The Independent Center for Integrative Education: Learning without Limits
Natural Philosophy as Educational Paradigm
By Valéry Fradkov, LCSW, Sc.D.
When we call someone a Renaissance man, we usually mean that the person is excellently educated and excels in a wide variety of subjects or fields. The original Renaissance men – Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo Buonarroti, Galileo Galilei, Isaac Newton and Benjamin Franklin, among many others – would probably be surprised by such a definition. Indeed, they hardly saw the world divided into "subjects" and "fields" named physics, chemistry, art, math, sociology, etc. Many of them considered themselves Natural Philosophers, the term which covered all kinds of knowledge about nature. We tend to blame today's compartmentalization of knowledge on specialization necessary to deal with a much greater complexity of knowledge as compared to the fourteenth or even seventeenth century, but more plausible explanation is that it is much easier to develop standardized tests on separate subjects than on the whole body of knowledge. Since our school system is test-oriented, it prepares people for the tests rather than real life activities. In result, the students see the world as a mosaic of disconnected facts and skills. The notion of the underlying unity of the world is lost in translation.
I remember my astonishment when I first faced traditional American education in the early 90s. As a professor at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, I was teaching an advanced course in Kinetics in Solid Materials to senior undergraduate engineering students. It was a selective course, and all participants were highly intelligent, mostly straight "A" students with genuine passion about science. Preparing my course, I planned to rely heavily on the knowledge they acquired after three and a half years of studying physics and chemistry, calculus and differential equations, thermodynamics and statistics, all of which was essential to move ahead in my class. I recognized my mistake after just a couple of classes, when it became clear to me that my students never ever thought that all those subjects had anything to do with each other. They considered those subjects as collections of facts and examples rather than the tools to use as needed in their professional life. At the beginning, they were very unhappy when I tried to appeal to their knowledge in other areas, seeing no relevance of such requests.
I came up with the solution of that problem, and I am still proud of it. Teaching is more about listening than talking. Instead of giving lectures and practical seminars, I brought a bottle of water in class and asked the student's opinion of how long it would take before the water evaporates and the bottle becomes empty. Hours? Weeks? Years? Centuries? Answering this question took us the rest of the term and the students were encouraged by the sheer nature of discussion to use (or learn about) physics and thermodynamics, diffusion and phase transformation, differential equations, limiting stages of processes, and many other things that I intended to teach them. They had a practical issue on hand and learned to use whatever knowledge, skills, and experience (and common sense!) they could muster. Surprisingly, not only their knowledge of hard science and math proved handy but also their expertise in ecology, sociology, history, and even art. After the course was over and everyone got their "A"s – they really knew the stuff! – one student told me: "Only now I understand what they tried to teach me for four years." This revelation made me feel very sad. It took me over ten years, however, before I realized that what I did with adult college students could (and should) be done with children.
Did my class turned those students into Renaissance men? I don't think so. It gave them, however, a glimpse of the real life demands of knowledge. On the very day I brought that bottle of water into class, I clearly stated the goal of the course – to make them able to talk to experienced professionals after they graduate and start to work. Indeed, there are only two things we can learn about different areas of knowledge – professional dialects and practical skills.
Any specialized area of knowledge inevitably develops its own argot. There are many reasons for that. Special terminology provides more precise meaning than the words of a spoken language; many special terms are international and can be understood by people speaking different languages (the symbols and icons such as math or chemical formulas are international by their nature); formulas, terms and idioms allow for extremely concise way to express a lot of meaning; and last but not least, the professional argot raises the barrier of entry, preventing laymen from interfering with the specialists.
Not only specialized professional dialects are to a large degree international, they are somehow inter-subject as well. This reflects the nature of those dialects – they are just tools we use to deal with specific problems and issues. It is well known that all so-called hard sciences – physic, chemistry, astronomy, computer science, etc. – as well as all branches of engineering – use various branches of mathematic as their languages of choice. In fact, mathematics historically developed from practical needs, from measuring land to predicting positions of the planets to gambling to calculating prices of financial securities. Math, therefore, can be taught the same way we teach languages. And so can all other dialects of specialized knowledge, whether based on math or not (yet).
