Geddes: Timeless Educational Ideas
The national spotlight on education reveals both serious problems at all levels and conscientious efforts to bring about educational reform . Having worked in the field of education for almost 40 years and witnessed educational movements come and go, I have become interested in recent years in searching for timeless educational ideas. Such a pursuit ahs caused me to realize that: 1) the greatest ideas are not necessarily the most recent ones 2) educators should continue to search for new ideas, but they should also pass on those ideas that have had an impact on thinking through the centuries, and 3) some so-called new ideas are old ones in modern dress.
article I share some ideas that have surfaced in my research on Patrick
Geddes (1854-1932), a Scotsman better known for his work in town planning,
although he was knighted in 1932 for his contributions to education.
He had close connections with Lewis Mumford, G Stanley hall, William
James, William Rainey Harper, John Dewey, and others in this country.
In his own words Geddes developed ideas on 'parallel lines'
1) Wonder is the seed of knowledge. This idea formed the foundation of Geddes's educational thinking, although it did not originate with him. Geddes was very much influenced by the writing of Francis Bacon. The significance of wonderment surfaces in Bacon's essay, Of the Proficience and Advancement of Learning which appeared in 1605. This wonderment leads us to to know inductively through a slow and patient interpretation of facts and phenomena, a premium being placed on observation, experiment and induction. The spirit of wonderment is also evident in Gotthold Ephraim Lessing's notion in the 18th C that it is not the truth which a person possesses but the sincere endeavours to arrive at the truth that is important.
Wonderment is natural for the young child. With encouragement and guidance, wonderment can be transformed into curiosity and a commitment to search for answers to one's own questions. Geddes shows the importance of an environment that nurtures wonderment. He used a metaphor of the passion flower, comparing the sensitive, searching tendrils of the young vine to the child.
"Each and every tendril of the young vine-shoot - or still the passion-flower - is at first sensitive and searching; yet when it finds no opportunity of attachment what can it do but curl in upon itself, into a small centred coil? Where the shoot is isolated, each soon becomes standardized to this "good form;" and this in quite a long row, all as similarly stiff, inert and unresponsive. Are not these the very types of the "good average men" we know so well from public school and college, whom we meet in clubs or business, or see in politics or in "Society", and whose blameless respectability and settled decorum is no longer troubled by any personal urge or thought, or initiative towards action? Yet in each of these and all of these, youth's passion flower tendrils have guided them to opportunity of realisation, instead of standardized futility."
After I read this metaphor, I searched through my files and found a brief article I wrote in the 1960s that centred on the question: "What would happen if our educational system if we evaluated students on the quality of questions they asked rather than on the answers they provide for some questions asked by someone else?" I do not think I have lost this notion in my personal life; however, from a professional perspective, I think I allowed the idea to be buried for a while in the competency movement when we thought if we could cover the world with behavioral objectives all would be cozy. It did not work.
As I view the current educational scene, I believe that a renewed emphasis on wonderment and its cultivation would bring freshness in education. If we listen carefully in most classrooms today we hear such questions as "How many references must I have?" "How many pages?" Even primary school children ask "is this going to count for a grade?" We need to concentrate on keeping the kind of wonderment alive that resulted in such questions as "What makes the sky blue?" or "Who made God?" As educators, we need to study carefully why such questions disappear and are replaced by ones that reflect only external requirements.
Geddes believed that the child's desire of seeing, touching, handling, smelling, tasting, and hearing are all true and healthy hungers, and these should be cultivated, not squelched. He likens the child's wonderment to scientists whose habits of observing and thinking for themselves drive them to pursue questions that are important. He believed that the investigations of people like Darwin, Pasteur, Huxley, Hall and others he had known were simply the eager child just grown up. Obviously, this is an oversimplification.; however, it might be worth our rethinking the notion of wonder as the seed of knowledge. Wonderment is something that we have working for us if we can cultivate it rather than ignore it in an overprescriptive curriculum and systems of evaluation that do not place importance on the questions of children and young people.
2) True education is self-education. This statement is a part of a quotation that comes from an account Geddes gave of his own education and that of his oldest son. In a lecture given on August 14, 1895, Geddes indicated that the true student had become extinct despite the fact that the university may have several thousand members. He compared the student to a "frightened parrot," and stated that study for its own sake had vanished. He said he "would press upon the student the necessity of forming his own education." He pointed out that teachers "should endeavor not to manufacture a ready-made synthesis but make their pupils realize that every man is his own philosopher, synthesizer, moralist, art critic, and even artist and educationalist and so on up to priest and king."
