Is subject matter real? We often act in education as if the concepts and methods expressed in course materials are the reality, and the task of teaching is to help the learner from unreal understandings to the truth. But that seemingly obvious assumption is the one that is far from reality.
In Education for what is real, Earl Kelley makes the case for purposeful learning. At the core, his argument is not simply that allowing the learner to find a purpose in learning is effective pedagogy; nor is that everyone lives in a subjective universe in which no dialogue or learning is possible. Instead, it is that the the learner necessarily remakes anything a teacher says in terms of his/her own “scheme of thing.” That remaking changes the learner and can lead to growth, but not in the straightforward way imagined by a transmission epistemology.
Now it comes about that whatever we tell the learner, he will make something that is all his own out of it, and it will be different from what we held so dear and attempted to ‘transmit’. He will build it into his own scheme of things, and relate it uniquely to what he already uniquely holds as experience. Thus he builds a world all his own, and what is really important is what he makes of what we tell him, not what we intended. –Earl C. Kelley
Jeannie Austin makes a similar point in discussing her own learning in a class that allowed her to build on what she knows and cares about:
It’s allowed me to have a feeling of ownership over my education, as I’ve been able to pursue the study of things that I am passionate about and still count it toward school. I can’t tell you how much less stressful it has made my life, as I no longer have to try and balance an education that is separate from my lived reality. –Jeannie Austin
Postman and Weingartner put it this way in Teaching as a subversive activity:
In other words, you end up with a student-centered curriculum not because it is good for motivation but because you don’t, in fact, have any other choice.
Kelley, Earl C. (1947). Education for what is real. New York: Harper and Brothers.
Postman, Neil, & Weingartner, Charles (1969). Teaching as a subversive activity. New York: Dell.