Paradigm Shifts in Education: Thomas Kuhn and Ken Robinson

“Nobody has a clue – despite all the expertise that’s been on parade for the past four days – what the world will look like in five years’ time. And yet we’re meant to be educating them for it. So the unpredictability, I think, is extraordinary.”

Sir Ken Robinson, TED Talk, Do Schools Kill Creativity, 2006 0:56 (View the transcript here)

WARNING-page0001This quote comes from the most watched TED talk of all time with thirty million views at current count. (That is eight million views more than the next most watched TED Talk.)  There is one sense in which it is fair to say that this statement is self-evident or universally true. That is, we never know what the future is going to look like and one of the biggest mistakes we could make is to assume that we do. This normal accumulation and progression of knowledge is not what I believe Robinson is talking about. The key to understanding this statement could come in another quote from the same talk, “the whole world is engulfed in a revolution.” This revolution one could equate to a paradigms shift in Thomas Kuhn’s sense of the term.  In brief, prior to Kuhn’s narrative or theory of scientific progress the prevailing view of scientific progress was one where knowledge accumulated, mistakes would be identified and corrected and knowledge would continually grow. There will be changes and corrections in the future but things will continue to progress along rather predictable lines. In Kuhn’s model, as scientific knowledge accumulates eventually there comes a time when new knowledge cannot be fit in with the preceding body of knowledge. The preceding body of knowledge and the new knowledge become ‘incomprehensible’ to each other and a revolution of thought, understanding, narrative and practice happens.

Kuhn’s prime example is found in his book The Copernican Revolution where he argues, that the discovery that the Earth orbits the Sun fundamentally contradicted the Medieval narrative that the Earth was the centre of the universe and this fact was believed to reflect the fact that humans were the prime focus of God’s attention, having been made in his image and all. There was the whole Ptolemaic astronomy  to explain how this picture of the universe worked. When the discoveries of Kepler, Copernicus, Galileo and others accumulated, the picture of the universe drawn from their findings led to a view that was fundamental incomprehensible with the medieval view.  This triggered a revolution of the Enlightenment.

Accessed through The Creative Commons.  Photo Credit, Tim Wilson, 2010

Accessed through The Creative Commons. Photo Credit, Tim Wilson, 2010

That is, I would argue, the sense of “revolution” that Sir Ken Robinson refers to and is the reason why “nobody has a clue… what the world will look like in five years’ time.” The emerging narrative will be incomprehensible with the past. I think he is still overstating it when he uses the time frame five years, for effect I am sure, because we do have an idea – for one thing computers will get smaller and more easily integrated into daily classroom practice. (In fact, Robinson made this statement nine years ago in 2006, four years before the release of the I Pad.)


Bloomin Questions


People riding on a commuter train in Yangon, Myanmar  2012

People riding on a commuter train in Yangon, Myanmar 2012

Bloom’s Taxonomy or those six different categories of questions that are usually displayed in a pyramid, has been around since the 50’s.  As a result it is at least as disputed as it is accepted.

One can be wary of Blooms, and other taxonomies, because they can box or compartmentalizing ideas.  As the sometimes philosopher, Joni Mitchel has said:

Every bristling shaft of pride
Church or nation
Team or tribe
Every notion we subscribe to
Is just a borderline
Good or bad we think we know
As if thinking makes things so!
All convictions grow along a borderline

page0002Joni, from Borderline

When defining or categorizing something, in this case questions, we run the risk of cementing our habits and locking our definitions in between borderlines. The irony is that these borderlines around questions may deter our questioning of questions.page0003

The popularity of Bloom’s Taxonomy and the borderlines it has created around the space of questions means that it has played a part in defining how we understand and how we use questions.  Taking a post-structuralist view, language or definitions around words and grammar, create our page0004understanding and that understanding becomes our identity.


Recently I was asked to give a talk for the PTA and decided to run with the Blooms.  The powerpoint along the side is the product of that and what got me thinking about Bloom’s recently.



Teaching about the Causes of Conflict

I have been holding onto this lesson all year because it works best when the students stumble upon it. Last week as we were talking about the distribution of resources and the causes of conflict, they stumbled upon it and I got to teach it.

