Looking back at old ideas

The book I’m currently reading, “The Clockwork Universe” (by Edward Dolnick) rides along with the scientists and thinkers whose ideas made our modern world possible, in both it’s philosophical and technological forms. These pioneers and thought explorers didn’t live in the early 20th century, or even in the Victorian Age of Industrial development. They lived in the Seventeenth Century, less than 100 years after Shakespeare wrote his last play, chasing their curiosity toward ideas that are used in the greatest human achievements. Our satellites and rockets could only be launched because Sir Isaac Newton calculated the speed that a projectile must travel in order to orbit the earth. And he did this in 1687.


But their greatest achievement is not the gains in knowledge, massive though they are. Their greatest achievement was the continuing development of a process of scientific inquiry, first championed in Europe by Roger Bacon (who died in 1294). The process is inquiry, where questions are formed, answers are hypothesized, tested, reviewed and reformed as new questions. Sometimes the questions lead to amazing discoveries, sometime they lead down a side road, but they always lead to learning and growth.

The point I’m making is that when we talk about new ideas in education (or in anything), most of the time we are not talking about a new idea. We are talking about an old idea that we want to start using in the educational world, or to change how it is being used.

Our current educational system is based on the idea of 19th Century mass production. A product (in this case, learning) is broken down into it’s component parts, each part is made in a large batch, and assembled at the end. In our current system all our areas of knowledge are broken down into disciplines (English, Science, Math, etc) and and delivered to students in small chunks. Teachers then check to see if students have kept the knowledge in their heads (through tests). Students are organized into groups by age, and taught the same thing at the same time. The idea is that breaking things down into small, interchangeable parts, whether they are bolts on a car or math skills, and then delivering them in an organized method will produce an efficient, organized product. The intended product was a citizen who had a certain body of knowledge, and could read and calculate well enough to be successful in work and society at that time.

Ms. Hammond’s post hits the key question. “What is the change in education?” Or, to put it another way, why do we need to apply different ideas to education? As she explains, our students today are different, and the education they need in order to be successful is different. When all the information in the world is at your fingertips, and when students are used to asking their own questions, they need to be taught how ask better questions, questions that move their learning forward.

The old idea that we are applying to education is inquiry. For the students of the 21st century, it is a better one.


I am an educational leader, a photographer, a thinker, and a parent. We live in a world of abundance on the West Coast of Canada. I learn together with wonderful people in my home, community, work, and church. My goal for my students is that they leave school with confidence based on demonstrated excellence in at least one domain of learning, and with the life, employment and thinking skills to open the many doors of their future.

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Posted in Education, Project Based Learning

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