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They claim that learning facts and concepts are no longer necessary and hence, focusing on them in education is simply outdated.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!

Advertisements