Learning as Intellectual Empowerment

By Bulle, Nathalie | International Journal of Education, July 1, 2013 | Go to article overview

Learning as Intellectual Empowerment


Bulle, Nathalie, International Journal of Education


Abstract

Now more than ever, modern teaching has to find the secret of the cognitive economy that will permit the reconciliation of the ever-increasing mass of knowledge with the limited cognitive abilities of individuals, and of the training needs of highly specialized experts with requirements for high level, general understanding. We put forward elements towards a solution, starting from the question of what the notion of a "well-made head" might signify today. The hypothesis developed is that training the mind in any given field involves an understanding of the concepts and key ideas that form the basic structure of that field.

Keywords: intellectual development; developmental psychology; epistemology; discipline structure; physics teaching

1. Introduction

According to Philip Phenix, an American philosopher and mathematician, the modern-day crisis in education can be explained by the extensive amount of knowledge that has to be mastered these days in comparison to the low cognitive abilities of individuals. In 1956 he wrote that this could be the major problem of contemporary education. This crisis in education is exacerbated by a dilemma: the demand for both good technical skills and liberal education that is, in the philosophical sense, committed to a deep and vast understanding of the natural and human world. The training of highly specialized experts is an economic imperative. But the blinkered view and fragmentation of knowledge which come as a result of specialization threaten to "destroy the delicate balance of civilized order". So this is the equation posed by Phenix that needs to be solved by modern education: the increasing mass of knowledge in the face of the intrinsic weakness of man's cognitive abilities, and the need for highly specialized experts in contrast with the need for a general overview and understanding. The solution to this equation calls upon the still somewhat mysterious concept of the "well-made head", of the teaching means of cognitive economy, and even the intelligence of the things it allows.

First of all, we will remind Montaigne's conceptions regarding the "well-made head" and uphold that they fall within the framework of meaningful learning - to borrow Ausubel (1963)'s terms - needing to be developed in the light of modern epistemology and psychology. In this regard, three major currents will be distinguished: classical empiricism, pragmatism, and cognitive rationalism. We will retain the third, which alone allows us to pose the problem of the nature of knowledge and, in this respect, that of the cognitive economy we seek. Using physics as an example, we will then evoke ways of developing in students a lifelong capacity to understand natural phenomena. It follows from this analysis that a teacher's firm mastery of the subject is a prerequisite to an educational method that aims for the student's understanding of the rational foundations of a discipline.

2. The Well-Made Head Concept

Today's development of knowledge does not necessary lead to a redefinition of the fundamental teaching missions of the school. Have we not been asking, since the 16th century at least, for well-made heads? Montaigne's view on this subject was that it was a question of training able, rather than erudite, people, guides or "masters" with a well-made rather than a well-filled head. He required both these qualities, but considered character and understanding more important than science itself.(Note 1) Looked at closely, it is a straightforward order of priority that does not put into opposition the terms he set out. Let us put aside the question of morals or ethics. For education purposes, it is primarily judgment that schools put most effort into, giving it depth, intensity, amplitude and, consequently, autonomy. There is therefore no need to invoke the increasing amount of knowledge produced nowadays to conclude that cognitive economy is what is expected from learning. That is what represents the timeless goal of any intellectual education. …

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