Encyclopedia of Educational Philosophy and Theory

2017 Edition
| Editors: Michael A. Peters

Where the Learning Sciences Need Philosophers

Reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-287-588-4_337

The learning sciences comprise a relatively new disciplinary community (commonly dated from 1991) that has largely taken over that part of educational psychology concerned with learning and thinking (Sawyer 2006). Although the learning sciences draw on a number of disciplines, their most direct line of descent is from cognitive science. Cognitive science, however, has had philosophers in its midst from the beginning – several of its leading figures are also leading philosophers – but this has not been true of the learning sciences. Such philosophical work as goes on in this field, and there is actually quite a lot, is done by amateurs. This article is aimed at identifying useful roles philosophers could play in the advancement of scientifically grounded efforts to improve educational practice. It makes no effort to present a coherent framework for philosophical contributions to the learning sciences. Instead, it touches on an assortment of possibilities, mainly in the hope of arousing philosophers of education to take the kind of active role that philosophers already take in cognitive science and in the many disciplines and professions that have a branch called “philosophy of….”

One way philosophers could be of value to people engaged in learning research and innovation is by helping clarify ubiquitous but fuzzy concepts. Take literacies, for example. In popular educational usage, the plural form of the term embraces things like “economic literacy” and “geographical literacy.” Does “literacy” mean anything special here or is it just a pretentious synonym for “knowledge”? And then there is skill, as in “higher-order thinking skills” and “twenty-first-century skills.” Is this term also used mainly for rhetorical effect or is it to be understood as claiming that “critical thinking,” “problem solving,” “creative thinking,” and the like are actual teachable skills that can be widely applied, much like arithmetic skills? There are empirical issues here about learnability, teachability, and transfer, but there are also issues of what people mean, or think they mean, or fail to think about what they mean when they use these and many other trendy terms that fill the literature of teaching and learning.

Beyond conceptual problems, however, are more substantive problems that need collaborative, interdisciplinary work.

Different Conceptions of Knowledge and Their Different Uses

The traditional epistemological conception of knowledge as “true and justified belief” is far too restrictive for use in the behavioral sciences. Because learning scientists generally take knowledge development seriously, the field is awash in different conceptions of knowledge coming from neuroscience, semiotics, sociology, organizational theory (where knowledge creation is an important theme), and philosophy of science, where conceptions of knowledge become entangled with conceptions of the nature of science and scientific practice.

Perhaps a unified framework can be produced that ties all the various conceptions of knowledge together, or perhaps what learning scientists need is a way to move between conceptions as the situation requires without getting into tangles about what knowledge really is or is not. In any case, philosophers could help fend off the anti-knowledge forces that impinge on education from several directions. Most prominent among these at present are technology enthusiasts who parade the notion of “just-in-time” knowledge and whose line of argument is that schools should not be filling students’ heads with knowledge (which they believe becomes obsolete very rapidly) and should instead teach information search skills (as if the mechanics of Internet search do not also become rapidly obsolete). Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, evidence accumulated that the main determinant of reading comprehension is what the reader already knows (Anderson and Pearson 1984). Those findings have not suddenly become irrelevant. Added to them is increasing recognition of the importance of knowledge in creative thinking. Yet it is understandable that knowledge should be downgraded, if knowledge is understood to be the contents of a mental filing cabinet. That is a notion traceable back to the hugely influential Taxonomy of Educational Objectives (Bloom 1956). The Taxonomy treated knowledge as inert stuff that is acted upon by mental skills. Even to this day, movements such as the “twenty-first-century skills” movement treat knowledge and mental skills as disjoint categories, ignoring knowledge domains such as systems theory and probability and statistics, which demonstrably instrumental value in effective thinking. Yet anyone who has done web searches seeking answers to questions of any complexity must surely have found that success in this very “twenty-first century” activity depends crucially on the domain knowledge one can bring to the search.

Knowledge Creation

It seems that until recent decades, scientists and other scholars referred to their creative achievements as discoveries rather than products or creations. Recall Newton’s likening his accomplishments to finding pretty stones on a beach and to his seeing farther than others by standing on the shoulders of giants. Perhaps the shift to a knowledge creation conception began with what A. N. Whitehead identified as the professionalization of invention in the nineteenth century. Steam engines and electric light bulbs are obviously invented, not discovered, and so why should a theory not also be recognized as an invention?