He called for students to become solvers of their own problems, thus renewing their courage as students.
Geddes often acknowledged his debt to Emerson and, of course, we can see the close connection between the above position and these familiar words from Emerson's "Self-Reliance":
"A man should learn to detect and watch that gleam of light which flashed across his mind from within, more than the luster of the firmament of bards and sages. Yet he dismisses without notice his thought, because it is his. In every work of genius we recognise our own rejected thoughts; they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty Tomorrow a stranger will say with masterly good sense precisely that we have thought and felt all the time, and we shall be forced to take with shame our own opinion from another."
Emersons's words echoed the 16th century cry for the freeing of the mind from the clutches of authority. For example, Montaigne called for the child to "examine and thoroughly sift everything he reads, and lodge nothing in his fancy upon simple authority and trust."
A second aspect of self-education is the actual process of learning itself. The notion that learning is strictly an activity of individual minds has been with us for a long time, and it has been expressed in a variety of ways. For example it has been suggested that we cannot teach individuals anything: we can only help them discover it within themselves. The idea was expressed poetically by Gibran when he wrote: "No man can reveal aught but that which already lies half asleep in the dawning of your knowledge."
Durant suggests a useful sequence: "Sensation is unorganized stimulus, perception is orgamised sensation, conception is organized perception, science is organized, wisdom is organised life: each is agreater degree of order, and sequence and unity." Self-education means that the individual himself or herself must complete the process or ordering what is observed, studied or experienced. Others may assist in various ways, but ultimately all connections must be made by the individual. Similarly, Piaget reminded us that we cannot transform the child's mind from outside. Rather, he placed a premium on cooperation between the adult and child, thus creating a collaborative relationship that facilitates the child's learning on his own.
On his part, Bronowski describes what he refers to as the 'moment of appreciation' that occurs when the individual discovers, reconstructs, or re-enacts what another person has created:
The poem or the discovery exists in two moments of vision: the moment of appreciation as much as that of creation: for the appreciator must see the movement wake to the echo which was started in the creation of the work. In the moment of appreciation, we live again the moment when the creator saw and held the hidden likeness. When a simile takes us aback and persuades us together, when we find a juxtaposition in a picture both odd and intriguing, when a theory is at once fresh and convincing, we do not merely nod over someone else's work. We re-enact the creative act and we ourselves make the discovery again. At bottom, there is no unifying likeness there until we too have made it for ourselves.
Likewise Dewey corroborated the notion that learning is an individual matter when he distinguished the process of thinking from the end product, thought. Attempts to transmit thought, as opposed to leading individuals to make their own connections through thinking themselves, deprive them of the real substance of education and what Bronowski referred to as the moment of appreciation:
All thinking is original in a projection of considerations which have not been previously apprehended. The child of three who discovers what can be done with blocks , or a six year old who finds out what he can make by outing five cents and five cents together, is really a discoverer, even though everybody else in the world knows it.
What is being characterized is learning as active construction and reconstruction on the part of the individual. The connections each individual makes, starting with the simple and moving to the more complex, become the heart of education. The nature of learning is similar at all levels, as the individual gradually moves towards what Geddes referred to as "an increasingly organic whole." Assistance at various stages can be helpful as the individual connects new knowledge with what is already known, but the actual linkages must be made internally and by the individual him or herself.
I find myself wondering if we could re-kindle the idea of self-reliance and the notion that the individual has a responsibility for directing his or her own education to a great extent whether it would gradually show itself not only in matters of formal education, but also in increased percentage of voters, concern for what individuals can do to preserve the environment, and a renewed belief that the individual can make a difference. Such a thought is worth considering as we look for ways to strengthen the education of young people.
3) The individual sees only what he or she brings through the power and habit of seeing. A major function of education is the development of the power of observation. Using one of his favourite subjects, Nature Study, as an example, Geddes explained that the sequence is important: start in the open air with all the senses awake; move from careful observation to inference, and then to books and study. This process extands to the printed page as one brings a stronger conceptual background to what is read.
