Students’ Development in Theory and Practice: The Doubtful Role of Research

Simon Fraser University

A starting point for this examination of educational research during the past seventy-five years will be the reception, dismissal, hesitant acceptance, enthusiastic adoption, and apparent decline in the influence on education of Jean Piaget’s ideas about development. Piaget’s career conveniently spans the seventy-five year career of the Harvard Educational Review. However, his career is a conceptual rather than a sequential starting point for the topics to be discussed. The difficulties found in various theories of development in education form the focus for this article, and they exemplify some little considered but very serious problems for the ambition to bring scientific methods to the study of education. To put this topic into context, I briefly consider the main influences of developmental ideas prior to Piaget’s work. This involves discussing the way Jean-Jacques Rousseau set in place the basic assumption on which development in education has been considered ever since, and the particular emphasis generated by the largely forgotten influence of the ideas of Herbert Spencer.  

Perhaps Rousseau’s, Spencer’s, and Piaget’s theories do not provide the best lens through which to view the contribution science was expected to make to education by those who most enthusiastically promoted a scientific approach to educational phenomena. Each theorist has always been somewhat suspect to the more self-consciously “scientific” researchers in education. But the move from one to the other and the increasingly pointed arguments about how to expose the nature of spontaneous development help me describe something of my own trajectory in responding to educational research during the past three decades or more. I came to North America just as the Piaget boom was getting underway, and I was an early enthusiast of his work. The way his theory worked from children’s “illogical” answers was so refreshing, and to me so brilliant. He also seemed to offer a much better understanding of the developmental process itself, and a better understanding of the educational interventions that would be congruent with children’s spontaneous development.  

I taught the introductory psychology of education course in my home university for a few years, and the more I taught Piaget’s theory and its educational implications, the more I became skeptical about those claimed implications. In time I became increasingly skeptical about the theory itself, and then, running out of control, I became skeptical of most of the course content and especially of the claims made for the relevance to education of the psychological theories and research I was teaching. I think part of the problem was that so much of what I was teaching seemed to have very little grasp of the everyday reality of schools and the great diversity among students. As time went on, I began to wonder why so much research over such a long period of time did not seem to be having much purchase on education. Science surely ought to be able to do a better job of dealing with the phenomena of the field. It had worked wonders in other areas, so why was it so sluggish in dealing with education? I was familiar with many of the responses to this question, but came to be persuaded that the problem lay in something little commented on. I also began to wonder if many other educational researchers considered the question — “Has empirical research clearly benefited education?” — to be an empirical question. Despite grounds for some doubt about the general success of the enterprise, from general and depressing achievement data reported in such papers as the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times, and in works such as Ravitch and Finn (1987), it seemed an assumption that the answer would be positive. For so large an enterprise, there was little apparent attempt to address what surely should be one of the more energetically engaged questions.  

Initially, like many researchers, I thought that the scale of research and research funding was paltry compared to the scale of the problems that we were expected to solve. I was also attracted to the view expressed by many researchers that the problem lay with teachers who were not attending adequately to all the knowledge that research was making available to them. But I began increasingly to recognize that many of the teachers in my classes were bright and committed people, and if this knowledge generated by research was having so little effect on their practice, maybe there were other explanations for its apparent irrelevance (apart from my incompetence as a teacher). I began to explore alternative explanations for the apparent failure of science to have much impact on education. I will describe briefly something of the path I followed with regard to developmental ideas. 

Empirical or Ideological Bases for Change?

One of the puzzles I faced in exploring developmental theories was that I could not locate any obvious set of changes in educational practice that came in response to particular empirical results. The degree of influence of Piaget’s theory on teaching methods and the curriculum, for example, seemed unrelated to empirical results of testing it. But let me approach the problem the way it came to bother me. 

Early educational theories such as Plato’s recognized that children’s thinking is immature and that it becomes more sophisticated as children grow older. That increasing sophistication, however, was generally seen as a product of the social interactions in which children learned valuable knowledge from adults. Without more or less formal tuition, people remained intellectually childlike. In the common ancient Greek view, this was also the condition of adult “barbarians” (a Greek coinage derived from the way foreign speakers sounded to them: “bar bar bar bar”). That is, the minds of children were seen to have much in common with the minds of barbarians due to both groups not having received the formal instruction that would make their thinking more sophisticated. While there are suggestions in the premodern era of what today we generally take to be psychological development, such ideas were never clearly distinguished from the sense of development tied in with learning specific kinds of knowledge. For example, Plato — and, in fact, pretty well every other educational thinker before Rousseau — recognized that certain forms of theoretic abstractions became prominent in students’ thinking in early adulthood. In the premodern world this was seen as something that happened to knowledge when the individual had accumulated a sufficient amount of it. The valuable knowledge that produced these desirable effects formed the core of an educational curriculum. It did not happen to the minds of those who had not learned that curriculum. This remains a plausible view, though it has largely been displaced by newer conceptions of psychological development. 

Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778) offered an alternative view, whose radical nature we sometimes do not notice because we have come to take it completely for granted. In 1762 he published, in novel form — a rather odd novel, to be sure — Émile ou de l’Éducation. In this romance involving a boy reared apart from society, Rousseau introduced a set of revolutionary ideas that are a part of most modern educators’ conception of education and that still guide much educational practice. Most significantly for present purposes, Rousseau suggested that the mind goes through its own distinctive developmental process, and the particular knowledge the student learns is only incidental to this development. Indeed, teaching the classical curriculum can interfere with the mind’s spontaneous developmental process. He argued that the mind was a bit like the body; both go through regular stages of development, as long as they receive the appropriate environmental supports. For education, Rousseau argued, it was crucial to understand the spontaneous developmental process so that the teacher could conform to it and support it by providing the appropriate exercises, experiences, and knowledge. This is very much the dominant view today. It has led to what has been called a “biologized” view of the mind (Morss, 1990), for which it seems perfectly normal to use words like “growth” and to think of the mind as going through stages of spontaneous development. To those influenced by Rousseau, the mind ceased to be seen simply as an epistemological organ and came to be seen also, and to some exclusively, as a psychological organ. That is, instead of seeing the mind as made up of nothing other than the knowledge it has learned, people now see it as engaging in a range of psychological processes that are independent of the particular knowledge acquired. 

In the premodern period, the kind of knowledge that was considered most valuable for building a sophisticated mind was summed up in the classical curriculum, in which Latin and Greek, philosophy, history, and theology formed the main pillars. The high status of this kind of knowledge was further undermined by the psychological approach embodied in the ideas of Herbert Spencer (1820–1903), who offered a distinctive shaping to ideas about psychological development. Most people in education today vaguely recognize Spencer’s name, associating him perhaps with his curriculum-driving question, “What knowledge is of most worth?” This neglect of Spencer is perhaps understandable, given his association with the extreme social Darwinian ideas that went out of fashion toward the end of the nineteenth century, but is also astonishing, given his massive influence on education in North America. His book Education: Intellectual, Moral, and Physical was published in New York in 1860. By the end of the 1860s the book had been reprinted fifteen times by seven different publishers. Over the next few decades it sold hundreds of thousands of copies. It was the widest selling and possibly the most influential book on education published in North America during the period when U.S. public schools were being formed. Virtually everyone involved in education read it (Cremin, 1976; Egan, 2002).

Spencer influenced a number of modern conceptions of development. He became perhaps best known as an advocate of new evolutionary ideas. The problem was that his own conception of evolution was essentially Lamarckian. Jean-Baptiste de Lamarck (1744–1829) had proposed the first comprehensive theory of evolution in his Philosophie zoologique of 1809, in which he argued that changes occurred in species over time as acquired characteristics were passed on to their offspring. For example, if a species moved to a new environment in which stretching the neck was necessary to get food, the longer neck would be passed on to its children. Spencer was convinced that Lamarck’s account of evolution was correct, and he never really understood the importance of Darwin’s theory. 

Spencer claimed to have brought to the concept of development what Rousseau had lacked — a scientific theory, derived from evolution. A related idea that Spencer contributed to educational thinking was the idea of progress. His Lamarckian view of evolution and his observation of the regularities that govern all the processes he studied led him to believe that “progress is not an accident, not a thing within human control, but a beneficent necessity” (1851, p. 65). Spencer’s essay on progress was among his most influential; it imbued many with a sense of great confidence that somehow the most fundamental processes of nature and society were providing a guarantee that we were moving gradually toward a more perfect world. Spencer tied ideas about evolution, development, and progress tightly together. The most powerful movement in education in North America, Progressivism, took its cue and its name from Spencer’s central arguments.  

Twentieth-century psychology inherited a conception of development that was intricately connected to a nineteenth-century conception of progress. Modern theories of cognitive development are most commonly “hierarchical integrative” — that is, each stage or phase of development contains, elaborates, and builds on the developments of the previous stage or stages. Consequently, each stage entails an addition without any sense that something might be lost in the process of “development” (Egan, 1997). 

