Printer Friendly

Process education: a humanistic response to fundamentalism.

ONE OF THE MOST PROMINENT causal factors of the seemingly rebounding addiction to supernaturalism as an explanation of the world and justification for action is surely the dramatic rate of social and technological change, which often forces people to abandon tradition in order to adapt to entirely new situations. In our grandparents' day--or even our parents'--what we learned in school was reasonably expected to provide us with useful information for a lifetime. No more. It has been said that information is doubling every five years. With such an exponential curve, how can anyone expect to learn it all and cope with its ramifications?

This incredible rate of change quite naturally drives many people to cling to traditional approaches as they struggle to slow the process to a more comfortable pace. As a result, fundamentalism often becomes the order of the day. Not merely Islamic fundamentalism or Jewish or Christian fundamentalism but, rather, the basic fundamentalism of "I have the answers. Don't bother me with more questions"--a fundamentalism of "stay the course" rigidity rather than nuanced thinking and flexibility as new situations arise and new data become available.

Fundamentalism, in turn, leads to a need for an authority figure--be it a political leader, a teacher, a parent, or a cleric--to interpret life's mysteries and to give direction. As a result, people become even more dependent on powers outside of themselves instead of learning the processes and skills necessary for critical thinking and problem solving.

New York Times columnist Tom Friedman, quoting an Iranian woman, tells a story about the education of young boys in Middle Eastern countries. The boys are taught by clerics completely through indoctrination. They are fed information to remember but aren't allowed to think about it. No discussion, no involvement, no interaction is tolerated. Later, if they go on to university study abroad and are suddenly expected to think and offer their own ideas, they are completely at a loss. Frustrated and confused, they may seek refuge in an even deeper fundamentalism.

So behind the turmoil in the world today, too often we find rigidity rather than flexibility, fundamentalism rather than thoughtfulness, and as a result, the conflict of ideologies.


To keep apace with social and technological changes, we must obviously abandon many of our traditions. But the resultant dilemma is: replace them with what? Do we substitute our traditions with adherence to a different set of principles, do we retreat to the safety of fundamentalism, or do we seek new responses more appropriate to the process of change? We all admit that knowledge learned in school is merely the beginning, the stepping stones. Education evolves over the entire course of life through experience. And the degree and depth of the knowledge attained is directly related to the development and application of the skills of learning.

Unfortunately, too often we both teach our children and use the same processes that have been practiced for centuries, essentially transmitting the technical and cultural wisdom of the past--known information. We have indeed updated the content: we now teach about computers and debate whether to teach intelligent design or evolution or both. For the most part, we utilize modern equipment, provide extensive financial support for schools, and employ technically competent and generally caring teachers. But we are still locked into the conservative approach of teaching already known information.

In the United States the political move toward conservatism in recent years has resulted in less separation between church and state and the growth of fundamentalism and rigidity. George W. Bush's "No Child Left Behind" legislation is a classic example. While certainly well intended, it essentially promotes rote teaching and learning and emphasizes the accumulation of facts and the simple transmission of already known information by rewarding schools whose students score well on tests that measure accumulated information and punishing those whose students don't. The importance of learning the facts isn't to be denied, but it's a long way from the whole story.

There is, however, an appropriate humanistic alternative. Rather than merely teaching the what of learning, we can also teach the how. We can emphasize, much more than we have, the concept of the processes of learning--teach children not only to be learned but learners. And the processes of learning are eminently teachable and learnable.

Picture the entire concept of learning and teaching as a spectrum: on one end we have the traditional style of learning the content; on the other end the emphasis is on learning the processes of learning--learning how to learn. This table illustrates the idea.

This spectrum or dichotomy is obviously artificial and heuristic; there is no such thing as learning the processes of learning free of content, nor of learning the content without some kind of use of the processes. But nevertheless, schools, teachers, parents, and learners have many options for the position they choose on the spectrum. And there are obvious reasons why the emphasis on learning to learn should be increased. The incredible rate of ongoing social and technological change means that no longer can an individual function by relying only on the information disseminated in school. Suppose a physician used only the knowledge gained in medical school and didn't apply knowledge gained through experience or continuing education? But even more important, a society of competent learners would be less inclined to be duped by charlatans or corrupt leaders, less susceptible to the claims of the supernatural, less inclined to be fundamentalist. A society of learners would be more able--and likely--to think independently from each other, to apply reason and skepticism.