The idea of the importance of the development of the senses is linked to Comenius who, born in the latter part of the 18th Century, continued work that began with by Wolfgang Ratke. Comenius also influenced by bacon's philosophy, proposed in his eighth principle that everything should be taught through the medium of the senses. He also underscored Bacon's earlier idea that nature does not hurry, but advances slowly, suggesting that we must not attempt to rush the process of observing, inferring and carefully building knowledge. There is a connection here with what followed Comenius in John Milton's treatise on education: the notion that the teaching of |words and things" must go together. In other words, memorization without understanding is of little value. Sensory experiences add meaning to words. There is a clear distinction between vocabulary development in the form of definitions and the development of concepts. Geddes was critical of the practice of what he called "cerebrating in the presence of print," without adequate knowledge of meaning behind the print.
I recently read Darwin's autobiography. One of his strengths, he felt, was his ability to notice things that easily escaped attention of others. He summarized: "My success as a man of science, whatever this may have amounted to, has been determined, as far as I can judge, by complex and diversified mental qualities and conditions. Of these, the most important have been - the love of science - unbounded patience in long reflecting over any subject - industry in observing and collecting facts - and a fair share of invention as well as of common sense."
Development of the sense through experience not only adds meaning to the words, but it also aids in cultivating greater aesthetic sensibility. Learning to see through the eyes of the artist or to hear music through the ears of the musician adds richness to life. The sequence suggested by Durant, mentioned earlier, reminds us that it is more than looking or listening; the process calls for graduated levels of organization of what is observed. It is easy to see however, that the process is a cycle: the more we bring with us to the setting or to the printed page, the more we are able to construct from the data for ourselves; then the more we understand, the more we are able to observe. This is what Geddes meant when he indicated that we see only what we bring through the power and habit of seeing. A great part of education becomes the development of this power and habit.
4) Synthesis of knowledge is essential in an age of specialization. TS Eliot asked: "Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?" One of the greatest needs we have today is more people who are able to see the big picture.
One of the things that attracted me to Geddes's work was his strong synthesis of knowledge and its application to solving real problems. Specialisation, which he linked to the idea of division of labour, was beginning to emerge during his time. He believed that over-specialisation without careful attention to how specializations fit into the larger scheme could be unproductive. Because of his own study and work in diverse fields, such as botany (which he taught for many years), art, and sociology, he sought ways to relate knowledge across areas of specialization. He used the metaphor of fabric to illustrate his point, indicating the universities has devoted themselves to "the spinning and fixing of the needful warp-threads, the filling by each specialist of his particular spool." He felt the need for "the flying shuttle of synthesis" to create a solid fabric both of warp and woof.
He used his Outlook Tower, which was both a building on the old High Street in Edinburgh and an idea of synthesis, to promote a kind of passion he had to unify knowledge. He spent a number of years conducting Summer Meetings where he began with the complete picture of the landscape from atop the Outlook Tower and then brought in specialists from different countries to aid participants in taking the Edinburgh landscape apart and then putting it back together again through establishing relationships between and among the areas of knowledge. If we can imagine ourselves a top a tall building and viewing the landscape, first in its entirety, then separately with a geologist, geographer, botanist, historian, architect, artist, etc. we realize that we are seeing the parts in greater detail. Formal education places more emphasis on the study of the specializations, giving little attention to synthesis. Geddes believed that all these specializations come together in life, and that we should strive to make education closer to life. Carved in stone over an archway in a courtyard on the Old High Street in Edinburgh is the motto: "Vivendo Discimus" (through living we learn). Dewey also stressed the notion that education is life, not a preparation for life.
Given the need for specialization in our time, and given the idea that each individual must construct knowledge for himself or herself, we need to facilitate synthesis of knowledge in a way that can be applied to the solution of complex problems and exciting possibilities in our day. Our lives are not composites of the subjects we study in our formal education, and the problems we face are not ones that have already been solved and are waiting for us to choose the 'right' solution. Rather we draw from specializations separately, and we also connect them in many different ways. When I was studying the correspondence, lecture notes, and other materials in the Geddes papers in the National Library of Scotland, I came a cross a scrap of paper on which was written a scrap of paper on which was written a simple statement that expresses the thought succinctly: "To unify is to see relations." Whatever we can do to help our students to see relationships between and among what they study and experience will make a contribution to their education. This is not unrelated to such topics as departmentalisation in school and university organization, team teaching, integrated courses, unit teaching, thematic teaching, or specialisations in professional education where there is little effort to look at the whole person who is to be educated.