Spencer aimed to show how learning, development, and the daily activities of the classroom were subject to laws. The task for the scientific educator was to discover those laws and to let them shape educational practice for the benefit of children and teachers. Spencer’s scientific agenda for educational research generated great optimism and set much of the agenda for educational research throughout the twentieth century. His own belief was that the progress he found in evolution was also evident in human history, and that children’s development would recapitulate that progressive process. Spencer believed that he had found a scientific basis for recapitulation, unlike, say, Johann Friedrich Herbart (1776–1841), whose ideas about recapitulation Spencer considered based merely on imprecise intuition. He proposed recapitulation as a central principle for education. Spencer (1911) argued that the “education of the child must accord both in mode and arrangement with the education of mankind, considered historically” (p. 60). He believed that the child goes through, in a few years, the same process that took our ancestors millennia. By studying the process of mankind’s historical progress one can discover principles for both methods of instruction and the curriculum. As with some of Spencer’s other ideas, while many took up the underlying principle of a scientific approach to educational phenomena, the particular case of recapitulation ran into various forms of opposition. But the scientific approach to educational research was expected to “reveal pedagogic possibilities now undreamed of” (Hall, 1904, p. 222). 

Spencer’s ideas about development led to the formulation of some common instructional principles. In particular, Spencer promoted the idea that teachers should begin with the simple and move to the complex, begin with the concrete and move to the abstract, and begin with the known and move gradually to what is unknown. Spencer (1911) also claimed that “in education the process of self-development should be encouraged to the uttermost. Children should be led to make their own investigations, and to draw their own inferences. They should be told as little as possible, and induced to discover as much as possible” (p. 62).

Superficially, some of these principles will seem familiar from the works of such people as Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi (1746–1827), Herbart, and Rousseau himself. And, certainly, these educators had considerable influence, especially Herbart, whose five steps for planning instruction were very widely used in America during the latter part of the nineteenth century and into the twentieth. What Spencer offered, however, was a coherent “scientific” account of education that was tied into a set of ideas that applied also to the physical and social worlds. It was the systematic vision that Spencer developed at encyclopedic length in a huge range of areas of inquiry that gave his work its compelling force, particularly in American education (Egan, 2002). 

Education, Spencer wrote, had been most often conducted by forcing irrelevant information into the minds of reluctant children by methods that were patently barbarous. He proposed we should instead draw on new scientific principles to make the process efficient as well as pleasant for the child. In the past, education had dealt with subjects that held their place in the curriculum by dint of tradition and the pretensions to an ornamental culture of a leisured class; instead, he argued, we should make the curriculum of direct relevance and utility to the lives our students would actually lead. In the past, schooling was centered on the knowledge written in texts or authorized by teachers, whereas Spencer believed that the child’s own developing needs and expanding activities should be central to the curriculum and to teachers’ efforts. No doubt these ideas will appear familiar, even if they are not associated primarily with Herbert Spencer.

What is curious about some of these claims is the degree to which they follow assumptions derived from beliefs or ideology rather than research. The status of claims such as the notion that we should begin teaching with the known and gradually expand to the unknown, or with the simple and move to the complex, or the concrete to the abstract, will occupy us later.  

Piaget’s Reception

Piaget’s long career, neatly framing the seventy-five years of this set of inquiries, began when he became a student of Pierre Janet in Paris. Janet had been strongly influenced by Spencer’s ideas through the American, James Mark Baldwin. The influence of Spencer’s “biologized” conception of development, his intricate connections between development and progress, and his assumptions of how one might go about establishing a scientific image of the developmental process are all clear in Piaget’s work. Piaget’s first books were translated into English about seventy-five years ago, including Judgement and Reasoning of the Child, which appeared in London in 1928, and The Child’s Conception of the World, which appeared the following year in New York. While there was considerable scholarly interest in Piaget’s work, it did not initially spur much in the way of curriculum development activities. Also, in a climate dominated by behaviorism, Piaget’s unusual methodology and analyses of children’s performance of odd tasks did not have a significant impact on mainstream thinking about development. Also, of course, the dominant theoretical issues of the day concerned the curriculum battles being waged between traditionalists and progressivists, and Piaget’s ideas initially seemed to have nothing much to say to these. 

