The Butterfly Who Denied Ever Being a Caterpillar: A Modern Day Educational Fable

Paul A. Kirschner & Mirjam Neelen

Did you hear the story about the butterfly who denied ever being a caterpillar? Well, there was once a beautiful, well-developed butterfly who refused to accept that he once was a caterpillar and that going through the stages from pupa to caterpillar to beautiful butterfly was responsible for his current state…

Almost weekly, we encounter (or are asked to comment on) some new, modern, progressive, child friendly, innovative approach to education. Usually, advocates for these approaches have a strong distaste for knowledge acquisition, fact learning, memorisation, and practising skills such as addition, subtraction, multiplication, spelling, handwriting or writing essays (Who needs all of these things in real life? We have pocket computers for this, and, who writes essays these days?). They find these things to be old-fashioned, demotivating, and extremely mind-numbing. They believe in the child’s own initiative to drive learning as they perceive this to be innovative, motivating, and (emotionally) liberating. After all, allowing children to initiate their own learning focuses on a future in which we desperately need to be self-directed and self-regulated lifelong learners and in which we can’t begin early enough to let children develop their talents.

These gurus, innovators, and educational reformers[1] focus on personal and social development, implement iPad and other types of alternative schools, advance the notion of digital natives who can do the most amazing things effortlessly, strive to achieve 21st century skills and generally loath everything that’s carried out in our current education system. They claim that learning facts and concepts are no longer necessary and hence, focusing on them in education is simply outdated. For them, knowledge and concepts are as perishable as fresh fish! Also, if you need to know something, you can always find it on the Internet. Bothering children with knowledge acquisition is simply a waste of time. Actually, it’s worse! They feel that it also prevents kids from creative problem-solving and divergent thinking. From the educational innovator’s perspective, all energy should go to motivating children, developing generic skills such as critical thinking, creativity, and problem-solving, as well as teaching them flexibility, curiosity, and resilience. Long live 21st century skills.

We’ve written about these topics multiple times (for example, here, here, here, and here). In short, (spoiler 1!) research clearly shows that motivation doesn’t lead to learning, but rather that experiencing success leads to motivation to continue to learn. Next (spoiler 2!), generic skills don’t exist as skills are domain-specific. And last but not least, (spoiler 3!) flexibility, curiosity, and resilience are traits that can’t be taught.

These, usually highly educated, educational reformers, shout from the rooftops that the current education system doesn’t meet the requirements of today’s society and therefore, we’re not preparing our children for the future. They won’t have the necessary 21st century skills, simply because education doesn’t help to develop them. According to these gurus, education needs to change radically as otherwise, we’ll end up with citizens who can’t collaborate, won’t be creative, will be ICT illiterate, and so the list goes on. In particular, the comment around ICT illiteracy is fascinating as the same people cite Mark Prensky who declared in 2001 that children these days are digital natives (so, how can they be ICT illiterate?).

And the cherry on top of the purported need to radically change education cake is that it’s stuck in the mantra that our current system of education is based on a ‘factory model’. You know the spiel: If my great grandmother came back from the grave she would not understand or recognise a single thing except the classroom. For a nice blog on this fallacy read ‘The invented history of the factory model of education‘.

butterfly 2

Are we surprised by this? No! After all, we live in the ‘death of expertise’ era, where you really don’t have to have any specific domain knowledge to be perceived as an expert. Everyone can be an expert in everything. Suffering from the expertise-generalisation syndrome has reached epidemic proportions. As long as you’re famous or have some kind of academic degree, you’re allowed to expound on anything and it’s totally fine to spread your thoughts and beliefs as if they’re facts.

Yes, we’re being awfully sarcastic. But it’s just how we feel and sometimes it’s nice to get it off our grumpy chests. Besides, we’re genuinely concerned about the trend that expertise is perceived as no longer necessary and that one’s opinion based on nothing (or at best based on an anecdote) is worth more than an expert’s knowledge.

