A Year of Beauty

Plato: Unifying key cosmic values of Greek culture to a useful conceptual trinity.

Plato: Unifying key cosmic values of Greek culture to a useful conceptual trinity.

Ever since education became something we discussed, teachers and learners alike have had strong opinions regarding the quality of education and how it can be improved. What is surprising, as you look at these discussions over time, is how often we seem to come back to the same ideas. We read Dewey and we hear echoes of Rousseau. So many echoes and so much careful thought, found as we built new modern frames with Vygotsky, Piaget, Montessori, Papert and so many more. But little of this should really be a surprise because we can go back to the writings of Marcus Fabius Quintilianus (Quinitilian) and his twelve books of The Orator’s Education and we find discussion of small class sizes, constructive student-focused discussions, and that more people were capable of thought and far-reaching intellectual pursuits than was popularly believed.

… as birds are born for flying, horses for speed, beasts of prey for ferocity, so are [humans] for mental activity and resourcefulness.” Quintilian, Book I, page 65.

I used to say that it was stunning how contemporary education seems to be slow in moving in directions first suggested by Dewey a hundred years ago, then I discovered that Rousseau had said it 150 years before that. Now I find that Quntilian wrote things such as this nearly 2,000 years ago. And Marcus Aurelius, among other stoics, made much of approaches to thinking that, somehow, were put to one side as we industrialised education much as we had industrialised everything else.

This year I have accepted that we have had 2,000 years of thinking (and as much evidence when we are bold enough to experiment) and yet we just have not seen enough change. Dewey’s critique of the University is still valid. Rousseau’s lament on attaining true mastery of knowledge stands. Quintilian’s distrust of mere imitation would not be quieted when looking at much of repetitive modern examination practice.

What stops us from changing? We have more than enough evidence of discussion and thought, from some of the greatest philosophers we have seen. When we start looking at education, in varying forms, we wander across Plato, Hypatia, Hegel, Kant, Nietzsche, in addition to all of those I have already mentioned. But evidence, as it stands, does not appear to be enough, especially in the face of personal perception of achievement, contribution and outcomes, whether supported by facts or not.

Evidence of uncertainty is not enough. Evidence of the lack of efficacy of techniques, now that we can and do measure them, is not enough. Evidence that students fail who then, under other tutors or approaches, mysteriously flourish elsewhere, is not enough.

Authority, by itself, is not enough. We can be told to do more or to do things differently but the research we have suggests that an externally applied control mechanism just doesn’t work very well for areas where thinking is required. And thinking is, most definitely, required for education.

I have already commented elsewhere on Mark Guzdial’s post that attracted so much attention and, yet, all he was saying was what we have seen repeated throughout history and is now supported in this ‘gilt age’ of measurement of efficacy. It still took local authority to stop people piling onto him (even under the rather shabby cloak of ‘scientific enquiry’ that masks so much negative activity). Mark is repeating the words of educators throughout the ages who have stepped back and asked “Is what we are doing the best thing we could be doing?” It is human to say “But, if I know that this is the evidence, why am I acting as if it were not true?” But it is quite clear that this is still challenging and, amazingly, heretical to an extent, despite these (apparently controversial) ideas pre-dating most of what we know as the trappings and establishments of education. Here is our evidence that evidence is not enough. This experience is the authority that, while authority can halt a debate, authority cannot force people to alter such a deeply complex and cognitive practice in a useful manner. Nobody is necessarily agreeing with Mark, they’re just no longer arguing. That’s not helpful.

So, where to from here?

We should not throw out everything old simply because it is old, as that is meaningless without evidence to do so and it is wrong as autocratically rejecting everything new because it is new.

The challenge is to find a way of explaining how things could change without forcing conflict between evidence and personal experience and without having to resort to an argument by authority, whether moral or experiential. And this is a massive challenge.

This year, I looked back to find other ways forward. I looked back to the three values of Ancient Greece, brought together as a trinity through Socrates and Plato.

These three values are: beauty, goodness and truth. Here, truth means seeing things as they are (non-concealment). Goodness denotes the excellence of something and often refers to a purpose of meaning for existence, in the sense of a good life. Beauty? Beauty is an aesthetic delight; pleasing to those senses that value certain criteria. It does not merely mean pretty, as we can have many ways that something is aesthetically pleasing. For Dewey, equality of access was an essential criterion of education; education could only be beautiful to Dewey if it was free and easily available. For Plato, the revelation of knowledge was good and beauty could arose a love for this knowledge that would lead to such a good. By revealing good, reality, to our selves and our world, we are ultimately seeking truth: seeing the world as it really is.

In the Platonic ideal, a beautiful education leads us to fall in love with learning and gives us momentum to strive for good, which will lead us to truth. Is there any better expression of what we all would really want to see in our classrooms?

I can speak of efficiencies of education, of retention rates and average grades. Or I can ask you if something is beautiful. We may not all agree on details of constructivist theory but if we can discuss those characteristics that we can maximise to lead towards a beautiful outcome, aesthetics, perhaps we can understand where we differ and, even more optimistically, move towards agreement. Towards beautiful educational practice. Towards a system and methodology that makes our students as excited about learning as we are about teaching. Let me illustrate.

A teacher stands in front of a class, delivering the same lecture that has been delivered for the last ten years. From the same book. The classroom is half-empty. There’s an assignment due tomorrow morning. Same assignment as the last three years. The teacher knows roughly how many people will ask for an extension an hour beforehand, how many will hand up and how many will cheat.