By the 1950s, in Lawrence Cremin’s words, “The more fundamental tenets of the progressives had become the conventional wisdom of American education” (1976, p. 19). While the language of education might have become progressivist, this did not mean that everyday practice had correspondingly changed. But the force of Cremin’s observation apparently is not often recognized. The language of education in North America from the 1950s on became infused with progressivist assumptions. Even so, modern progressivist reformers think that education is dominated by an unmovable conservatism. The voices that receive the most enthusiastic response among educational researchers are those that promise to bring basic progressivist principles into practice. For example, if one were to look at the most influential modern voices in education, those that seem to bring us closer to realizing the progressivist promise for education are the most eagerly attended to: Eliot Eisner, Howard Gardner, Maxine Greene, and Nel Noddings all offer new insights into the meaning of the progressivist vision and how to bring it to realization. Those progressivist principles promised to make education more humane by adapting it to students’ “natural” or spontaneous forms of learning and development. Progressive educators believed that scientific procedures could uncover what these processes were and devise compatible pedagogical methods. 

Piaget’s theory quickly gained an enormous audience when it was introduced in the context of Jerome Bruner’s report of the Woods Hole conference, which was published in 1960 as The Process of Education, as supporting the progressivist aims of making education more humane, scientifically supported, and efficient. The older, “scientifically established” principles of education were considered a failure when the beeps of the Soviets’ Sputnik were first heard around the world.  

The trajectory of Piaget’s reputation and the influence of his ideas on education have followed a curious route. During the 1960s his work became widely known among educational scholars, and its implications for education were explored. Among the many books that brought his work to the attention of American psychologists and educators during this period one might note John Flavell (1963), Hans Furth (1970), David Elkind’s studies and his book of 1976, and Richard Ripple and Verne Rockcastle’s edited book of 1964, along, of course, with a steady flood of books from Piaget and his collaborator, Barbel Inhelder. Piaget’s name began to appear in curriculum documents in many states in the late 1960s and 1970s, often accompanied by a note that his ideas about children’s development deserve some attention. In the 1970s and early 1980s, his developmental theory began to have a serious impact on curriculum revisions around North America and Europe, and his name was commonly found in such documents with more or less elaborate sketches of his “stages of development.” By the late 1980s, his name appeared less and less in such documents, while his often unattributed theory was represented simply as how children developed. What was at first represented as a theory that might be of some interest had almost entirely lost its status as a theory. Piaget had become almost invisible in such documents, but his ideas remained fundamental to the definition of child development and its implications for practice (Roldão, 1992). Since the 1990s, Piaget’s general reputation has suffered from increasingly compelling criticisms, yet his theory’s influence on curriculum documents and teacher-education texts marches on. For example, Time magazine notes, “Although not an educational reformer, he championed a way of thinking about children that provided the foundation for today’s education-reform movements” (Papert, 1999, p. 104). Also, it seems fair, still, to accept Susan Sugarman’s 1987 judgment that “despite appearances to the contrary, Piaget’s ideas and overall approach continue to dominate much of developmental psychology” (p. 241), and even more so, developmental ideas in education. 

If one were to look at research on Piaget’s theory in education, one would not find that the rise of his reputation coincided with sets of positive empirical tests of the theory from the 1960s to the 1980s. On the one hand, researchers consistently replicated Piaget’s classic conservation experiments, though there were irregularities in results and much argument about the criteria for what counted as conservation, for example. But in general, Piaget’s genius in attending closely to the peculiar answers children gave to his questions led to a genuine revolution in theorizing about their intellectual development. For millennia people had been hearing the odd logic of early childhood and had usually dismissed it as a kind of intellectual froth to be blown away by more mature forms of thinking. Piaget made it a cornerstone of his theories. As a scientific theory, however, Piaget’s frameworks rested on a set of experiments that remained somewhat contentious. In many of the experiments, for example, instructions were given orally, and many found it difficult to conclude whether what the experiments were disclosing was a common sequence of language development or the development of underlying operative structures, as Piaget claimed. Despite such doubts about Piaget’s methodology, no competing theory provided more insights into intellectual development. On the other hand, the enthusiasm for Piaget’s work was much stronger in education than even in psychology. Projects and programs in curriculum and instructional methods were underway across the continent. Much of this educational work was uninformed by reliable research that showed comparisons between Piagetian programs and others. What research there was suffered the usual problem: The programs that were to be compared were not simply different means to an agreed and common end; the methodological difference also reflected different educational objectives. It had gradually become clearer during the seventy-five years we are looking at that in education, following a physical science model of comparing alternative treatments just did not deliver the kind of results expected. Progressivist methods, for example, might well be found to be less “efficient” in achieving particular results, compared with forms of “programmed learning.” But, progressivists pointed out, the acquisition and memorization of particular knowledge was not the only educational aim. As Dewey had pointed out, in education the aim is tied up in the method used; one uses progressivist methods because they are a part of what you are trying to achieve educationally, not simply because they are the most efficient method of ensuring memorization of some knowledge. 

