Under what conditions do you learn most effectively? Let’s get more specific. Do you need compulsion in order to learn? Or do you need to be set free to learn on your own? (I know, it depends on what you are trying to learn, but think in general terms.)
Think of your experience in school. What did you learn from classes you were forced to take? Now think of your experience outside of school. What have you learned on your own because you were interested in the subject or skill? Now compare the two. Which type of learning was more effective? Since the time of Plato, there has been a continual tug-of-war between structure (or compulsion) and freedom in the field of education.
Progressive (or Informal) Education
Advocates for freedom or as they are sometimes called, progressives, argue that we learn best in a free setting where we are allowed to explore and follow our interests. This is often called student-centered learning or interest-led learning. Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) strongly advocated for this approach in his work Emile. Student-centered learning is the approach used by Montessori schools, Sudbury Valley School in Massachusetts, and homeschool families who follow the unschooling approach across America.
Traditional (or Formal) Education
On the other hand, traditionalists argue that we learn best in a structured setting where a set body of knowledge is passed down from teacher to student. According to this approach, teachers should not be concerned with what students want to learn, but with what students need to learn. Who decides what children need to learn? Federal, state, and local authorities. Who follows this approach? Traditional schools around the world.
The debate between progressives and traditionalists stems from different assumptions. Traditionalists assume that without external pressure, children will naturally go in the wrong direction or will fail to reach their full potential. Progressives assume that children have everything they need internally to guide them in the right direction. For example, infants don’t need to be taught to use their five senses to reach out and explore the world because they do it instinctively. Progressives often point to those early childhood years and note the incredible amount of learning that occurred without structured education. While traditionalists see the benefits of direct instruction, progressives, like John Holt, believe direct instruction often serves to dampen a child’s innate desire to learn.
Structure vs. Freedom in Education
As with most debates, the structure-freedom debate in education is not an either-or choice. We need both structure and freedom in order to flourish. Too much of either can harm us. For example, to gain proficiency in anything we need structure to learn the fundamentals and to develop the discipline of practice. But to have the willingness to try new things and to have fun with what we’re doing, we often need freedom.
Think of a young tree rooted in the soil with its trunk tied to wooden posts on either side of it. The wooden posts provide structure for the trunk, but the branches are free to spread out toward the sun. If the wooden posts were tied to every branch the tree would be severely deformed. But without the wooden posts, the tree would grow in the wrong direction. Both structure and freedom are necessary.
Let’s try another analogy. Players on a basketball team need the structure of practice and set plays, but they also need freedom to make their own moves during the game. Without structure the players will not play as a team, but without freedom, they will begin to complain and some will even quit. More examples could be given, but the point is that structure and freedom are woven into the fabric of most things around us and an adequate philosophy of education will include both elements.
The following thinkers displayed a sensitivity to both structure and freedom in the learning process.
Moses (c. 1391-1271 BC)
“In days to come, when your son asks you, ‘What does this mean?’ say to him, ‘With a mighty hand the Lord brought us out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery” (Ex. 13:14). And, “In the future, when your son asks you, “What is the meaning of the stipulations, decrees and laws the Lord our God has commanded you?” tell him: “We were slaves of Pharaoh in Egypt, but the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand. . . . The Lord commanded us to obey all these decrees and to fear the Lord our God, so that we might always prosper and be kept alive, as is the case today” (Dt. 6:20-24).
These ancient verses are fascinating because they imply that parents should wait for their children to ask before they explain the meaning of the laws and rituals they are obeying. Instead of lecturing children while their eyes are glazed over with boredom, wait for that spark of interest and then explain it to them. Yes, there is a set body of knowledge to pass on (structure), but wait until the learner shows interest (freedom) and then pass it on (structure). (I know there are verses that take a more direct approach to parents teaching their children, but traditional schools are already following the direct instruction method. I’m highlighting these two passages because I think they give us a view of education that is lacking in many traditional schools.)