The idea of corporate knowledge creation took hold readily when Nonaka and Takeuchi (1995) published The Knowledge-Creating Company. Some universities also began advertising themselves as creators of knowledge in the same sense – that is, as producers of new technology, new theories, new strategies in health care, and so forth. They were referring, however, to their research programs, not their educational functions. In education, the idea of knowledge creation has had a much harder time gaining a foothold. Since the 1980s, however, “Knowledge Building” has gained increasing recognition in the learning sciences as an approach that makes students’ collective responsibility for knowledge creation and idea improvement central to the educational process (Scardamalia and Bereiter 2014).

In process terms, Knowledge Building means bringing design thinking – a generalization of the kind of thinking designers do (Brown 2009) – into work with disciplinary subject matter. This is in contrast to a kind of thinking that has, with considerable backing from philosophy, gained high status in contemporary science education: argumentative thinking, concerned with the justification of knowledge claims (Andriessenet al. 2003). In the actual process of creating new public knowledge, activity in both design thinking and argument to justify claims will typically occur and in close conjunction, but this does not obviate the distinction. The distinction has practical relevance in education, because to the extent it is valid, it implies that there is a serious imbalance in pedagogy. Since ancient times, design thinking has played almost no role in formal education. The advent of constructivist pedagogy has not changed this, in as much as constructive activities such as “guided discovery” mainly engage students in testing the truth value of propositions (e.g., testing which variables do and do not affect an observed phenomenon). The obvious way to introduce design thinking within the framework of formal education is to engage students in theory building. It is easy to invoke criteria according to which young students’ efforts along these lines are not “real” theories. More challenging is to identify in what respect children’s explanatory efforts are theoretical and to suggest what would constitute a next step up toward mature theory building. This is a matter on which philosophers could make a significant contribution to curriculum development.

What Constitutes Depth of Learning?

No one argues in favor of superficiality over depth in learning, but depth falls into that category of qualities people feel confident they can recognize yet find it impossible to define. That schooling often falls short in promoting depth of learning is also widely recognized, but critics tend to focus their attacks on a caricature of direct instruction that has virtually no advocates. Good direct instruction goes well beyond rote memorization and reproduction to the point where students can explain, offer evidence, and even apply the acquired knowledge in limited contexts. What research on students’ concepts suggests, however, is that learners can do all this – pass tests of comprehension and application – without the new knowledge having much effect on their mental lives on the way they apprehend the world about them. Students may know that the earth is round like a globe, but in all their experiencing and thinking concerning the earth, it remains flat; knowledge that the earth is round plays no role in their conceptions of up and down, tides, the changing of the seasons, and all the many understandings that depend on thinking of the earth as a sphere. For educated adults, everyday practical thinking may also treat the earth as a flat surface over which the sun passes, but, in the background, knowledge of the earth’s shape and relation to the sun will inform their thinking – in varying degrees depending on their depth of knowledge. Although the fact that the earth is round may rise to consciousness only when needed, cosmology may be said to be continually present in what Wittgenstein called the “scaffolding of our thoughts.” We represent the earth mentally as a globe, even when we are not actively thinking of it as such.

Comparisons of understanding with misunderstanding are abundant, but studies of differences between shallow and deep understanding are rare. To the extent that depth is measured at all, it is measured by extent of agreement with experts or ability to apply knowledge. However, in line with the preceding discussion, a more learner-centered criterion of depth could be applied: You have not understood something deeply unless it alters the way you apprehend the world. This criterion opens up a field for practical and scientific inquiry that could well engage philosophers as investigators.

Teaching People to Think

Teaching people to think is a long-standing educational mandate and one in which philosophers have played a role that reaches back as far as classical times. However, treating thinking ability as a set of general skills separate from content is an innovation that appears to have originated in the 1950s and to have been embodied if not actually conceived in the aforementioned Taxonomy of Educational Objectives. Earlier conceptions of teaching to think are better characterized by a quotation attributed to Bertrand Russell that has appeared on homeschooling websites:

When you want to teach children to think, you begin by treating them seriously when they are little, giving them responsibilities, talking to them candidly, providing privacy and solitude for them, and making them readers and thinkers of significant thoughts from the beginning. That’s if you want to teach them to think.