Even so, some large-scale research projects were attempted, comparing programs whose teachers had been trained in Piagetian methods with the results of regular schools teaching the same curriculum. Charles Brainerd reviewed four large comparative studies and concluded that the evaluation data, which included children’s performance on concrete-operational content and a range of fairly standard Piagetian activities and also standardized achievement tests (see Brainerd, 1978), “have failed to show any differences between Piagetian instruction and other curricula” (p. 298). Indeed, in one of the Piagetian schools that was compared with a traditional school, Brainerd concluded that “those few comparisons which revealed differences tended to favor the traditional group” (1978, p. 293). 

A theory that promised to show how a scientific approach to development could revolutionize pedagogy ought to show better results. Piagetian writings for teachers commonly made strong claims about the results that would follow if teachers attended to the theory and shaped their instruction and curricula accordingly. Such knowledge of the process of development would have, in a continuing echo of G. Stanley Hall (1904), “pedagogical possibilities now undreamed of” (vol. 2, p. 222). The odd feature, of course, is that the inconclusive results of Piagetian research seem to have had little impact on the enthusiastic reception of Piaget’s ideas in education.  

Empirical Science and Conceptual Analysis in Studying Education

A background hum to these explorations — a bit like the background radiation from the Big Bang — was Ludwig Wittgenstein’s brief but rather pointed observations about the state of psychology. Wittgenstein’s claim follows from the recognition that there is no such identifiable thing as “the scientific method.” Science proceeds by working out sets of questions that can be addressed to particular kinds of phenomena to result in certain kinds of answers. Phenomena, questions, and acceptable answers are intricately tied together. The problem with psychology, Wittgenstein said, was that “the existence of the experimental method makes us think we have the means of solving the problems which trouble us; though problem and method pass one another by” (1963, p. 232).  

If that was the background hum, an observation more in the foreground about scientific research in education was the guidance offered by its theories. The main source of my growing skepticism about Piaget’s theory, and then about many others I had been teaching, was tied up with another of Wittgenstein’s observations about psychology. He characterized the psychology of his day as suffering from a defect that might also be directed at much current educational research: He saw a combination of “experimental methods and conceptual confusion” (1963, p. 232; emphasis in original). 

Lev Vygotsky (1997) made an argument similar to Wittgenstein’s, which also helped me understand why so much of the work that was based on psychological theories seemed to have so little purchase on educational phenomena:  
A concept that is used deliberately, not blindly, in the science for which it was created, where it originated, developed and was carried to its ultimate expression, is blind, leads nowhere, when transposed to another science. Such blind transpositions, of the biogenetic principle, the experimental and mathematical method from the natural sciences, created the appearance of science in psychology which in reality concealed a total impotence in the face of studied facts. (p. 280).

While that may seem an overwrought judgment about psychology in general, it captured what was bothering me about psychology’s contributions to basic educational concepts, such as “learning” and “development.”  

Take the conclusions that Spencer derived from his developmental theory, that learning and teaching should move from the simple to the complex, the concrete to the abstract, the known to the unknown. Are these ideas supported by scientific research? They are taken for granted by nearly everyone in education as far as I can tell, but how did they get that status?  

What bothered me most about Piaget’s theory was not the methodological issues, but rather the fact that educators seemed to use his progress-dominated theory to support principles similar to those that Spencer had articulated. For example, Piaget’s theory was used to support practices based on the principle that the teacher should move from the “concrete” to the “abstract.” This is a principle that came to be embodied in the social studies curriculum, beginning with the local, empirical environment and moving gradually to more distant, conceptually grasped environments — stimulated, again, by Spencer — and it has led to the insistence on beginning with “hands-on” activities and manipulation of objects prior to conceptualization about them. However, given the definition of those two terms in Piagetian theory, in which later stages incorporate the achievements of the earlier ones, how could the abstract have preceded the concrete? That is, in some degree the sequence seemed not a matter for empirical verification; it is true by definition of the terms (Phillips & Kelly, 1975). Similarly, Piaget also implied that the developmental direction from the simple to the complex and from the known to the unknown was supported by empirical research based on a scientific theory. 
Consider the ubiquitous principle that one must move from the known to the unknown: “If I had to reduce all of educational psychology to just one principle, I would say this: The most important single factor influencing learning is what the learner already knows. Ascertain this and teach him accordingly” (Ausubel, 1968, p. 235). There is something conceptually confusing about such claims resulting from psychological research.  