In my own teaching, I employ the easy-to-remember acronym EAT. The letters stand for experience, analysis, and theory. In the traditional model--"I know. You don't. I'm going to tell you."--the pattern begins with the T or theory. In college teaching, the theory is almost always presented in a lecture. An elementary school teacher might start by presenting a vocabulary list. Next, the big idea, or theory, is A--analyzed. The instructor explains what the big idea means, what its components are. Then comes E--the experience or application. This might consist of a laboratory session in a physics class or an internship in nursing. Sometimes it is a further presentation by the teacher, explaining the application.

With experiential education, or in the learning-to-learn mode, the order is reversed. The parent or teacher or professor starts with an experience, or a discussion of a prior experience, and then asks the learner to analyze the experience: "What are the parts of it? How does this connect with things you have done before or know about from another source? What do you think about this? How did doing this make you feel?" The third step is the most difficult and the most neglected: the development of a theory or generalization. It's an attempt to have the student generalize from the experience and the analysis of it. "What does it all mean? How would you describe the whole thing? What principles can you figure out from all of it? What will you know the next time you work with this issue?"

I teach a Master of Business Administration program course entitled "Human Relations and Organizational Behavior" that deals with the personal-interpersonal aspects of the working world, including such themes as leadership, motivation, interpersonal communication, supervision, and teamwork. With respect to teamwork, the traditional transfer teaching approach would have students read the chapter in the text about teamwork, view and discuss a film about teamwork, listen to a lecture about teamwork, with an emphasis on recent research, and write a paper about teamwork, perhaps emphasizing the applications of teamwork in the student's own work setting. The sequence is T-A-E.

I reverse this and use an inductive, process approach. I start with an exercise in which groups of five students are asked to complete a puzzle using puzzle pieces I supply. The sets of pieces are arranged such that teamwork among the five is required. Student observers are asked to watch each group carefully, noting particularly how the group members work together and their behaviors that contribute to assembling the puzzles. Issues that are crucial to teamwork--such as leadership, communication, sharing, possessiveness, ego, cooperation, and competition--are elicited as they work. After all the groups complete their puzzles, each observer provides feedback to the team members, and a vigorous discussion follows, analyzing the puzzle experience in detail. The puzzle experience, followed by analysis, is then taken one step further. Each student is led to ask: "What is my own theory of teamwork? How can I apply my theory when I go to work tomorrow morning? How can I be a better team member or leader?"

My role as a teacher has become less the role of "expert" and instead the more difficult one of "facilitator": I plan the experience, encourage the thorough analysis of it, and share the skills so that students can come to their own legitimate conclusions. The teacher as expert provides the facts and knowledge whereas the facilitative teacher provides or reviews an experience and helps the student analyze it and build a theory. This latter approach leads to deeper understanding and wisdom. And as you might expect, the exercise is fun, generates excitement and a lively, relevant discussion, and leads to personal growth for everyone involved.

The most successful faculty development workshop I ever conducted was on the EAT model. I distributed copies of the several-sentence course descriptions from our college catalog to the participants but made sure they didn't get one from their own discipline. A nursing instructor, a math professor, and a history professor each got a social psychology course description. A physics teacher, a marketing professor, and a music teacher each got one about anthropology. Then they met in small groups and were instructed to plan the course. Outside the realm of their expertise, the workshop forced them to utilize their facilitative skills in order to ground the course in student experiences. After a bit of good-natured grumbling, these people worked hard to plan an interesting and exciting course that would utilize experiences like simulations and role play, case studies, field trips, instruments, and assignments such as student research projects. They would conclude by helping students analyze the experiences and generate theoretical constructs. As each group shared its course ideas with the others, more ideas surfaced. By the end of the exercise some of the participants said they wanted to take a course presented that way rather than totally by experts. And several made the point that the student learning that would have been engendered by such a course would transcend the course content itself and result in the development of learning skills applicable in other settings and for other content.