Just to paint the picture from a different angle. A while back, one of Mirjam’s friends asked her why she was so frustrated about this. The friend meant well and wanted to genuinely understand. The friend is a builder. She asked him to imagine what it would be like to have discussions with his clients every day, where clients would challenge him with regards to his plumbing expertise, his technical drawings, the project timelines, the choice of materials. She asked him to imagine what it would be like if his clients would tell him to build a house he knew would collapse or a bathroom he knew would start leaking. And when he would explain it to them, they would smile and respond: “Don’t worry! I know it will be fine! My aunt’s neighbour has the exact same kitchen/bathroom and she loves it! It works really well for her! Besides, I’ve always wanted a kitchen/bathroom just like that. Just build it!” Her friend just stared at her in disbelief…

“Just build it!”

The thing that perplexes us – and the reason we wrote this blog – is why these seemingly intelligent, innovative, problem-solving, socially skilled and ICT-literate ‘reformers’ are so good at thinking outside of the box when it comes to education. It surprises us that they’re able to come up with solutions for problems in a space that is usually very different from their own area of expertise (social geography, sociology, theatre, literature, physics). It’s such an interesting approach to expertise; high-level cross-domain transfer! And, how are they, according to themselves, able to solve these complex problems in the education space? After all, they themselves are products of this terrible, mind-numbing, old-fashioned education that they so passionately reject. They usually have academic titles, some are even professor, or minister. Do they ever wonder how they turned out to be who and what they are? How did they develop these critical 21st century skills in that horrible educational system? If the whole system needs to be drastically changed, how were they able to develop all the self-claimed knowledge, skills, and attitudes (i.e., competencies) that they have and why are they so successful? Do they feel they’re lucky to be this successful despite the horrible education that they suffered through? Or do they think they’re just one-of-a-kind and they’re the only ones who have escaped their unfortunate destiny thanks to their own talents and uniqueness?

We wonder, doing our own armchair psychological analysis, if instead they suffer from denial. There are various types of denial, but we’re referring to denial of fact (Wikipedia).

In the psychological sense, denial is a defence mechanism in which a person, faced with a painful fact, rejects the reality of that fact. They will insist that the fact is not true despite what may be overwhelming and irrefutable evidence.

If this is the case, it’s actually kind of sad, not just for these traumatised gurus, but also for our children. This ‘reform’ that they propagate denies our children the possibility and the right to become as educated as they can become (and as educated as the reformers that want something different).

Don’t get us wrong! We’re not saying NOTHING needs to be improved in education. Really, we don’t! We just ask to keep it real. Let’s just keep it nuanced, please, based on facts. Please?


  1. The title is based on Paren en Onparen (1973) by Gert de Ley.

[1] We have chosen to not be very specific as this is not about name-calling!


8 thoughts on “The Butterfly Who Denied Ever Being a Caterpillar: A Modern Day Educational Fable

  1. Dominik Plimmer says:

    Thank you for your Blog post it made an interesting read – much of which I agreed with. My contentions with your article, however, are twofold. Firstly, researchers produce ‘results’ – not facts, which are interpreted and peddled to teachers by professors in convenient bundles. Secondly, we are not testing for, researching or teaching much of what we need to be successful as employees and participants in society thus we have a very incomplete data set produced by researchers (which you would call facts I presume).

    Firstly, researchers research. Researchers produce extremely specific ‘results’ which must be then interpreted and applied. They do not produce ‘facts’ which are true to the same extent in every possible circumstance – across different stages of development, genders, for different teachers etc. These experiments are skewed toward those which may yield a result – short term and content-based knowledge. Deeper learning that is long term is not so easy to experiment on. Often the results of a great multitude of experiments are bundled and then interpreted, given emphasis and context through judgment by professors/researchers to make a palatable story that seemingly defines a universal method of education which is peddled to education administrations. I am referring to the Meta-analysis. The results are, by this stage, not always how they were originally intended. They are however a useful guide.

