Unguided learning: Subversive Activity (Part 3)

Independent thinking rightly belongs at the heart of education, as I suggested in Part 2. As students get increasingly adept at using tools of sceptical and imaginative enquiry, they become unstoppable lifelong learners. In this respect, I think, the authors of Teaching as a Subversive Activity are right on target – but many of their other proposals are wide of the mark. Their view of the role of the teacher is particularly dubious, so it’s probably just as well that it is as unpopular today as it was back in the ‘60s.

To be fair, some of Postman and Weingartner’s prescriptions are perfectly reasonable: of course teachers should pose meaningful problems, ask divergent questions, expect reflective responses, promote student collaboration, and encourage self-directed learning. And Postman and Weingartner make the legitimate point that if students are to produce knowledge themselves, they’ll need practice in methods of inductive enquiry – like making relevant observations and generalisations, verifying findings and suspending judgement where there is insufficient data.

More vexingly, the authors suggest that teachers shouldn’t prepare lesson plans at all, nor indeed any logical structure for sharing knowledge. Neither should teachers tell students what they ought to know, at risk of depriving students of an opportunity for discovery learning. What’s more, Postman and Weingartner say, teachers shouldn’t judge the quality, precision or relevance of students’ ideas in case this interferes with students’ developing their own criteria for judgement. Finally, teachers shouldn’t summarise students’ discussion because – the authors claim – this closes off further thought. In my view, it’s quite a good thing that each of these ideas has fallen by the wayside.

It seems to me that each of the repudiated techniques is helpful, if not indispensable, for teaching certain skills and bodies of knowledge. Using lesson plans and presenting subject content serve to open students to a rich and coherent world of ideas, while modelling good judgement and taking a synoptic view serve to induct students into useful habits of thought.

There’s been a great deal of debate among educational theorists about the value of discovery learning, in which students conduct their own investigations with minimal guidance. On the one hand, advocates claim that things discovered independently are better remembered than things explicitly taught, and that the process of discovery is more engaging than direct instruction. On the other hand, critics say that free exploration tends to overload working memory, causing poorer recall – and that pure discovery learning might confuse students, or lead them to adopt erroneous beliefs.

I don’t think the debate can be as easily settled as either camp would wish. Too often, educational methods – like discovery learning or direct instruction – are justified with reference to ‘quality teaching’ or ‘effective learning’: concepts which are either so vague as to be almost meaningless, or else so narrowly-defined as to be almost useless. In order to decide sensibly which teaching methods to employ, we first need to agree on what our educational priorities are, and what exactly they entail. Is it more important to nurture students’ curiosity, or to instil a sense of clarity? Is it more important for students to remain engaged and enthused, or to grasp an organised body of knowledge? These are deliberately tough questions. Probably, we want it all. So we’ll need horses for courses: different methods for different purposes.

Despite Postman and Weingartner’s protestations, there will surely be times when direct instruction is most appropriate, if only because teachers – if they’re worth their salt – are more knowledgeable and more sophisticated thinkers than their students are. As Massimo Pigliucci explains: “The teacher here plays the role of a subtle but always attentive guide, with a clear goal in mind. Postman is correct that simply telling people what to think won’t work … but he is wrong in assuming that the student ought therefore simply to be in charge.”

Postscript, 9 December 2018

In 2015, a couple of years after publishing this post, Greg Ashman’s provocative piece Ignore the fads: Teachers should teach and students should listen (The Conversation, 9 April 2015) prompted me to revisit the ideas in this post. Ashman takes a position diametrically opposed to Postman and Weingartner’s, challenging the effectiveness of inquiry learning and defending the virtues of explicit instruction. In response to Ashman’s piece, I commented:

The relative value of explicit instruction versus inquiry learning depends on what we’re seeking to achieve as teachers and learners. For building knowledge (in the sense of comprehending and retaining new concepts or routines), explicit instruction is often the best approach. However, to meet other important goals of education — such as fostering critical and creative thinking; developing intellectual freedom, autonomy and curiosity; and developing confidence and empathy — inquiry learning is often more appropriate… What we should be seeking is ‘fitness for purpose’ rather than ‘balance’.

Several years later, in late 2018, I had cause to reflect on these issues again when I came across two further articles.

The first was an opinion piece, again published in The Conversation, this time written by Australia’s Chief Scientist Alan Finkel: Finkel: students, focus on your discipline then you’ll see your options expand. To my disappointment, I found that the article further embeds the false dichotomy inherent in the knowledge vs. skills debate, and devalues generic skills in the interests of promoting disciplinary knowledge, as if it were a zero sum game.

The next article I encountered had been published a decade earlier by psychology researcher Deanna Kuhn: Is Direct Instruction an Answer to the Right Question? (Educational Psychologist 42(2):109-113, April 2007). Here Kuhn argues – as I have tried to do – that “there is a place for both direct instruction and student-directed inquiry. The challenge is to get the balance and sequence right.”

In a move that incidentally buttresses another of my claims, Kuhn makes the further point that “good instruction is never without structure. Indeed, designing the structure of problem-based instructional activities may require the most complex and demanding instructional design of all.” (I have indeed found this to be the case in my own experience of lesson planning.)

I’d like to quote Kuhn’s article at more length because she’s such a persuasive advocate for setting educational goals that focus on students’ mental self-management, which she defines as “taking charge of one’s own learning — and coming to value learning and knowing and one’s self as learner and knower.”

[T]he only defensible answer to the question of what we want schools to accomplish is that they should teach students to use their minds well, in school and beyond… The two broad sets of skills I identify as best serving this purpose are the skills of inquiry and the skills of argument. These skills are education for life, not simply for more school…

It is students’ understanding of the use and purpose of what they are learning that is vital to their willingness to engage in learning it. Of course we want children to acquire some rudimentary understanding of the physical and biological world around them, but it is by now obvious that we can hope to impart only an arbitrary smattering of what there is to know in these complex and rapidly expanding scientific disciplines. And what is most likely to stay with students over the ensuing years is not the specifics but the overall nature of the enterprise and what sense it makes. Are scientific topics worth learning about, knowing about, or inquiring about any more deeply? And, as the motivation theorists highlight, another critical question: Am I someone who is competent to engage in such learning?

Today, with education policy increasingly acknowledging the correlation between student agency, self-regulated learning and academic achievement, the word ‘metacognition’ is on everyone’s lips. I sincerely hope that over time, it will translate into the widespread implementation of evidence-based practices, rather than becoming a moribund eduspeak buzzword.


Further reading on metacognition:

Lamb, S., Maire, Q., & Doecke, E. (2017). Key Skills for the 21st Century: an evidence-based review. NSW Department of Education.

Perry, J., Lundie, D., & Golder, G. (2018) ‘Metacognition in schools: what does the literature suggest about the effectiveness of teaching metacognition in schools?’ Educational Review.

Quigley, A., Muijs, D., & Stringer, E. (2018). Metacognition and self-regulated learning: guidance report. Education Endowment Foundation.


This is the final post in a three-part series. You may wish to return to Teaching as a Subversive Activity Redux (Part 1) or On Questioning and Silence: Subversive activity (Part 2).


The Philosophy Club works with teachers and students to develop a culture of critical and creative thinking through collaborative enquiry and dialogue.

One response to “Unguided learning: Subversive Activity (Part 3)

  1. Pingback: In dispraise of Teaching as a Subversive Activity | Improving Teaching·

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s