Education delivery system – 17th century style

Packages and parcels get delivered, learning does not.

Consider the two Time magazine covers in the previous post. The one from 1965 shows a funnel through which all manner of things are being poured into the school. Much like the notion of the education that sees the child as the empty vessel into which must be poured the knowledge. Learning is not something that can be delivered.

Below is an image of a comic 17th century German woodcut. It depicts the funnel of Nurnberg associated with the poet and translator Georg Philippe Harsdörffer. He tried to demonstrate that everyone was capable of composing poetry and that all it took was a language thinking ring – a mechanical instrument that with the turning of five plates created appropriate rhymes for poetry. In this respect it is rather like a 17th century on-line Shakespeare insult generator or rhyming dictionary. Crank the handle/ press the button – and out pops the poetic answer. The image shows the funnel of knowledge being used to pour the necessary poetic elements into the head of the hapless student.

Chaucer, Shakespeare, or Harsdörffer – all a matter of a certain set of skills poured into the brain et voila! – a poet is born. The learning efficiency experts have nothing on this funnel for speed of learning.

There never was a Nurnberg funnel in any literal sense of course. We can smile with those 17th century Germans at its crude simplicity. But that mental model – the notion of trying to fill students with as much knowledge in as short a time as possible is still with us. We still talk of drumming information into children’s heads, of inculcation, and you don’t have to go too far in education to see didactic instruction alive and well.

The second picture from the 2006 Time cover last week is equally troublesome as a metonym for education. And this is perhaps one point of the article: The 21st century learner trapped in the static and isolated chair of another era. Where are the tools? The activity? Where are the meaning and purpose? Where are the relationships? Where is the teamwork? Where is the learner?

“How do we build a student?” is the question on the Time cover. But is that not the wrong way round? We need the phenomenal learning capacity and passion of the young to help us shape the world and solve its problems. It is not learners that need building, but schools and the learning community.

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