I introduced the idea of 80 20. That is, 80% of the worlds population has 20% of the world’s resources and 20% of the world’s population has 80% of the world’s resources.  (A crude distinction if for no other reason as what counts as a resource can be debated.  None the less it is an often quoted statistic and one that can fuel thought.)

To demonstrate this I chose ten students and asked them to stand in a line in front of the class. I then divided them into a group of eight and IMG_2025a group of two. I then gave the group of eight two books, the group of two eight books and promptly told them it was time for silent reading. The two students with eight books happily sat down and started flipping through books, not exactly reading but browsing, trying to decide which book they felt like reading. The eight students with two books stood there almost dazed wondering if it was a joke. I just kept insisting it was time for silent reading and they should read.

It took about twenty seconds before students from the group of eight started making their way towards the two students with the eight books and eying the books and making subtle indications that they wanted some. This is the second time I have taught this lesson and both times I have been amazed at how quickly the two students assume an air of entitlement. They placed themselves between the books and the group of eight and continued to browse.

It only took about kids photo-page0001another thirty seconds until leaders began to emerge out of the eight and we started hearing calls of “this isn’t fair!”  One student in particular was becoming viscerally incensed by the injustice. He was calling out to the teachers for help and when this came to no avail he started rallying the other seven. Two girls among the seven quietly got hold of one of the two books that were given to the eight and slipped to the back and started reading while the others were getting worked up in their call for justice. The boy who was increasingly leading the charge began reaching for books.  Another boy among the eight began encouraging him on and then moved to position himself on the other side of the two students with the eight books and while they became increasingly distracted by the attempts to grab books, the other boy reached around, took a book at a time and passed them to other members of the eight.

There came the moment where I said “OK, lets stop… if you have ever wondered about how wars start, maybe this is part of your answer.”

This is a very rare moment in my class where I have created conflict.  Perhaps to teach, to really teach and not preach, about the causes of war we have to allow these rare exceptions where we allow conflict.

A Gulf between Theory and Practice? A Little Aristotle to the Rescue

ImageWARNING-page0001I have been reading some article on education lately.  I find it interesting how in a lot of the readings theory seems to be treated like a dirty word, according to some authors diabolically opposed to practice. (I will explore those arguments in a later post.)

I think part of the problem is that we can tend to think of theory and practice in either or terms.  This compartmentalising of knowledge seems to be a very modern way of thinking.  Historically, for example, when you went to university there was one course of study, philosophy (or literally love of knowledge) which had a much wider scope than philosophy does today.  Today each part of knowledge has been compartmentalised and at university you can choose from literally hundreds of specialisations.  Everything seems to get compartmentalised.

That is arguably necessary and a logical cultural reaction when you look at the amount of knowledge to be found on the internet compared to the amount of information/knowledge readily available, even one hundred years ago.  But I have a hard time finding a logical defence for the compartmentalising of theory and practice that allows one to make the jump to the statement that there is a gulf between theory and practice. (Writers like Stephan Ball argue that the creation of a conceptual divide between theory and knowledge is a right wing discourse to undermine education and to insert a new narrative, a business commodity narrative of its purpose and process.  I’m always up for a well-argued conspiracy theory. )

It is a well-established argument that in the classical thought of Aristotle’s time, there was a much greater unity between theory and practice. Like peoples thoughts lived in the middle of the venn diagram and in the modern world we have made an exodus to the wings of the diagram.  (I think of Erwin Schrödinger’s – the guy with the cat – book Nature and the Greeks and Alasdair MacIntyre’s  book After Virtue as important exploration on this idea.  I will explore those individually in later posts.)

I have been working to flesh out my understanding of Aristotle’s three part classification of knowledge as a way to find a unity or common function for practice and theory.  Aristotle’s three classifications of knowledge are: the theoretical, the productive and the practical.  This can serve as a useful vehicle to explore the so called chasm between theory and knowledge.

IMG_9897654The theoretical: contemplative thought for thoughts sake.  In the teacher’s practice this could be Gardner’s multiple intelligence, Kohlberg’s stages of moral development…  The big ideas dumped in your head during teachers college.

