Notes for a Science of Education

There’s nature, and there’s human nature. And now there is just one method of understanding both, and that method we call science.

Religion used to claim to possess such understanding, to have answers to our questions, but no longer is the claim accepted (the principal promoter of belief is herself no longer believed) and this for the simple reason that its answers are not supported by either reason or evidence, the twin supports on which science has built its own cathedral, made up of blocks of newly discovered natural laws, immaterial but more lasting than the blocks of sandstone used to build the Gothic cathedrals of the Christian Middle Ages and now slowly disintegrating and returning to the sand from whence they came.

St_Andrews_Cathedral_RuinsSt. Andrew’s Cathedral, Scotland

Our understanding of the world, of the natural world if not yet of ourselves, is proceeding apace. Even accelerating as we explore the very large, the cosmos, and the very small, the quantum. Science is on a roll. For never before has man (who as science tells us, has been around in his present form and size, some 100,000 years or more) —never before has man learned so much about nature, —the nature of life, of the natural environment, of evolution, of the earth’s history, of the solar system, and of the seemingly infinite universe or universes beyond. In hardly more than a few hundred years, a two hundredth part or less of man’s so far brief time on earth, science has done this.

In regard to our understanding of human nature the situation is hardly the same. Here science no less than religion is without a clue, or so it might seem from a close look at the recently ended terrible century, the 20th, when man’s inhumanity to man was showcased over and over again, defining what seemed to be man at his worst. Man’s nature, like the weather and currency evaluations still seems to have escaped our attempts to understand it, let alone describe it accurately, and somehow quantify, control and direct it to peaceful ends.

The French painter Paul Gauguin while living in Tahiti at the cusp of the terrible century asked three questions, to which he of course didn’t have the answers. He asked, or rather his painting, now on permanent exhibit at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, asked “Woher kommen wir, Wer sind wir, Wohin gehen wir?” Not the kind of questions that a scientist would ask. Until today they have remained unanswerable or at least unanswered questions.Woher_kommen_wir_Wer_sind_wir_Wohin_gehen_wirWhere Do We Come From? Who Are We? Where Are We Going? Paul Gauguin, Tahiti, 1897-98.

It’s a fact that only science, in modern times, is on a roll. Otherwise we haven’t made a lot of progress in understanding ourselves, finding out about who or what we are. We couldn’t even say that today we know ourselves better than earlier men, say the cave artists of tens of thousands of years ago in SW France, or the Greeks of 5th century Athens, in particular the playwrights Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides, the historians Herodotus and Thucydides, the physician Hippocrates, the philosopher Socrates.

It’s not that we haven’t tried to create a science of human nature. And it’s not that we’re not still trying. We are. And it may even be that we’ve made a bit of a start as, for example, with the publication by the American Psychiatric Association just last year of the 5th edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Their effort does appear to be utilizing the method of science, in this case describing, cataloguing, and measuring disorders of the mind.

But unlike the published works of science there is still probably very little agreement regarding the truth and accuracy of the descriptions and probably even less so regarding the Manuel’s conclusions. If I were to say that we have made a start in building a science of human nature, I would look more to the Greeks of 5th century Athens, or to Shakespeare, or to the great works of literature from all lands and peoples, than to our psychiatrists, psychologists and other so-called social scientists.

What is natural science’s secret. How have the physical, biological and mathematical sciences done it? How have these disciplines made so much of nature known and understandable to us all? And by and large they have done so while remaining like the rest of us no less ignorant themselves of their own nature. There’s no mystery about how science proceeds. Science has never tried to hide its methods, or objected to others, the social scientists for example, making liberal use of them. Indeed, along with reason and evidence, transparency or openness might be a third pillar on which science has built its knowledge cathedral.

The late Richard Feynman has given us a good description as anyone of how science goes about its work. I take this description, this account of science’s method from the Introduction to Robert Piccioni’s excellent book, Feynman’s Basic Physics, Simplified. “Simplified” because Piccioni as a Cal Tech student himself, and while attending Feynman’s Lectures, realized just how many of his fellow students needed help in understanding the language of the Nobel Prize winner. Subsequently he wrote Feynman Simplified to provide that help. His book has helped me.