First, if this is a fundamental principle of human learning, there is no way the process can begin. That is, the principle sets one into an infinite regress looking for prior learnings. Now obviously that is not what the researcher or teacher uses the principle for, but if the principle is to make sense we need to be able to discover some starting point for the process. That we cannot do this in any sensible way should alert us that something is wrong with the principle.  

Second, if novelty — that is, things unconnected with what is already known — is the problem for human learners, reducing the amount of the novelty does not solve the problem. And if we can manage some novelty, why can we not manage more? That is, the principle tells us to tie new learning to old learning because, it implies, students cannot grasp things that are unconnected with what they already know. But if they are to learn anything new, which they do all the time, this shows that students can learn things that are, in some degree, however small, unconnected with what they already know. So why insist on a principle whose sole justification is based on something obviously false? (We’ll see below why people hold to the principle despite such gaping flaws.) 
The third objection is less directed at the principle than at how it has been invariably interpreted in education, and particularly in the construction of the elementary social studies curriculum. Many educators assume that what children know first and best is the details of their everyday social lives. That is, they assume that children’s thinking is simple, concrete, and engaged with their local experience. But children also have imaginations and emotions, and these, too, connect with the world. If children’s minds are supposed to be restricted to the everyday details of their social lives, why are they full of monsters, talking middle-class animals like Peter Rabbit, and titanic emotions? Elsewhere I (Egan, 1997) have commented on the absurdity of explaining Peter Rabbit’s appeal in terms of its “familiar family setting,” when it involves a safe woodland and a dangerous cultivated garden, and death so close, and so on.  

Fourth, and this is perhaps a doubtful notion to suggest, a few moments’ reflection should make clear that no one’s understanding of the world expanded and expands according to this principle of gradual content association. The neat process of gradually “expanding horizons” might appeal to the curriculum developer concerned that prerequisite knowledge is constantly in place to ensure a smooth progress through the math or science curricula, but if you reflect on how your understanding of the world and human experience has grown, and continues to grow, you will likely find that it is a much messier and more unpredictable and wild process. 

One might similarly analyze the three other principles and show that they too are very dubious. What is “concrete” about children’s learning language early on? Perhaps learning the meaning of “table” might be, oddly, called concrete, but how can learning the meaning of “and” and “but” be concrete in any sense? What “concrete” instruction is required for the child to master such terms? These principles seem to have an odd status, in that they seem almost true by definition, but at the same time they seem full of holes the more closely one analyzes them. I concluded, aided by Jan Smedslund (1978a, 1978b, 1979), that the reason such doubtful principles retained their force in education was due to their being, like most knowledge claims in education — or so it increasingly seemed to me — a mixture of analytic truth and empirical generalization. That is, at some level the principle is true simply because people define its terms to mean something that cannot be other than true. So, in the case of the “known to unknown” principle, it is understood to mean something like, you do not know whatever you do not know and if you learn something new, it has to fit in with what you can find comprehensible. Put like this, the principle is just a logical truth — you do not have to run an experiment to discover that a person cannot understand something they lack prerequisite knowledge for. At this level, the principle is not very helpful. What would make it interesting are reliable empirical generalizations; that is, research showing conditions that constrain learning that are other than logical truths. We largely lack these in education because researchers commonly mix up analytic elements — things that are true by definition or by logic — with empirical components — things that could be otherwise but are discovered to be true as a result of experiments. By consistently mixing the two, we get claims that are assumed to be empirical generalizations resulting from research but whose generalizability relies heavily on the analytic component hidden in how the principle is formulated. 

