If someone were to ask me where this post came from, I would be inclined to answer "everywhere." But I can offer two or three of the connections explicitly here. My thinking of late was simple enough: could variable levels of patience with children's developmental timelines influence one's traditionalist or progressivist orientation to education?
First, I was remembering an interaction I had with a former colleague last year1. We were talking about some math activities we were designing for third graders. What I recall from the exchange is that I was interested in being a little more helpful with the information we provided, suggesting that we had time to fade away our help (the program we were working on was serving children in Grades 3–8). She, on the other hand, argued that "students can't wait forever" to be expected to reason about mathematics. (I've been on her side of the argument many many times too, though never with a time-is-running-out rationale.)
Second, I came across, quite unexpectedly, some related, illuminating thoughts in a book called Algorithms to Live By: The Computer Science of Human Decisions. The authors attempt to provide some real-world relevance to the tradeoff between exploration and exploitation—a longstanding tension in computer science between "gathering information and . . . using the information you have to get a known good result."
One of the curious things about human beings, which any developmental psychologist aspires to understand and explain, is that we take years to become competent and autonomous. Caribou and gazelles must be prepared to run from predators the day they're born, but humans take more than a year to make their first steps.
Alison Gopnik, professor of develpmental psychology at UC Berkeley . . . has an explanation for why human beings have such an extended period of dependence: "it gives you a developmental way of solving the exploration/exploitation tradeoff . . . Childhood gives you a period in which you can just explore possibilities, and you don't have to worry about payoffs because payoffs are being taken care of by the mamas and the papas and the grandmas and the babysitters . . . .
If you look at the history of the way that people have thought about children, they have typically argued that children are cognitively deficient in various ways—because if you look at their exploit capacities, they look terrible. They can't tie their shoes, they're not good at long-term planning, they're not good at focused attention."
[But] our intuitions about rationality are too often informed by exploitation rather than exploration.
Third and finally—and again, entirely and bizarrely unexpectedly—was this, which rounds out our trip from left of center to neutral to right of center (admittedly leaving the left of center unfairly underrepresented):
Treat children like children, treat grown-ups like grown-ups. An 11-year old doesn't need to teach himself, and shouldn't. A 22-year old does need to teach himself and must. And the best way to become a self-teaching 22-year old is to have teachers and parents who directly teach you when you're 11. People have known this for hundreds of years--thousands of years--and yet our public schools have somehow forgotten.
Although I'm more inclined to favor early and protracted exploration (input, learning) followed by later exploitation (performance, output) at virtually every scale in education—something that I have undoubtedly been unable to conceal even in this post—I don't intend in this writing to pass judgment one way or another2; only to suggest that where one finds oneself on the exploration-exploitation continuum is likely predictive of where one finds oneself on the traditionalist-progressivist continuum. Respectively.
Image credit: Ken Munson Photography
- As far as education goes, I would consider myself right of center, and I would say my colleague was left of left of center. But that might be just what I would say. To her, she may have been either neutral or left of center, and I was right of right of center. That's how this game often works when you're not thinking hard about it: you're always neutral, and the other guy is the extremist.
- I won't even mention that, given certain assumptions, the optimum balance (according to something called the Gittins Index) between exploration and exploitation is not 50-50; more like 70-30. : )