What we can learn from the past and apply to the future of education?

Going to ISTE2015, it was obvious that the focus of pedagogy and classroom ‘instruction’ has changed so dramatically over time that many teachers are taking a step back and letting students direct their learning and for instruction to come via alternate means.  Many American educators that I heard from during the ISTE2015 conference are facilitating STEM and STEAM learning activities that are student-driven.  STEM stands for science, technology, engineering and mathematics, with STEAM adding the element of art.

Having had 12 hours in the back of a car yesterday as I traveled from Oklahoma City to New Mexico, I started reading ‘Invent to Learn: Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom’.  It’s a fantastic read, and it has highlighted to me, just how right the philosophers, educators, mathematicians and scientists of old have been about education. Below is a summary of the beliefs of those key people:

  • Piaget has said that “to understand is to invent” (Piaget, 1976); “… use of active methods which give broad scope to the spontaneous research of the child or adolescent and requires that every new truth to be learned, be discovered, or at least reconstructed by the student and not simply imported to him” (Piaget, 1976)
  • Dewey (1859-1952) advocated for learning experiences that was project-based and connected students with the real world
  • Rousseau (1712-1778) believed that students should be given freedom to develop naturally
  • Pestalozzi (1746-1827) was a strong believer in first-hand experiences being the optimum catalyst for learning
  • Froebel (1782-1852) is the father of the first formal education of young children, known as kindergarten.  He believed that children needed to interact with the world to learn
  • Papert said “Anything is easy if you can assimilate it to your collection of models.  If you can’t, anything can be painfully difficult.  What an individual can learn, and how he learns it, depends on what models he has available” (Papert, 1980)
  • Gardner emphasised that “classroom projects that welcome various problem-solving strategies provide fertile ground for the expression of multiple intelligences” (Gardner, 1983)
  • Montessori said, “the hands are the instruments of man’s intelligence”.
  • “When children are deeply involved in play, they are learning.  Their passion, flow, and sense of timelessness mirror the actions of the tinkerer” (Csikszentmihalyi, 1991)
  • “Play creates a zone of proximal development of the child.  In play a child always behaves beyond his average age, above his daily behaviour; in play it is as though he were a head taller than himself.  As in the focus of a magnifying glass, play contains all the developmental tendencies in a condensed form and is itself a major source of development” (Vygotsky, 1978)

These great philosophers, mathematicians, educators and scientists of old are more relevant now than ever.  The maker space movement that is sweeping through USA schools is all about play, about inventing, and about learning from experience.  Perhaps we need to step back from programming and curriculum and take a leaf out of the books of these greats before us.