Smedslund analyzed various pieces of social science research and showed that they were mostly what he called pseudo-empirical; they claimed to have established empirical connections when their positive findings actually relied on prior conceptual connections. A. R. Louch (1966) had shown earlier how much research in psychology had similar defects. He began with the example of Edward Thorndike’s “law of effect,” which claimed to have established that people choose to repeat behaviors that have pleasurable consequences. Louch pointed out that the connection between repeating behaviors and expecting pleasurable consequences is not conceptually independent. The two behaviors are analytically tied: What we mean by choosing to repeat behaviors is tied up with what we count as pleasurable consequences. Louch further noted that E. R. Hilgard’s list of findings firmly established by psychological research were similar in kind. Hilgard’s (1956) first proposition was that “brighter people can learn things less bright ones cannot learn” (p. 486). But what we mean by brightness involves the ability to learn more. Or take a more recent example. In the How People Learn project the aim has been to focus on findings that “have both a solid research base to support them and strong implications for how we teach” (Donovan, Bransford, & Pellegrino, 1999, p. 12). The basic principles derived from carefully applying these criteria include the finding that: “To develop competence in an area of inquiry, students must (a) have a deep foundation of factual knowledge; (b) understand facts and ideas in the context of a conceptual framework; and (c) organize knowledge in ways that facilitate retrieval and application” (p. 12). Such claims seem to have a similar character to those above. Clearly a, b, and c are definitional of what we mean by competence in an area of inquiry. Empirical research could not have established that one could be competent in an area of inquiry without deep factual knowledge (and how deep is “deep”?), or without understanding facts and ideas in the context of a conceptual framework, or while organizing knowledge in ways that hindered retrieval and application. It may prove of practical value to spell out the meaning of competence like this, but the spelling out could have been done without the empirical research that is supposed to have established these conditions of competence. 

Let me try to expose the problem with these kinds of research “findings” by giving a simple example. Let us imagine a team of researchers exploring how students learn and memorize information. They might run an experiment that involves the students in learning randomly ordered seven-digit numbers. If one student’s randomly assigned number is her telephone number, the results of the experiment would be contaminated by this arbitrary coincidence. But a sufficiently large sample will neutralize the irregular result in this case. 

Let us further assume that this experiment with learning random seven-digit numbers is part of a study that is testing the hypothesis that ordered information is more easily memorized and remembered than random or disordered information. An educational implication of supporting the hypothesis, it might be claimed, is that it will help us understand how to present information to students, particularly if we have to organize it in list form. After the experiment, and many others like it conducted with different populations, the researchers might feel confident in claiming that their research has shown that ordered lists are learned more easily than random lists. 

But this would be another pseudo-empirical finding. The analytic component concerns the conceptual ties between order and learnability. Our mind’s ability to learn and our notions of what counts as ordered are connected before and regardless of whatever research shows about their relationship. If students in the experimental group learned random lists more easily than ordered lists, the researchers would have scanned the lists for some order they had failed to notice earlier. On discovering that, in one case, the supposedly random number was the student’s telephone number, they would feel satisfied that they had accounted for the anomalous result. What we mean by order is conceptually connected to what we can more readily recognize and learn. No experiment is required to establish the generalization. 

In the experimental group, however, there will have been some variability among subjects’ learning and memorizing the random numbers. The telephone coincidence is just one dramatic anomaly, but then there will be the case of the numbers that are, for another student, his mother’s birth date, and the one that is only a digit different from another student’s bank account code, and so on. Certainly not all random numbers will look equally random to all subjects, but these findings are arbitrary. Researchers control for them by having large samples and other methods. What they cannot do, of course, is generalize from these anomalies. Researchers cannot generalize about that student’s ability to learn and memorize random numbers or about other students’ ability to learn and memorize those particular numbers. 

So in the case of this research there is an analytic tie that guarantees a strong positive correlation both between orderedness in the lists and the ease of learning and memorizing and between randomness and difficulty. There is, in addition, a range of arbitrary elements that will have ensured that what counts as ordered for one subject will seem random to another, and a variety of indeterminable arbitrary contaminants in the data. By confusing the two, by failing to distinguish the analytic component from the arbitrary components, researchers will likely treat the results of the study as an empirically established connection. The analytic component, however, generalizes absolutely. The arbitrary elements cannot be generalized at all. Establishing the analytic component does not need an experiment. And the arbitrary elements, which are genuinely empirical, cannot be generalized. 


Rousseau’s and Spencer’s biological model of human development generated a range of assumptions, which continue to influence how teachers are prepared and how children are expected to learn. Although Rousseau’s biologized conception of the mind helped to refute the old notion of a metaphysical and mystical mind distinct from the body, his modeling of the development of the mind on that of the body was excessive. It is far from clear, for example, that food’s contribution to our bodily development is very like knowledge’s contribution to our minds’ development. In the latter case, knowledge becomes a constituent of the mind in a way that food does not become a constituent of the body — eating lots of spinach will not make you look more like a spinach, but the mind is shaped by the kinds of experience and knowledge it takes in. Spencer’s idea of progressive development and learning gave us those ubiquitous practical principles of moving from the known to the unknown, from the simple to the complex, from the concrete to the abstract. Piaget’s more elaborated account of the developmental process supported both progressive educational ideas and Spencer’s principles. Despite the important contributions of these thinkers, they have left us with some deep dilemmas about the role and value of empirical research in education. 