Here’s what Feynman says on the scientific method:

“The things with which we concern ourselves in science appear in myriad forms, and with a multitude of attributes. For example, if we stand on the shore and look at the sea, we see the water, the waves breaking, the foam, the sloshing motion of the water, the sound, the air, the winds and the clouds, the sun and the blue sky, and light; there is sand and there are rocks of various hardness and permanence, color and texture. There are animals and seaweed, hunger and disease, and the observer on the beach; there may be even happiness and thought. Any other spot in nature has a similar variety of things and influences. It is always as complicated as that, no matter where it is. Curiosity demands that we ask questions, that we try to put things together and try to understand the multitude of aspects as perhaps resulting from the action of a relatively small number of elemental things and forces acting in an infinite variety of combinations.

For example: Is the sand other than the rocks? That is, is the sand perhaps nothing but a great number of very tiny stones? Is the moon a great rock? If we understood rocks, would we also understOKand the sand and the moon? Is the wind a sloshing of air analogous to the sloshing motion of water in the sea? What common features do different movements have? What is common to different kinds of sound? How many different colors are there? And so on. In this way we try gradually to analyze all things, to put together things which at first sight look different, with the hope that we may be able to reduce the number of different things and thereby understand them better.”

The scientific method that Feynman describes, —comprising observation, reason, imagination, and experiment, is still what scientists do to understand nature. One focuses one’s look on observable physical reality. One groups things by their samenesses and differences. One tries to determine their make-up, what they’re made of (not the same thing), and while doing so one tries to identify the underlying elements and forces there are, and the fewer the better.


“The famous safe-cracking, bongo-playing, physicist, Richard Feynman, passed away in 1988 but not before winning a Nobel Prize and being one of the coolest dudes ever.” EarthSky 22,  September 2011.                                                            Richard Feynman

I take Feynman’s words here below, perhaps also his bongo-playing, as critical to the acquisition of real knowledge.

Curiosity demands that we ask questions, that we try to put things together and try to understand the multitude of aspects as perhaps resulting from the action of a relatively small number of elemental things and forces acting in an infinite variety of combinations.

Might this method be applied to our attempt to better understand human nature? It certainly has been and is still being tried. Aren’t the still growing number of the social sciences testament to this?  Most all are important areas of thought, need to have their place and be recognized. All would if they could make use of the methods of science while answering such important questions as how we might best educate ourselves, govern ourselves, provide for our needs.

But so far education, political science, psychology, and to a lesser extent economics and medicine, which may come closest of all to being real sciences, seem not yet to have uncovered a substratum of knowledge on which all the discipline’s practitioners might agree, and on which they might build their own knowledge structures as they proceed, as the sciences have built their structures on atomic, electromagnetic, gravitational and other theories.

But that hasn’t yet happened. If I were to take education, something I know a little something about, I’d ask what is the present state of our knowledge of that field? What do we know about education, or what should be the same thing, about how children and people best learn? Much as we know exactly how planets move about the sun in elliptical paths and how a finch’s beak will evolve and change its shape in order to best crack the shell casing of a nut? Is there any body or bit of educational knowledge that is generally accepted by the practitioners, by both child and adult learners, by the teachers and school administrators?

I don’t think so. And the history of school reforms should convince you of this. Compulsory education for the young began in this country less than two centuries ago. Was it scientifically proven at the time that this is how children best learn, by being compelled to sit in school and class so many of the hours of the day?

Of course not. And ever since that time, from that beginning there have been those who would remove the compulsion out of education, you know, you can lead a horse to water, but… But they have not succeeded and today the compulsion is still just as much with us as then. And today also there is absolutely no evidence (science of course has prospered by making great use of “reason and evidence”) that compulsory attendance results in greater learning.

And you could take almost any characteristic of the public schools (for the moment I’m limiting myself just for purposes of illustration to public schooling, probably a very small part of all the “schooling” that actually goes on in the country). But much the same thing might be said of most of our formal learning environments, based as they are not on how people actually learn, not based on recognized principles as to how people best learn, but on what we want to teach, what we want them to learn.