IMG_9905The productive: to make something.  One may put some creativity into it but it fits to a predesigned plan.  Like all those portraits painted of the queen, each artist puts their own style into it but at the end of the day they all look like the queen.  In the classroom this can be seen in writing lessons plans and then delivering the lesson.  Each teacher will do this differently but at the end of the day they are all structured to fit the curriculum expectations.

IMG_9907The practical: here is where the unity comes; the unity I suggest is missing in our modern thought which allows the talking heads to describe a chasm between theory and practice.  First of all, forget the definition of practical that you already know.  Aristotle did not mean to act in a logical and efficient fashion, as we would tend to define the word today.  In the classical sense he meant a process where one steps back and forth between the theoretical and the productive.  One begins in the theoretical, considers the ultimate goal and then devises a course of action.  One then steps to the productive and begins to carry out the plan.  One then steps back to the theoretical and reconsiders the course of action, possibly changing ones action plan and possibly, even changing the goal that one is setting out to reach.  In teacher speak this is called action research.

I am sitting in Darjeeling right now and my mother-in-law has a poster on the wall from Sai Baba, a Hindu Guru.  The quote on the poster is relevant here, it says “action without knowledge is foolish / Knowledge without action is useless.”  That quote could be paraphrased to say that action (or the productive) and knowledge (or the theoretical) need to be unified in ones practice in order to act wisely (or effectively).

In the process of fleshing out my own understanding of Aristotle three part classification of knowledge I used the following two sources: “What is Praxis”  and “action research”  both by Mark K. Smith on the Informal online Encyclopedia of Informal Education (INFED).  I would highly recommend reading anything on INFED by Smith.  To make sense of his explanations I put them into a chart – it might help you out too.

  Telos (goal) What it is Form of reasoning How it looks in the classroom
Theoretical “the attainment of knowledge for its own sake.” “the mulling over of facts and ideas that a person already has.” contemplative The big ideas we got put in our heads in teacher’s college like Gardner’s multiple intelligence or Kohlberg’s theory of ethical development.


The creation of a specific product. There is a plan or goal.  There is some creativity in how this is carried out, ie. Not all cooks make Sheppard’s pie the same. “poietike: making action” Writing and carrying out a lesson plan.  Two teachers are working towards the same curriculum expectations but no two teachers will write an identical lesson plan or carry out the same lesson.
Practical “Practical wisdom and knowledge” “As we think about what we want to achieve, we alter the way we might achieve that.  As we think about the way we might go about something, we change what we might aim at.  There is a continual interplay between ends and means” Praxis: “informed committed action.” You get this nagging sense that there is something just not quite right with the way we conceptualise or utilize lessons plans.  So you draw up a list of different possibilities for lesson plans.  You then start experimenting with alternative lesson plan structures.  Generally called action research.


The Wandering Teacher

The Wandering teacher quote-page0001-1

I’m very much a wMountain Walkinganderer.  Teaching has brought me to the Canadian arctic, to Thailand, to India and now to Myanmar.  I am afflicted by that curiosity to always see the next mountain, next sea, next river and, when I can make it out of the cities, to see the motion of the stars.

As much as I love this quote and have carried it with me for years, I find the applied conclusion unsettling, that wondering and wandering are to separate endeavors.  It has been the act of heading out to see the next mountain, the next sea and the next river that has afforded me the wealth Beach Walkingof experiences to wonder about.  The wandering has been the greatest source for my wondering.  I will take Augustine’s quote not as a description of fact, that you wander without wondering, but as a warning or cautionary tale, to not allow oneself to become engrossed in the wandering and let the wondering be set aside.

My wandering comes with me into the classroom.  That desire to not use last year’s lesson plans, to aim for a different destination.   This blog, the Wandering Teacher is where I will do my wondering, born out of my wandering.  It is a place to collect my thoughts, it is an attempt to not pass myself without wondering.  It is a place a place to collect and connect my thought on teaching, on the art and the practice of it, into a body of ideas more layered and eventually more evolved.