Revisiting Foundational Ideas

Friday, 7. September 2012

Publications focusing on education show a wide array of topics, from MOOCs to school choice reform. There are so many areas of interest that we are perhaps scattered in our efforts at improving teaching and learning. However, examining foundational ideas enables us to articulate common purpose. Promoting autonomy is one of these ideas, and it is a central goal of all educational endeavors.

There are numerous sources that discuss the relationship between autonomy and education. However, Aristotle provided a unique perspective through his description of rhetoric. Aristotle wrote that all people have the ability to comprehend the art and skill of speaking. One facet of speaking is defense and criticism of ideas. For Aristotle, engaging in rhetoric also meant engaging in its counterpart, dialectic, or reasoned discussion, which leads to meaningful conclusion. Rhetoric and dialectic are not confined to any special set of abilities (one reason Aristotle may have emphasized this was to counter the efforts of Sophists, who were traveling around Attica charging money for their educational services). Instead, every person has these abilities since words are used to defend, explain, criticize, and justify one’s words and deeds and the words and deeds of others.

According to Aristotle, the raw material used to engage in rhetoric and dialectic is the enthymeme, which is a premise and serves as the basis for constructing logical arguments.

Promoting student autonomy involves training students to use their minds to form ideas and arguments through logical thought. Ideally, this training enables learners to assemble inferences and conclusions from thoroughly examined proofs. Exploration, investigation, and experimentation are characteristic of this type of training. While, not wholly ineffective for purposes of learning, recitation, duplication, and automation are not.

Systems characteristic of the standards-based approach to teaching and learning seem more vulnerable to marginalizing educational activity which promotes autonomous thinking. Standards are published and recited by teachers and students. Assessments align with standards, and achievement is defined as a measure of the accuracy with which students replicate knowledge and skills on tests. The same standards are integrated into curricula, thereby prescribing instructional methods that efficiently connect learners with information.

The universal ability to form arguments, engage in deliberative discussion, and arrive at meaningful conclusions is in danger of neglect, under current reform efforts. The priority of reformers has been to equalize educational inputs, such as curriculum and instruction, to ensure greater consistency in outputs, specifically assessment results. However, reform disconnected from foundational ideas leads to excess and dissolution of effort.