What about this structural characteristic of our schools, does it correspond to some truth about how people best learn? The fact that in our schools children are placed together according to their chronological age? And that this has been going on for some 150 to 200 years, since Horace Mann’s first Common Schools in the 1840s. (Schooling became compulsory in Massachusetts some ten years later.)

Does anyone really believe that this characteristic of our schools has resulted in greater learning? Of course not, everyone knows that differing ages together promote learning, and there’s probably enough evidence out there to “prove” this but no one is trying to do that. A large family and the one room school house, not to mention perhaps the very best learning environment ever, the apprentice at the feet of the master, would have been much better models, much closer to how learning takes place.

And how about this other characteristic of our schools, that children of widely different abilities, needs, and interests, not to mention family backgrounds and family resources, are placed together in a room and are then expected to learn together. It has always been clear that they don’t.

Diversity is not always such a good thing. The differences between our learners are too often just too great for learning to take place, except for a minority of them. But here too we go on doing this. Why? Well we would be a country where we believe that everyone is equal, and that everyone should be treated equally.

Admirable? Well maybe, but the actual result of this has been a disaster in respect to what happens in our schools. If you really could melt them all together, as in a melting pot, well then they might come out all together and the same, but lifeless. But of course no one wants that. We want the differences, that things that make each one of us unique, but we’re not willing to take the time to create an environment where the differences can flourish. Not an easy thing to do, but so far in our schools it has hardly been tried.

There’s no need to continue, to further point our how ineffectual is our system of education, how it is based on ideas without there being evidence or proof of the ideas’ validity and effectiveness. The result is that our schools are a free for all where a few, the gifted, the motivated, often the affluent, succeed; where the many learn, but learn mostly not to pay attention to whatever it is that may be going on about them, supposedly for their benefit, in school and class, and instead go merrily on they own way, happily immersed with their friends in the ubiquitous popular culture of the age; and finally where a growing minority can no longer stomach the school environment which has little or nothing for them, and early on drop out of the activities in class and later on out of school entirely.

If I ever continue with these notes for a science of Education it will be to consider whether in fact there might be such a science. It does seem to be that when real learning takes place there are certain components that might be identified and described and promoted and based on reason and evidence be a part of all learning situations. Here’s a couple of candidates. Could these two be a start of our science of education? An education based on principles obtained by the examination and acceptance of the evidence?

One might be that the most important component of any learning situation is, or should be the learner. How and why have we avoided this truth for so long, the truth that learning, anything more than mindless repetition, must have a learner ready and willing to listen. For learning proceeds not from the teacher but from the efforts of the student. Why have we placed the teacher at the head of the class? At best she ought to be in the back row looking for truths about how in fact her kids now up front and active are learning. Yet our learning structures go on placing the teacher at the head of the class.

Another component might be that what one can learn has a lot to do with one’s talents and interests, and yes, with one’s intelligence, or if you like, as I do, being a longtime admirer of Howard Gardner, one’s intelligences. Wouldn’t a proper science of education have at least as many learning environments out there as there are different talents and interests among the students? Not the way it is now.

In other words shouldn’t a learning situation in order to be successful start with the learners, where they are, what they’re capable of? Now instead we tell them where they should be, even where they should want to be! That, for example, everyone of them without exception should learn algebra, how to write an essay, should eventually go to college. Most kids of course are left behind in this system. And again we are all too familiar with the disaster that has resulted from this and similar prescriptions.

But to sum up, a science of education might be based on this truth about the learner. (And there are probably other truths out there waiting to be discovered and described.) For what one does with his or her own talents and interests is what counts, is in fact what life is all about. That’s the meaning of life-long learning.

And therefore, wouldn’t you think that the very first thing that a school based on the evidence of how people learn would do, would be to help the learner to identify his or her talents and interests and then to help provide a proper environment for them. In my own case I only began to uncover my own talents and interests, such as they are, when my formal schooling was all over. I would have appreciated some help while in school.

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