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Notes from Library Session 14th December

posted 11 Jan 2012, 08:27 by David Sherlock   [ updated 18 Jan 2012, 03:52 ]

Western Education Thought

Posted by David on December 14, 2011

While exploring social processes and coding agent-based models in tools such as Netlogo, I distinguished three levels to the models with associated disciplines that seemingly didn’t connect. I identified these as:
The ‘inner world’ of individuals (often addressed through cognitive science)
The ‘outer world’ of interactions (often addressed through interpersonal psychology)
The resulting patterns that can be seen in society (often addressed through sociology)

I found these levels hard to relate to each other and with my mind jumping from these different disciplines I find it difficult to know where to concentrate my reading. Today, after much fumbling around the library I decided it may be worth concentrating on another school of thought where these disciplines meet but are seemingly disconnected, educational thought and theory.

I found a great book where Henry Perkinson hightlights the following as milestones in the history of western educational thought:

Socrates’s Apology

Plato’s Republic

Augustine’s Teacher

Comenius’s Didactic

Descartes’s Method

Vico’s New Science

Locke’s Thoughts

Rousseau’s Emile

Mill’s Logic

Dewey’s Democracy

Poppers Fallibilism

Although I am aware of only a few of these milestone thought conversations in the IEC I thought exploring these might offer an insight into a way to connect different disciplines

Popper's Fallibilism

According to Schlipp, Karl Popper once said:

“I dreamt of one day founding a school in which young people could learn without boredom and would be stimulated to pose problems and discuss them, a school in which no unwanted answers to unwanted questions would have to be listened to in which one did not study for the sake of passing exams”.

After an admittedly brief search of the web I found that Karl Popper had written little that it is specifically related to education (although he was a teacher). I think all of the people in education (who isn’t in education?) that I know would agree that Poppers definition of a dream school is a nice one. I wondered what the building blocks of such a school would be, and if Poppers writings would give me an insight into how he thought it would look.

Interestingly I found Perkinson had already Popper writings and how they relate to education in ‘Since Socrates’ and I will summaries some of his key findings.

Perkinson tells us that Popper made a distinction between science and nonscience. In ‘Science: Coujectures and Refutations’ Popper notes that many of his friends are influenced by Marx and Freud, when ever these friends opened a newspaper they would instantly find a story that that would reinforce their belief in their theories. He found the situation was different with Einstein who had made predictions that were falsifiable. To Popper this made the theory scientific. “The criterion of the scientific theory is falsifiability, or refutability, or testability”

Perkinson sums up Poppers view

“For example, the observation of billions of white swans will not prove the universal statement that are swans are white, but observing one black swan will refute it” leading to an idea that science advances through old theories being replaced by better ones thought what popper call falisification. Towards the end of his life, Popper aligned this idea with Darwinian theory as unfit organisms are replaced by their offspring.

Perkinson claims that Poppers work in this area can be applied to education, and that to apply it successfully teachers must assume that a student already posses knowledge and is a source of growth rather than being an empty void that the teacher must fill. Perkinson points out that although Popper is not explicitly a educational theorist his philosophy gives a good explanation as to why the education particles of ‘Montessori, Neill, Rodgers and Piaget” work.


Socrates‘s Apology refers to the speech and defence that Socrates gave to the trial before the execution. There are numerous accounts of it but Plato’s seems to be accepted as most reliable. I have found that there were two charges against Socrates, the first being that he refused to worship the Gods of the city, a charge that Socrates did not care about or deny. The second charge was about Socrates corrupting the youth. Perkinson in his book ‘Since Socrates’ sees this charge as a important lesson in education.

Perkinson argues that the defence played a major part western educational because it shows the importance of institutions that allow for criticism. He compares Socrates to a physical trainer saying that the trainer does not know what a perfect athlete is like and it his job is not to show his pupils what one is, instead his job is to criticize them, who accept his censure and try to improve. 

The difference between a physical trainer and a critic of the state (in the time of the trial) was that institutions and traditions protected the trainer allowing for his criticism without fear of reprisal. Socrates refuses to flee from Athens and his death makes us aware that is wrong to silence critics. Maybe every discipline needs it critics to stop it from stagnation, and there must be channels to support and protect the critics.