By John Pendall
Education—what does that word mean to you?
When I look up the definition online (because who uses dictionaries anymore?) I get two answers:
1) The process of giving or receiving systematic instruction. Well, that sounds pretty drab and awful doesn’t it?
2) An enlightening experience. Now that…that is interesting.
I’m not sure who snuck in that second definition, but if I ever find out I’ll buy them a beer. I’m going to take off my funny Zen robes for now and put on my psychology glasses, twill leisure suit, receding hairline and pointy goatee. There we go.
I’m also thinking with a British accent right now, so please read this article with a British voice in your head.
Once upon a time, a psychopath named Ivan Pavlov discovered he could train dogs to salivate by using a bell. Most introductory textbooks don’t discuss in gory detail what he did, so likewise, I’ll gloss over the realities of his studies because I just ate breakfast. Anyway, from his experiments he learned that animals can become conditioned to associate a neutral stimulus with a conditioned response.
Across the pond Edward Thorndike—an awesome bloke—was studying how we can come to anticipate responses to our actions. Together, these men paved the way for behaviorism. John B. Watson and B.F. Skinner, two brilliantly demented psychopaths, put Thorndike and Pavlov’s theories into action. However, like most extremists, they took it too far.
Behaviorists didn’t concern themselves with our emotions or inner worlds. If it couldn’t be observed and measured, then it wasn’t important to them.
They were so skilled at conditioning that Watson once boasted, “Give me a group of healthy infants and I can make them into whatever you want them to be. Doctor? Lawyer? Politician? Humanitarian? Criminal? It doesn’t matter what the child’s talents, personality or family history are. I can make them into whatever you want.” A charming chap, wasn’t he?
From this cesspool of callousness and narcissism, our modern education system was born.
In fact, most parents also predominately use behavioral techniques to educate their children. Punishment and reward are at the heart of behavioral conditioning. Every time we give a child a toy for doing something we approve of, we are giving them a primary reinforcer. Each time we ground them for doing something we disapprove of, we are using negative punishment. If we spank our child, we are using positive punishment. If we play Celine Dion really loud on the stereo until the child cleans his or her room, we’re using negative reinforcement. If a child gets an A+ on a test, they’re receiving a secondary reinforcer.
Behaviorists were strong believers in repetition as well.
Stimulus-response connections are strengthened over time. This is why much of our education system is designed around punishment, reward, repetition and rote memorization. This all clearly falls under the first definition of “education.”
The problem here is that conditioning is often temporary or specific to certain situations. Your child may not swear around you because they’re afraid of being smacked, but they could be swearing like a sailor when you’re not around. Also, people usually people forget what they’ve memorized when it’s no longer useful.
Enter the Gestaltists, who value the second definition of education.
Gestaltists have shown that true knowledge comes from insight, not memorization. To a Gestaltist, reinforcers are unnecessary and potentially harmful; insight is a reward unto itself. Lessons learned through insight are long lasting and can be applied to a variety of situations.
In behavioral education, a teacher tells the student that one plus one equals two. Then after repeating this a few times, the teacher asks the students, “What does one plus one equal?” If a student stays, “Two,” then they get a pat on the head and a GOOD JOB sticker.
A Gestaltist would approach it like this: “What is the number 2?”
After a bit of guessing, a student says, “It’s two ones put together!”
“Exactly. Why is the number 2 useful?”
After some more guessing, a student says, “It’s easier to count to ten in twos!”
“Yes it is!” and so on.
A Gestaltist gives a student small amounts of information and then has them build upon that by asking them questions designed to grant them insights. Insight is enlightenment. We’ve all experienced the thrill of insight. All of us have encountered a problem that we just can’t solve. Eventually, we stop thinking about it. Then, suddenly we feel that click and, “A-ha!”—that’s insight. Buddhists would call it kensho.
All right, I’m taking off my psychology costume now and putting on my boxing gloves.
Education based on behavioral techniques has made a nation of industrial cogs. Our current system is not education, it is indoctrination. It teaches subservience and a hedonistic need for acknowledgment and instant gratification. It teaches us that we don’t need to think, we just need to listen and obey. If we do, then our cog gets a little grease. If we don’t, then we’re punished.
Real education would promote relying on your own wits, asking questions and acquiring wisdom (applied knowledge). Yet, this runs contrary to the whims of industry. An enlightened mind doesn’t require reinforcers to be satisfied. A nation of enlightened minds could not be a consumerist nation.
To understand why our education system is the way it is, one just has to take a step back and look at the type of worker and consumer that our industrial society wants. Our grade schools and high schools are nothing more than indoctrination camps on how to be a good little cog. John B. Watson would be proud.
A fun fact, Mr. Watson eventually left psychology to become an advertising guru…
Photo: The Wynwood Walls
Editor: Dana Gornall
Feel free to check out his Facebook page and his blog, "John's Mind."