Here, teaching children to think is treated as a sort of character development – helping children become thinking people. There is no mention of skills, but there is of content: “significant thoughts.” A. N. Whitehead even more strongly emphasized the dependence of process on content:

Nobody can be a good reasoner unless by constant practice he has realized the importance of getting hold of the big ideas and of hanging on to them like grim death. (1929, p. 91)

In historical perspective, the “twenty-first-century skills” movement may be seen as an evolution or a revival of the “higher-order skills” movement of the 1970s. Within the thinking skills movement, “Philosophy for Children,” led by Matthew Lipman (2008), has been ahead of the curve in shifting from an emphasis on skill acquisition to thoughtful treatment of important questions. A number of other philosophy-based initiatives around the world also bring a measure of sanity to what, despite its “twenty-first century” label, is a movement grounded in obsolete psychology and wishful thinking. It could help greatly if more philosophers, like Lipman, got involved not merely as commentators but as working contributors to experiments in twenty-first-century pedagogical reform. This means on one hand applying a heavy dose of critical thought to the utterances of thinking skills enthusiasts and on the other hand moving outside the comfort zone of argumentative thinking and applying design thinking to problems of improving student thought. A direction this creative work might take is suggested in the next section.

Children as Natural Philosophers

As every philosopher knows, philosophy used to encompass the entire rational pursuit of understanding. Then natural philosophy branched off, specialization ensued, and continued apace until today you may meet a neurophysiologist who specializes in research on one nerve. But children are where philosophy used to be. Given enough opportunity and supportive conditions, they will set about trying to understand the whole world. This may or may not imply that philosophy itself should become part of the curriculum. Philosophy as a discipline might well be deferred until secondary school, but a philosophical vocabulary could permeate classroom discourse at a much earlier age. In so far as young students become builders, critics, and improvers of theories about the world, they become through their own enterprise “natural philosophers” in the old sense. The natural world for them will encompass the subject matter of not only the physical sciences but also the biological and behavioral sciences; with no sharp internal breaks or breaks between them and the humanities.

This does not imply rolling all the disciplines into one “big ball of wax” nor a celebration of whatever ideas pop into children’s heads. It does, however, suggest that theoretical rigor is a gradual development and that it should not unnecessarily impede the growth of understanding. In science classes around the world, children are being guided in use of the “scientific method” (i.e., control of variables) to discover that the period of a pendulum depends on the length of the cord and not much else. But do they acquire any understanding of why this should be the case? Or do they in fact pursue explanations of any of the lawful regularities revealed to them through “guided discovery”? If they do not, if instead they are rushed on to the next topic, they are clearly not being encouraged to function as natural philosophers.

Every child an Aristotle? Not quite. Children cannot be expected to have Aristotle’s fineness of conceptual discrimination, but on the other hand, they can be expected to have a more modern approach to theory building. The practical problem for educational designers is how students are to acquire modern competence in theory building. It cannot be assumed they will get it from their teachers, because there is evidence that teachers themselves have little sense of the productive role of theory in scientific progress (Windschitl 2004). And they will surely not get it from the mass media. An extensive bootstrapping operation seems required. If school students are to become genuine creators of enlightened and research-grounded understanding of their world, it will take sustained cooperation among a number of parties – teachers, administrators, teacher educators, learning scientists, technology developers, and school students themselves. Philosophers of education could play an active role in such collaborative bootstrapping. It is not necessary to specify the nature of that role: It should be enough that philosophers of education bring their distinctive knowledge and talents to the transformative effort and figure out for themselves how best to use them.


Philosophers can contribute significantly to progress in the learning sciences by performing their traditional role of clarifiers. To do this, however, they need to get into the substantive problems learning scientists are trying to solve. The everyday or ordinary language meanings of terms like “skill” and “understanding” are not at issue. They should become an issue, however, when educational designs and policies make consequential use of such terms without looking beyond their squishy everyday meanings. Philosophers in the learning sciences can also play active roles that go beyond clarifying. They can take part in collaborative design thinking in projects concerned, for instance, with educating for deeper understanding or for knowledge creation. This article has said nothing about the role of philosophers of education as critics of the learning sciences. Criticism from philosophical perspectives could be valuable, as it is in other disciplines. However, it needs to be well informed about actual practice and the state of knowledge in this field. Learning scientists generally do not, for instance, need to be reminded that human beings are different from computers.


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© Springer Science+Business Media Singapore 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Institute for Knowledge Innovation and TechnologyUniversity of TorontoTorontoCanada