all.
IV. Most learning theories assume an untenable, subtractive concept regarding un-learning.
We're changed by learning; we rarely just "subtract" poor habits from a mental toolkit.
Trying to add everything a learner needs to a curriculum amid competing political, professional, parental, and student interests can only be justified if un-learning is largely subtractive, but it isn't.
A. Learners rarely forget misinformation they've believed and acted upon,
B. It's not easy for learners to reverse the dulling that occurs whenever learners press past basic warning signals that their bodies provide when strain or pain begins to set in,
C. It's not easy for learners to undo habits of "following the crowd" or "taking the easy way out," which are easy to develop in a system that doesn't reward self-directed learning or ingenuity,
D. It's not easy for learners to reorient their priorities away from acquisition, reputation, and self-actualization—or to stop using others to meet self-centered desires, despite years of undirected practice, and
E. It's not easy for learners to stop seeing time as a resource to be saved or spent, like a mineral—especially after years working with this perspective in schools, homes, and businesses that take it for granted—and, instead, begin to see time more like a vegetable, which we receive with thanksgiving and hope of what we can do with it, which can't be saved for long without spoilage, and which (though it equips us for tradeable service) can't ever really be spent.
In general, un-learning doesn't proceed by subtraction; it proceeds by attrition. We rarely simply stop bad habits; we have to starve them. Every frequently repeated or intense experience, whether we consciously chose it or not, has long-term effects. Every thought we dwell on, every food we often eat, every mind-altering drug we take repeatedly (or sometimes, just once)—every one has long-term effects.
The first time we experiment, our brain presses down the grass. The second time, our brain cuts a swath for walking. By the hudredth time, we've (metaphorically) poured a sidewalk. We can walk away from it, of course, but each time we pass by, tramping down grass or cutting new swaths, there the old path stands—oftentimes, a much easier walk than the new path we're purposefully walking. Sometimes, we find ourselves turning down old paths unwittingly, accustomed to the walk. Excepting Divine intervention, those old paths never diappear entirely. Years of vigilant cutting of new paths and avoiding old ones may set us free—but we haven't just "walked away." We haven't just subtracted the path we learned; we've made certain it decays.
V. Not all learning or thinking has an immediately recognizable use.
Both natural learning and complex cultural learning require unstructured time.
Again, not all learning or thinking has an immediately recognizable use. Moreover, for some learning—including the relaxed, "putting things together" that can occur in daydreams—setting goals is profoundly inappropriate. We don't train this kind of learning; we explore it, and trying to rush it is like trying to rush sleep. Can you imagine saying, "I only have time for half a night's sleep, so I'm going to try to get a full night's sleep in the four hours I have"? It just doesn't work that way.
Some things take time to naturally unfold. Exploring, perceiving, dreaming, and imagining, among other modes of thinking, simply can't be rushed or rigorously trained without diminishing their effectivness, since they require unstructured time for learners to probe conections, mulling over ways that what they've been experiencing relates to what they remember learning before.
This is the kind of learning that the English poet William Wordsworth defended in his poem "Expostulation and Reply." Imagine Wordsworth sitting on a stone, gazing at trees and fields around a lake, just thinking, when his friend Matthew approaches. Here's the poem:
Why, William, on that old grey stone,
Thus for the length of half a day,
Why, William, sit you thus alone,
And dream your time away?
"Where are your books?—that light bequeathed
To Beings else forlorn and blind!
Up! up! and drink the spirit breathed
From dead men to their kind.
"You look round on your Mother Earth,
As if she for no purpose bore you;
As if you were her first-born birth,
And none had lived before you!"
One morning thus, by Esthwaite lake,
When life was sweet, I knew not why,
To me my good friend Matthew spake,
And thus I made reply:
"The eye—it cannot choose but see;
We cannot bid the ear be still;
Our bodies feel, where'er they be,
Against or with our will.
"Nor less I deem that there are Powers
Which of themselves our minds impress;
That we can feed this mind of ours
In a wise passiveness.
"Think you, 'mid all this mighty sum
Of things for ever speaking,
That nothing of itself will come,
But we must still be seeking?
"—Then ask not wherefore, here, alone,
Conversing as I may,
I sit upon this old grey stone,
And dream my time away."