A revolution in science is quietly underway, one that
began a half-century ago on the far edge of quantum physics and is gradually
making its presence felt in every area of human inquiry.
Why begin an essay on teaching and learning alternatives
with this bit of seemingly unrelated news? Because scientific paradigms
become the lens through which we view reality. They shape the structure
and function of all of our social institutions, including our educational
institutions. This isn’t to say that a host of political and economic factors
don’t equally influence how schools go about their business, but allow me
for argument’s sake to sketch an equation linking the paradigm that has
dominated Western thinking for over three hundred years and the educational
model that is so thoroughly entrenched in the West today. Afterwards, I
will sketch a similar equation linking the aforementioned revolution and
the kind of education that it implies.
When Isaac Newton demonstrated that he could quite
accurately analyze the motion of physical objects both on earth and in the
heavens, the idea was born that the universe is wound up like a giant watch
and that science, given time, will be able to deduce its basic operating
principles by breaking everything down into its component parts. In a Newtonian
world, Nature is predictable, orderly, and docile—and the objective is to
place her under Man’s dominion.
As is the way of scientific revolutions, Newton’s model
spread beyond math and physics to become the template for all of science.
Two hundred years later, the biologist Charles Darwin applied Newton’s model
to the animate realm, claiming that the principles of random mutation and
natural selection are a sufficient explanation for the incredible diversification.
Strongly influenced by Darwin, the psychologist Edward
Thorndike experimented on caged monkeys and concluded that learning, both
animal and human, is caused by the “selection of impulses,” later to be
called “positive and negative reinforcement” by his successor B.F. Skinner.
Today, Thorndike is recognized as the father of educational psychology.
Therein lies the scientific basis for our contemporary
carrot and stick approach to education. Entirely rational, this approach
is steeped in ideas about order and control. Every outcome is measured.
Nothing is left to chance. Children are regarded as machines in need of
programming, an idea epitomized in the May 1998 Newsweek cover
story entitled “How to Build a Better Boy.”
While the Newtonian paradigm has successfully fueled
unfathomable technological progress, along the way cutting edge scientists
have begun exploring a new paradigm based on the inability of Newton’s laws
to account for complex living phenomena such as human beings. In these “open
systems,” so called because they are constantly exchanging energy and information
with their environment, growth and development tend not to occur in a logical,
predictable fashion. Rather, says Nobel Prize-winning chemist Ilya Prigogine,
here change takes place “on the edge of chaos.” Adaptation is not the result
of external forces, but rather is brought about by an internal process of
According to this as yet unnamed paradigm, life is
too complex for cause and effect explanations. Newton’s basic building blocks
are of little use because, writes physicist Fritjof Capra in The Web
of Life, there are no components. What we call parts are actually patterns
in an inseparable web of relationships.
In a Capran universe, mind and body are recognized
as a single, co-evolving whole, and children as self-organizing, self-regulating
beings capable of generating their own learning and their own order. Education
is therefore contextual, not analytical. Spontaneity and open-endedness
are valued over externally imposed structure and routine. And there is still
a place for myth and mystery.
May we live to see the day when our dominant educational
model sheds its scaly dragon skin and is reborn as a dolphin swimming in
an ocean of possibilities.
Chris Mercogliano worked with children for thirty-five years
at the Albany Free School, the oldest inner-city alternative school in the
U.S. He is also the author of Making It Up As We Go Along, the Story of
the Albany Free School (Heinemann 1998), Teaching the Restless, One School’s
Remarkable No-Ritalin Approach to Helping Children Learn and Succeed (Beacon
Press 2004), How to Grow a School: Starting and Sustaining Schools That
Work (Oxford Village Press 2006), and In Defense of Childhood: Protecting
Kids’ Inner Wildness (Beacon Press 2007). This essay is from his book
A School Must Have a Heart. His essays, commentaries, and reviews have appeared
in newspapers, magazines, and journals around the world, as well as in seven
anthologies; and he has been featured on National Public Radio, Canadian
Broadcasting Corporation Radio, and many other radio networks. The father
of two daughters, he lives with his wife Betsy on a one-acre farm in downtown
Albany, New York. Read more of his writing on