The usual way of representing education’s relationship with scientific psychological research is to suggest an analogy — physics : engineering :: psychology : education. The increasingly preferred version seems to be biology : medicine :: psychology : education. But psychology is not a science like physics or biology. And education is unlike engineering and medicine: It is value saturated in the way engineering is only marginally, and both medicine and engineering do not have radically different goals asserted for their activities in the way that is common in education. Asserting the analogy seems to replace presenting an argument, as though the analogy were pellucid rather than obfuscating. 

It is still the case that anything claimed in education without the support of empirical research is dismissed as speculative, or, as the summary of the How People Learn project puts it, what is now “subject to powerful research tools” was in the past “a matter for philosophical arguments” (Donovan, Bransford, & Pellegrino, 1999, p. 5). The implication is that cognitive science will now clear up what was formerly mere speculation or philosophical arguments, just as the physical sciences cleared up and displaced speculation and philosophical arguments about, say, the nature of the objects visible in the night sky, the causes of diseases, and so on. It is increasingly unclear to me that this is an accurate way of seeing the relationship between psychology and education. The assertiveness of cognitive scientists in laying a claim on “science” seems misplaced. Basic conceptual work has been avoided and left undone, and we go ahead with precisely the kinds of confusion that Wittgenstein pointed out some years ago. Methodological sophistication cannot compensate for a lack of conceptual clarity; method and problem pass one another by.  
The waning of Piaget’s theory has been accompanied by more attention to Vygotsky’s ideas. Some of the interesting areas being opened up follow on Vygotsky’s ideas about how students pick up cognitive tools as they grow up in a society, and also about his ideas on the development of imagination. This has facilitated research of a primarily analytic kind into the sets of cognitive tools that come along with an oral language, such as stories, metaphor, forming images from words, and so on, and then working out how one can design frameworks for planning teaching that build in these tools. One can similarly analyze the sets of cognitive tools that come along with literacy, such as fascination with the extremes and exotic, association with heroes, engagement by wonder, and so on, and work out how these too can facilitate imaginatively engaging learning. Such an approach leads to quite distinctive conceptions of development, focusing on the kinds of understanding we can construct with our “cognitive tool kits,” and also to new and potent methods of teaching that focus on engaging the imagination. (One source for this work is available at; also see Vygotsky, 1997, 2004.)  

Oddly enough, this newer Vygotskian program takes us closer to Plato than to the kinds of conceptions of development that have held sway in education from Rousseau’s time through the years of Piagetian dominance. A concern with “cognitive tools” drives us more in the direction of epistemological constructs than anything like Piagetian operations. A concern with stimulating and developing cognitive tools takes one immediately to analysis of the curriculum content that constitutes the tools in question; that is, from seeing the “cultural tools” that can become “cognitive tools” for each child. The continuing dominance of progressivist thinking in North America has led, during the recent period of increasing Vygotskian influence, to slightly bizarre attempts to suggest that Piagetian and Vygotskian theories are coherent or compatible, despite attempts to show how inappropriate such conflations are (Kozulin, Gindis, Ageyev, & Miller, 2003; Wertsch 1985, 1991). It is as though — to use Piagetian language — Vygotsky can be accommodated in North America only if he is assimilated to progressivist assumptions. It is of course presumptuous of me to suggest, at a time when progressivist tenets remain almost at the level of presuppositions in educational thinking, that psychological developmental theories of the kind that have dominated educational thinking on the topic are an aberration and they are finally beginning to lose their hold. The lack of any clear empirical demonstration of their benefit to education must, in the end, lead toward their dissolution. In their place, we may hope to see attempts to generate educational theories of development, whose character will be more sensitive to the phenomena of education than to those of psychology and which will likely gain sustenance from Plato and Vygotsky rather than Spencer and Piaget. The problem is to find ways to characterize the successive modes in which children make sense of the world and of their experience in a language that leads us directly to distinctive curriculum content and new methods of teaching. (An attempt to frame such a theory may be found, I am only moderately ashamed to point out, in Egan, 1997.)  
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