I can talk about evidence, about pedagogy, about political and class theory, about all forms of authority, or I can ask you, in the privacy of your head, to think about these questions.

  • Is this beautiful? Which of the aesthetics of education are really being satisfied here?
  • Is it good? Is this going to lead to the outcomes that you want for all of the students in the class?
  • Is it true? Is this really the way that your students will be applying this knowledge, developing it, exploring it and taking it further, to hand on to other people?
  • And now, having thought about yourself, what do you think your students would say? Would they think this was beautiful, once you explained what you meant?

Over the coming year, I will be writing a lot more on this. I know that this idea is not unique (Dewey wrote on this, to an extent, and, more recently, several books in the dramatic arts have taken up the case of beauty and education) but it is one that we do not often address in science and engineering.

My challenge, for 2016, is to try to provide a year of beautiful education. Succeed or fail, I will document it here.


The Philosophical Angle

Socrates drank hemlock after being found guilty of corrupting the minds of the youth of Athens, and impiety. Seneca submitted to the whims of Nero when the Emperor, inevitably, required that his old tutor die. Seneca’s stoicism was truly tested in this, given that he slashed his veins, took poison, jumped in a warm bath and finally had to be steamed to death before Nero’s edict that he kill himself was finally enacted. I, fortunately, expect no such demonstrations of stoic fortitude from my students but, if we are to think about their behaviour and development as self-regulating beings, then I think that a discussion of their personal philosophy becomes unavoidable. We have talked about the development state, their response to authority, their thoughts on their own thinking, but what of their philosophy?

If you are in a hurry and jump in your car, every red light between you and your destination risks becoming a personal affront, an enraging event that defies your expectation of an ‘all-green’ ride into town. There is no reason why you should expect such favours from the Universe, whatever your belief system, but the fact that this is infuriating to you remains. In the case of the unexpected traffic light, which sounds like the worst Sherlock Holmes story ever, the worst outcome is that you will be late, which may have a variety of repercussions. In preparing assignment work, however, a student may end up failing with far more dire and predictable results.

“Watson, I shall now relate the entire affair through Morse tapped pipe code and interpretative dance.”

While stoicism attracts criticism, understandably, because it doesn’t always consider the fundamentally human nature of humans, being prepared for the unforeseen is a vital part of any planning process. Self-regulation is not about drawing up a time table that allows you to fit in everything that you know about, it is about being able to handle your life and your work when things go wrong. Much as a car doesn’t need to be steered when it is going in a straight line and meeting our requirements, it is how we change direction when we know the road and when a kangaroo jumps out that are the true tests of our ability to manage our resources and ourselves.

Planning is not everything, as anyone who has read Helmuth von Moltke the Elder or von Clausewitz will know: “no plan survives contact with the enemy”. In this case, however, the enemy is not just those events that seek to confound us, it can be us as well! You can have the best plan in the world that relies upon you starting on Day X, and yet you don’t. You may have excellent reasons for this but, the fact remains, you have now introduced problems into your own process. You have met the enemy and it is you. This illustrates the critical importance of ensuring that we have an accurate assessment of our own philosophies – and we do have to be very honest.

There is no point in a student building an elaborate time management plan that relies upon them changing the habits of a lifetime in a week. But this puts the onus upon us as well: there is no point in us fabricating a set of expectations that a student cannot meet because they do not yet have a mature philosophy for understanding what is required. We don’t give up (of course!) but we must now think about how we can scaffold and encourage such change in a manageable way. I find reflection very handy, as I’ve said before, as watching students write things like “I planned for this but then I didn’t do it! WHY?” allows me to step in and discuss this at the point that the student realises that they have a problem.

I am not saying that a student who has a philosophy of “Maybe one day I will pass by accident” should be encouraged to maintain such lassitude, but we must be honest and realise that demanding that their timeliness and process maturity spring fully-formed from their foreheads is an act of conjuring reserved only for certain Greek Gods. (Even Caligula couldn’t manage it and he had far greater claim to this than most.) I like to think of this in terms of similarity of action. If anything I do is akin to walking up to someone and yelling “You should hand in on time, do better!” then I had better re-think my strategy.

The development of a personal philosophy, especially when you may not have ever been exposed to some of the great exemplars, is a fundamentally difficult task. You first need to understand that such a concept exists, then gain the vocabulary for discussing it, then interpret your current approach and see the value of change. Once you have performed all of those tasks, then we can start talking about getting from A to B. If you don’t know what I’m talking about or can’t understand why it’s important, or even discuss core concepts, then I’m yelling at you in the corridor and you’ll nod, compliantly, until I go away. Chances of you taking positive steps in the direction that I want? Very low. Probably, nil. And if it does happen, either it’s accidental or you didn’t actually need my help.

I try to be stoic but I must be honest and say that if Nero sentenced me to death, I’d nod, say “I expected that”, then put on some fast saxophone music and leg it up over the seven hills and far away. I don’t think I’d ever actually expect true stoicism from most of my students. but a simple incorporation of the fact that not everything works out as you think it will would be a definite improvement over the current everything will work out in my favour expectation that seems to be the hallmark of the more frequently disappointed and distressed among them. The trick is that I first have to make them realise that this is something that, with thought, they can not only fix but use to make a genuine, long-lasting and overwhelmingly positive change in their lives.