The future of education:

Re-imagining our schools from the ground up




Science 20 February 2009: Vol. 323. no. 5917, p. 1013

A Foundation, But Can We Use It? James V. Wertsch

The Future of Education: Reimagining Our Schools from the Ground Up by Kieran Egan Yale University Press, New Haven, CT, 2008. 203 pp. $30. ISBN 9780300110463.

One of the hallmarks of our anxieties about the future is confusion over how to prepare young people for it. What is it that we are supposed to be educating students for? We know that today's young people will, during their lifetimes, face multiple changes in jobs if not professions, and we assume that their futures will be shaped by technologies that we cannot yet imagine. But when we try to translate these observations into what elementary and secondary schools should be doing, the result is usually a rehash of tired old complaints.

If we are ever to break out of this cycle, we are going to need some very big ideas presented in some very accessible ways, and these are what Kieran Egan provides in his slim but ambitious volume, The Future of Education. Egan (a professor of education at Simon Fraser University) recognizes the temptation to place blame for schools' failures on incompetent teachers, malicious and simple-minded politicians, and others, but he wants a deeper and more useful explanation. The key to obtaining this lies in addressing the problematic yet unchallenged assumptions that trap today's debate in an endless cycle of frustration.

Drawing on evolutionary psychology and cognitive science as well as history and philosophy, Egan outlines three widely accepted schools of thought about the goals of education. The first takes education to be a matter of socializing humans into the membership of nations and other collectives. "Governments are in the business of schooling" for this reason, but socialization is pursued at a cost because "homogenizing requirements will always be at odds with the ambitions of our imaginations." Indeed, if the goal of socialization is pursued too assiduously, we call it indoctrination--at least when others do it.

With the emergence of literacy in human history came a second big goal for education: Plato's academic ideal. Mastering the new forms of coded knowledge that came with literacy has become the purpose of much of contemporary education and, for better or for worse, underlies much of the testing that now shapes it.

Egan traces the third lens through which we see education back to figures such as John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and more recently John Dewey and Jean Piaget. This is the "developmental" idea, through which education is viewed as "supporting the fullest achievement of the natural process of mental development."

Like the blind men who encounter an elephant, these ideas bring limited perspectives to the discussion. Worse yet, they bring views that often stand in direct contradiction to one another. Egan's goal is to transcend this stalemate. He does so by arguing that we must view education as a process of mastering the "cognitive tools" provided by society. The author emphasizes the massive transformation of knowledge that occurs because of our dependence on external symbol systems and technical means (what he calls a "tool kit for the brain"), but he rightfully insists that this does not mean that knowledge is somehow out there in libraries or computers. As he puts it: "There is no mind in the brain until the brain interacts with the external symbolic store of culture." And in such interaction, the possibilities for innovation reside as well.

Drawing on the ideas of the Russian psychologist and educator Lev Vygotsky, Egan maintains his focus on the dynamics between brain and external symbolic material, refusing to fall prey to the temptation to take one side or the other of this opposition as the bedrock of the enterprise. This is harder than first appears due to the reductionist tendencies of academic disciplines. Egan recognizes the importance of neuroscience discoveries in formulating new educational practices. At the same time, however, he understands the task of neuroscience in the context of the historical forces that shape a constantly changing environment of cognitive tools. The result is a complex but productive approach.

It is difficult enough to keep the tension between brain and external symbolic material at the center of a line of intellectual inquiry, but it is much harder to build a public campaign for change around it. That, however, is precisely what Egan sees as the key to reimagining our schools from the ground up. In the book's second half, he presents a series of vignettes that form an imaginary account of education reform between 2010 and 2060. These come from students, student teachers, educational researchers, and others as they struggle to understand and institute a new curriculum based on cognitive tools. His account is sufficiently honest that it includes reminders of the powerful political forces that resist such undertakings, and as a consequence it is sometimes hard to see why Egan thinks his new approach has any better chance at education reform than others.

In the end, Egan provides a brilliant conceptual foundation for the future of education, but he is less convincing when it comes to how this would lead to a serious transformation of education. As we move further into a new century, there is greater need than ever to bring bright ideas to the table to deal with the challenges and opportunities for educating thoughtful, humane, and innovative citizens. Egan's account in The Future of Education is an ingenious attempt to do this.


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