    Secondly, the marketing of research can make some researchers very rich and sought after by administrations and schools eager to progress in competitive testing against other schools in the area, state, and other countries in maths, reading, and writing and spelling and grammar. Science is also included – sometimes. We do not test creativity, we do not test oral communication, we do not test teamwork, we do not test positivity, we do not test listening skills, we do not test leadership skills. We do not test future parenting skills, we do not test financial literacy, we do not test civic skills. What we do test for is only part of what employers want and a tiny part of what we need to fit into our culture and society.

    Researchers, teachers, and curriculum designers have a very incomplete set of ‘results’ – please don’t call them facts because they are not, and certainly not by the time they are ‘peddled’ to teachers by professors often motivated by money and tenure.


  2. Ilona says:

    This butterfly does remember… however…

    Just recently we (my son, husband and me) decided it’s best for my son (11yrs) to go to Agora secondary school after finishing primary school this year. In a few words Agora secondary school addresses children’s will to learn; children are encouraged to elicit their challenges and are guided by coaches in the process of discovering the world. No traditional classes in subject matter, no grouping of children of the same age in a class and so on. You’d probably are frowning or worse… by now… but I encourage you to read on…
    You’d probably consider me a butterfly who forgot ever being a caterpillar. And yes sometimes I question my son ever getting to learn about the basics in mathematics, English and so on. And although some of this is really irrelevant in live later on, I do think learning these basics train your brain and yes I value domain-specific skills and expertise. So I can feel for all the arguments. I’m not in denial, however…
    The Agora secondary school promises children will get the high school diploma at the level as indicated by the primary school. How they get that done, I’m really curious. I’ll find out. They also say they will do this in the time as indicated (so in this case HAVO in 5 years). Frankly I don’t mind if it would take an extra year, but off course we want this diploma. This means that my son after a few years will achieve the same learning outcomes as all the other kids in the Netherlands. He’s becoming as educated as he can. We can discuss the relevance and validity of the exams and the extent to which children are really familiar with the outcomes (retention time and so on). But still same outcomes…
    But my most compelling arguments for choosing differently for my son (as compared to myself or even my daughter who attends a traditional school) is in first instance his character. Because of privacy reasons I will not go in to detail. But he’s really a different kind of caterpillar as compared to me, who just obediently did her homework in high school, no questions (of any kind!…) asked. The fact that I became (reasonably) successful in the sense of grades, is not despite the education I got, it’s because I fitted in perfectly. In all the other areas of performance,…well that’s just life passing on…
    And secondly I’m really getting discontented with the traditional school attended by my daughter. Not necessarily this school but the system it stands for. How can we really think we are addressing student learning when subject teachers in the Netherlands see students twice, three times a week for 50 minutes in groups of on average 25 (that is on average 5 min per child a week; 200 min a year…)? Teachers who rely on tests, grades and plenary discussions of exams and are not equipped to provide for proper (individual) feedback…who simply don’t have time (or the skills) to do so. Who hardly provide children with a choice or moments of discovery. The kids have to do exactly the same without ever finding out their preferences (in learning subject matter and in general). They are all addressed as an average kid… And teachers may want to provide for choice, or differentiate in their approach but feel restricted because of time, or they feel afraid the class will become too loud or because they will loose control…(as told to me). And I don’t care “that motivation doesn’t lead to learning, but rather that experiencing success leads to motivation to continue to learn”. I’m worried that achieving and celebrating success and motivation doesn’t seem to be of great concern at all….And not only motivation in a general sense but motivation for domain-specific knowledge as well. Do we really for example want children in first grade to memorize all the holidays of the three main religions in the world, just because the teachers say so; does this really do justice to social sciences? How boring can teaching and learning become? Yes mind-numbing!!

    Thank god I obediently learned all the boring stuff at school so now I can, as a mom compensate for the educational failures of either traditional or innovate schools.
    But please, descend from theory to practice and let’s get some realism on board!


  3. Fred Schut says:

    How is my son ever going to be a civil engineer without knowledge? Look it up on the internet? Takes more time then taking classes fro someone who knows!


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