Taking Children Seriously

TCS and Karl Popper

In my opinion (which is not shared by all Popperians, note) TCS could quite accurately have been called “Taking Karl Popper Seriously in the field of educational theory” – something that Popper himself never did. As a young man, Popper was preoccupied with educational theory. His aim was to place it on what he then thought of as a “scientific” (inductively justified!) footing. His failure, despite immense effort, to do this played a significant role in leading him eventually to understand the true nature of science. But he then made a sharp break from the psychology of discovery to the logic of discovery, and never again wrote about the former – at least, not directly. He even went so far as to ask friends and colleagues who had copies of his early, unpublished writings on education, not to show them to anyone. Yet there are tantalising side-remarks about education and learning in most of his works. For instance:

The inductivist or Lamarkian approach operates with the idea of instruction from without, or from the environment. But the critical or Darwinian approach only allows instruction from within – from within the structure itself.
...I contend that there is no such thing as instruction from without the structure. We do not discover new facts or new effects by copying them, or by inferring them inductively from observation, or by any other method of instruction by the environment. We use, rather, the method of trial and the elimination of error. As Ernst Gombrich says, “making comes before matching”: the active production of a new trial structure comes before its exposure to eliminating tests.”
– pages 7-9, The Myth of the Framework

While Popper almost always made such remarks in the context of original discovery rather than learning, the implications for education are inescapable. I should stress that applying Popper's philosophy of science to the growth of knowledge in children applies only when the children are learning science. Our position is much broader, namely that Popper's general idea of how a human being acquires knowledge – by creating it afresh through criticism and the elimination of error – applies equally to non-scientific types of knowledge such as moral knowledge, and to unconscious and inexplicit forms of knowledge. Thus we see ourselves as trying to extend Popperian epistemology into areas where, by its inner logic, it applies, but where Popper himself resolutely refused to apply it.

TCS assumes that Popperian epistemology applies equally to all knowledge creation, including in particular to the acquisition of existing knowledge. In fact, another way of characterising the distinctive feature of TCS is that we believe that all knowledge in a human mind is generated by that mind's internal criticism of existing knowledge (whether inborn, cultural or from whatever source), rather than by the transmission of existing knowledge either by instruction or otherwise.

This leads to some far-reaching conclusions about the style and practice of education. What, for instance, is the analogue, in the nursery, of the academic freedom that is a precondition for science to create new knowledge? What is the analogue of intellectual integrity?

The analogues are freedom from coercion, and autonomous learning.

In short, we have concluded that it is possible and desirable to bring up children in such a way that their learning is motivated entirely by the problem situations within their own minds, and not by externally imposed incentives or penalties.

For more on this, see this article.

Is the rejection of authority necessary?

The rejection of authority about any given issue is a precondition to solving problems related to that issue. So if a problem arises in any area in which we do not reject authority, we can never solve it. We remain chronically baulked.

But if we were to reject all forms of authority, we would have to reject the authority of our personal experience. Once we reject that, we have literally no place from which to speak authoritatively.

And that is a very good and necessary thing. Denying oneself, as well as others, a “place from which to speak authoritatively” is precisely the position taken by Popperians and TCS parents. Note that we do not say this authoritatively. You should accept it because, given the strength of the argument (which you will find elaborated in Popperian philosophical writings), you will consider it true. To see this you may have to reject someone else's authority, though!

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