Studying a language includes three equally important components, which have exact parallels in studying a professional dialect:
Learning words and grammar
Learning terminology and concepts
Acquiring skills of speaking, reading, writing, and understanding
Years ago, it was reasonably easy to name fundamental skills and knowledge any educated person should possess. Today it is different. Our life changes too fast that nobody can predict what skills and knowledge will be important by the time our children grow up. Any specific set of facts and skills that constitute a curriculum is inevitably arbitrary. It is much more important to teach our children to express themselves, understand others, and learn as they go. With the wealth of knowledge and practical advice available today at their fingertips and the demands of life changing every day, our children can and must learn to learn what they need here and now. They need to know how to estimate the credibility of the source, double check information, and apply their holistic Renaissance language-oriented education to know what and where to search. They can only learn it by solving numerous specific problem, participating in specific projects, learning specific bits of knowledge, and exercising specific skills. It is much less important what exactly they study than how they do it.
Imagine a group of children that study a nature of the human being. People can move, and to understand that one needs to know the language of classical mechanics. People can see and hear, so we need to use the tools of physics of light and sound. People can eat and metabolize, so we need chemistry to understand that. People are similar to other animals, so we need zoology and anatomy. People interact with nature, so here comes ecology. People evolved, so we need genetics and paleontology. People get sick sometimes, so we need to have some ideas about medicine. People can talk, so we need linguistic tools. People can think and feel, and we dip into psychology. People live in society, therefore we need sociology and political studies, economics and finance, technology and geography, history, philosophy and religion. People can love and enjoy the beauty and nothing can teach more about those things than art, literature, and music. Although quite distinct, those tools depend on each other and in combination are much more effective than separately. It is funny when people talk about interdisciplinary studies – because all studies are interdisciplinary.
No matter how bright and polymath our children can be, sooner or later they will face a necessity to pass tests. As infamous leader of the Bolshevik's revolution Vladimir Lenin once noted, it is impossible to live in the society and be free of the society's demands. Will their wide and deep knowledge help our children to succeed at tests? The answer is both yes and no. Yes, because, after all, passing tests is just another activity that can be mastered and previous practice in mastering skills helps a lot. No, because passing tests is a specific artificial activity, a game with its own rules, tactics, traditions, and trade secrets. A vast majority of tests does not (and cannot) test the knowledge, creativity, understanding, or abilities. They test the test-passing skills. In my experience, it was always more important to have an example of a previous year test than to study the subject by reading books and attending lessons! Passing test is an activity that includes some trivia and some psychology – to understand the motives and expectations of those who created the test. Even the hands-on tests are not relevant to real life because of the limited access to the resources (asking an uncle to help with a task is legitimate in real life and considered cheating at test) .
It would be wise, therefore, to separate learning for knowledge from learning for tests. Those schools that teach for the tests while pretending that they teach for knowledge do a poor job in both departments. Why not to be honest and provide children with an opportunity to study the world in a Renaissance way along with separate classes for preparation for tests by subject?
In the ideal world, there would be no physicists, chemists, or computer programmers; there would be instead well-educated people using computers and chemical and physical tools to solve problems on hand. They will speak the common language and understand many of its dialects.
Acquiring new knowledge is nothing but learning a new dialect and practicing new skills. The more languages you know the easier it is to add another one. It is, therefore, not what "subjects" a person studied but how many languages they learned. A specific set of facts and methods are less important.
The most important goals of education today are making sure that our children can express themselves in writing, orally, and by the means of art; that they can understand what other people say and mean; and that they can acquire new knowledge and skills as they go.
The tests are part of our life and one of the skills to teach our children may be specific preparation for the tests. It should be made quite clear that preparation to the tests is a separate activity from acquiring knowledge.
A relevant test really showing how well a student is prepared to life and/or
profession should include a realistic hands-on or research task with meaningful
and potentially useful outcome. There must be much time for preparation unless
we test the ability to "think on one's feet." There should be no limitation on
the use of resources. The goal should be to find out how clearly the student
can explain what, why, and how they have done, what the results are, and why I,
the listener or reader, should be interested in learning about those results. I
tried this approach with the class that I described in Introduction, and it
seemed to work extremely well.