It was 1971 and I was a graduate student, going for a Masters Degree in Educational Administration and Supervision, absorbing diligently everything put before me about how children learn.
Here I was, young “Crusader Bunny Rabbit” getting ready to go forth against the dark forces of educational complacency. Armed with this solid information, I was sure I could win any battle.
Despite the gray and cold winter days and boring classes, I was very happy to find out that so many learned men had very carefully and patiently researched the subject of how learning takes place, and had found scientific proof of “theories” that seemed like common sense to me.
First, there was James Jerome Gibson with his “Affordance Theory.” [“Affordance” was a fancy word he used for “clues.”] What he proved was that good design of the learning environment makes the clues explicit. [Seemed pretty self-evident to me, but I guess somebody had to study and prove the idea.]
Then there was John Watson, Ivan Pavlov and B. F. Skinner who discovered that all behavior is caused by external stimuli. [“Does a boring teacher and a more boring text book count as external stimuli,” I wondered.]
When Noam Chomsky and Jerome Bruner found out that the human brain is like a computer, I felt sure schools would surely catch on to the vast potential there. [Wrong!]
Albert Bandura presented his Social Learning Theory – – the idea that people learn from each other. [Do cafeteria and recess help when that’s the only time kids get to socialize?]
Bernard Weiner was trying to get down to brass tacks when he articulated his “Attribution Theory.” He asked the sensible question “Why do people do what they do?” [Here was a great piece of wisdom from the universe: mainly for their own darn good reasons.]
Then came Abraham Maslow and Carl Rogers who expounded “Humanism” and said that learning is a personal act to fulfill one’s potential. [Ah, there was that wonderful word “potential!” Surely they were on the right track.] For this they found that three things were needed: 1. A supportive environment, 2. Freedom [ah, another marvelous word] and 3. Respect.
John Dewey revealed evidence for his “Experience Theory.” [Now we’re talking!] He believed he had discovered that children learn better if it is truly part of living experience. [Now how could anyone argue with that?]
Lev Vygotski brought forth his “Conversive Theory” and showed solid evidence that conversation plays a crucial role in learning. [What? Conversation? Did he mean that kids should be allowed to actually talk in the classroom?]
Finally, I learned that Paulo Freire with his “Learner Initiative Theory” actually had the audacity to say that children learn better if truly in charge of their own learning processes. [What? The kids, not the teacher in charge?]
One day, after I had braved a winter storm for the 45-mile drive to get there, class was canceled and I got a chance for a chat with my favorite professor, Dr. Harry Boyd, a World War II survivor who had been tortured and still bore the deformed evidence just below his rib cage. This tall, still very handsome gentleman was a truth-teller and could be trusted. We walked together to the parking lot and I said, “Dr. Boyd, with all this evidence now available about how children learn, and their amazing potential, wouldn’t you agree that it’s about time for major reforms of our school systems?” He stopped, turned and looked at me kindly, his blue eyes as deep as the deep blue sea and his white hair as white as the snow falling all around us. “I’m sorry to tell you this, Brenda,” he said quietly, “but the school systems are not interested in the human potential for learning, they are interested in control.”
Suddenly, I felt just like I had when I had learned the hard truth about Santa Claus. It was a very long drive back home.