Plato (c. 428-348 BC)
While Plato’s ideal state was highly structured, the following statement shows the need for both structure and freedom in the learning process with an emphasis on freedom:
“Now, all this study of reckoning and geometry and all the preliminary studies that are indispensable preparation for dialectics must be presented to them while still young, not in the form of compulsory instruction.” “Why so?” “Because,” said I, “a free soul ought not to pursue any study slavishly; for while bodily labors performed under constraint do not harm the body, nothing that is learned under compulsion stays with the mind.” “True,” he said. “Do not, then, my friend, keep children to their studies by compulsion but by play. That will also better enable you to discern the natural capacities of each.” (Plato, The Republic, 536d-537a).
Paul (5-67 AD)
Paul writes, “Fathers, do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord” (Eph. 6:4). That statement begins by encouraging fathers to show sensitivity to the feelings of the child. Since too much structure can lead to exasperation, parents need to consider the amount of structure they are giving to their children. Paul then adds that a certain type of structure is needed—”bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord.”
Augustine (354-430 AD)
In his Confessions, Augustine supports both structure (compulsion) and freedom (self-directedness) in learning. Reflecting on his early years he says,
“I had no love for reading books and hated being forced to study them . . . I learnt nothing unless compelled” (1.12.19).
While that statement supports compulsion in learning, his support for freedom is stronger:
“I learnt Latin without the threat of punishment from anyone forcing me to learn it . . . This experience sufficiently illuminates the truth that free curiosity has greater power to stimulate learning than rigorous coercion” (1.14.23).
I think most of us would agree with Augustine. Personal interest is a much more effective ingredient in effective learning than compulsion.
The Danger of Too Much Structure
Is it possible that teaching directly without waiting for students’ questions can be ineffective? Could we exasperate our children by lecturing to them before they are interested in the topic? Can too much academic compulsion kill the spark of interest in students by making them feel like their interests and questions don’t matter?
I think so. (I know that may not count for much, but in my defense I have a few years of experience in the classroom and, during that time, I listened closely to how students feel about school.)
In the words of one education professor,
“Plato once defined a slave as the person who executes the purposes of another, and … a person is also a slave who is enslaved to his own blind desires. There is, I think, no point in the philosophy of progressive education which is sounder than its emphasis upon the participation of the learner in the formation of the purposes which direct his activities in the learning process, just as there is no defect in traditional education greater than its failure to secure the active cooperation of the pupil in construction of the purposes involved in his studying” (Noddings, Kindle, Loc. 765). And, “When students are forced to plod through material with which they are not really engaged for some obscure future end, they lose interest in the material and confidence in themselves.” (Noddings, Kindle, Loc. 823).
The Danger of Too Much Freedom
People can always take advantage of freedom to the detriment of their character and development. Augustine said that he learned nothing unless compelled. Therefore, some degree of structure is necessary for learners. (How we understand structure in practical terms is another topic.) But if we care about viewing our students as individuals, it’s probably best to see the type of structure needed as variable to the individual student.
The Danger of Too Much Structure
I’m not concerned that students are receiving too much educational freedom because the modern-day traditional school is heavily weighted toward the structured end of the spectrum. In most traditional schools, students have little to no say in their schedule, courses, teachers, classmates, and assignments. Too much freedom is not the problem in that setting.
What’s wrong with too much structure? It often leads to apathy, boredom, and obstinance, all of which obstruct deep and meaningful learning. Think of it: If everything is forced on you, without you having any say in the matter, you will begin to just go through the motions. Over time, if nothing changes, your attitude will probably become more negative.
Here’s what Einstein said,
It is nothing short of a miracle that the modern methods of instruction have not yet entirely strangled the holy curiosity of inquiry; for this delicate plant, aside from stimulation, stands mainly in need of freedom; without this it goes to wreck and ruin without fail. It is a very grave mistake to think that the enjoyment of seeing and searching can be promoted by means of coercion and a sense of duty (Autobiography, 1949).
If this statement from Augustine has a universal ring, and I think it does,—”free curiosity has greater power to stimulate learning than rigorous coercion”—and if learning is a primary objective of our schools, then we must give a great deal more thought to cultivating freedom in our schools. While structure is needed, if we’re going to err in the educational process, we should err on the side of freedom.
[This post is part of my Guide for High School Bible Teachers.]