5) Learning cannot be evaluated with precision in measurement. I suggest we look at two contrasting quotations that are separated by many centuries. Our choice to be influenced more y one of the ideas than the other ahs resulted in a gradual weakening of education in our time. I hope I am not reading into Aristotle more than he intended when he advised: "It is the mark of an educated man to look for precision in each class of things just so far as the nature of the subject admits." As we move to the 20th C we read these words by Thorndike:
Any progress toward measuring how well a child can read with something of the objectivity, precision, commensurability, and convenience which characterize our measurents of how tall he is, how much he can lift with his back or squeeze with his hands or how acute his vision is, would be of great help in grading, promoting, testing the value of methods of teaching and in every other case where we need to know ourselves and to inform others how well an individual or a class or a school population can read.
Several years ago, I traced the origin of the metaphor of reading level because I was convinced that this metaphor has shaped practice in schools to a great extent. This led naturally into the literature on the history of the educational measurement movement. It helped me to understand how our love affair with numbers has grown through the years, reaching a climax in the testing mania that runs rampant today. Since then I have found two ideas that hold promise in helping to move away from the futile attempts to measure learning with the precision we use in measuring height and weight. In Geddes's words: "The concept of average man is a statistical creation, not a biological fact."
If we observe carefully, we can see however, that our tendency to place people in categories and on various levels ultimately helps to shape our expectations of other people and theirs of themselves. We have become so enamoured of numbers, using them comfortably in matters of accountability, that we fail to look at the meaning behind the numbers.
Interestingly, during Geddes's time, there was a great deal of emphasis on examinations, although they were obviously not the same as our standardized tests today. His criticism, however, was very much what we hear today: excessive time devoted to memorizing and cramming for examinations getting in the way of learning that would last after the test was over. He proposed what he called the Estimation in lieu of Examination. Careful records should be kept throughout the year or course, and there should be periodic estimation, along with the student, throughout the course, pointing out developing qualities and persisting defects. More attention should be given to essays, problem solving, and perhaps oral examination. He suggests that the true educator looks beyond the notions of ranking students to helping them through careful analysis of their work. Obviously, there comes a time when certain decisions have to be made about career objectives. What he is saying is that, in the course of the education of young people, we can be more helpful in the process of evaluating through using samples of work over a period of time, placing less emphasis on examinations (or standardized test in our time) when evaluating learning and teaching effectiveness.
A related idea that moves from unnecessary 'precision' in measurement comes from Vygotsky in the late 1920s. He proposed the use of what he called a "zone of proximal development" when attempting to assess the performance of the individual. This suggests that a person has the ability to solve a problem at a given level, but when asked a question or given a hint, the person can achieve at a higher level. Which is the better measure of what the person can do? By using the notion of the zone rather than a point (specific score on a scale) Vygotsky suggests that through collaboration with the learner we see a very different view of the process of knowing and what is known.
Returning to the two contrasting quotations used to introduce this idea, we need to ask ourselves whether the desire for precision in measurement today is driven more by political than educational motives. If this is the case, educators must provide leadership in helping the public become more informed, and also they need to seek ways of evaluating progress that promotes learning at higher levels and on a long term basis.
What about the acceptability of these ideas for the future? If they are to find their way into our system, we must make changes in our ways of working, and I believe the changes have to be initiated by leaders in education. We should not be afraid to use words like vision as we plan for the future. I think I see more clearly now than ever before the meaning of the Biblical words: "Where there is no vision, the people perish." We are busying ourselves attempting to prepare the people for what is. This is important, but we might well listen carefully also to Thomas Mann who advised us to imagine another reality.
In his book, Future Work, Robertson describes different futures. One is characterised by business as usual in the event we continue the way we are going today. A second one is described as Hyper-Expansionist, and finally, there is one characterized as Sane, Humane and Ecological. He discusses implications for energy, technology, environment, leisure, and education. The ideas presented above seem to fit better in one of futures he describes than the others. I like to think that we as educators play an important role in determining what our future will be.
All images with kind permission of Catya Plate. For more and contact please visit her site here.