Here are a few ideas for teachers and parents interested in the process learning model. (You will undoubtedly be able to think of more ideas and plan activities specifically suited to the learner in your life, including yourself.)

* When your child comes home from school, you should certainly ask, as you hopefully do now, "What did you learn in school today?" But you can develop it further by asking "How did you learn that?" While an initial response may be "The teacher told us," with careful attention he or she can be encouraged to be more in touch with his or her own learning processes.

* Don't forget about the emotional aspects of learning. Because of their focus on reason, Humanists are often mistakenly thought of as unemotional. But emotions are an important aspect of learning. When your child is happy about learning something at school, be sure to reinforce that feeling. When your child tells you about a school experience, ask for details and express your feelings. For example, in discussing a book read in class, ask how the protagonists must have felt in the situation your child describes. Share your own feelings with your child or memories of similar experiences in your life.

* Help your child learn to figure things out. Don't be too quick with the easy answer, too quick to be an expert. Good teachers are worth their weight in gold; experts are a dime a dozen. Problem solving is a learnable set of steps using logic, rationalism, organizational skills, and decision-making patterns. Help your child think through these processes. Curiosity is foiled by providing ready answers, and a quick answer can quash curiosity. While we shouldn't deliberately withhold information, a measured response can help a child to think critically and develop an answer on his or her own.

* Children gain self-esteem by learning and sharing knowledge. Being able to contribute as part of a team rather than as a mere recipient of information builds a child's sense of self-worth.

* Many become excessively dependent on a psychoanalyst, a cleric, a political leader, a parent, or a physician to provide them with their beliefs. Fundamentalism isn't limited the fringes of some religions. The importance of an authority figure to many people is growing, not diminishing as we might hope as time goes on and society matures. We all need to be careful to avoid creating powerful dependency needs in our children. Ask yourself if it's more important that your children be just like you or that they each be independent, self-reliant individuals, even if it means you might disagree on some issues. Process learning, or learning to learn, comes down solidly on the side of self-reliance. The most functional parents guide their children to independence. Be a guide on the side, not a sage on a stage.

* As a parent, you can help your children enormously to become self-learners by supporting their skills in making choices. Learning the processes of making choices--weighing the alternatives, remembering earlier experiences, seeing what others have done in similar situations--can be of enormous help to them, especially as they face issues like the temptations of drug use, choice of friends, career goals, and the like. How your children make these choices is a learning to learn issue and one that most of us neglect in our own lives. Careful decision making can mean the difference between success and failure in many of life's arenas. If we believe we can determine our own future, that our activities determine the quality of our lives, then it behooves us to plan those activities carefully.

As Humanists, we need to respond to a dramatically changing world and help our children to do so too. We need to respond to the rigidity of fundamentalism with more openness and flexibility. The concept of process learning, or learning-to-learn--as distinct from learning by the transmission of already known information--is a vital step in the right direction.


Learning the content through memorization

Emphasis on accumulation of facts

Teacher as expert

Student as recipient of information (sponge for facts)

Dependence on expert (teacher)

Accountability is function of school, teacher

Rigidity of instruction

Learning as cumulative

Learning as a chore


Learning how to learn; critical thinking

Emphasis on skills of learning

Teacher as facilitator of resources

Student as active participant in research

Dependence on self

Accountability is a function of student to learn

Flexibility of knowledge-sharing learning

Learning as exponential

Learning as fun

Philip E. Johnson is a retired teacher and administrator with a Ph.D. in education from the University of Arizona. This article is adapted from a handbook he wrote for parents and he is currently writing a book on process learning. His website is at
COPYRIGHT 2006 American Humanist Association
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2006, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Johnson, Philip E.
Publication:The Humanist
Date:May 1, 2006
Previous Article:Religion and liberal democracy.
Next Article:Blaming the media for bad war news.

Related Articles
Forecasting the future of religion: the next 50 years.
How fundamentalism affects society.
The Challenge of Fundamentalism for Interreligious Dialogue.
"Clash of civilizations" and Marxism. (Insider Report).
Not keeping the faith. (Data).
Reanalysis within a Christian ideological surround: relationships of intrinsic religious orientation with Fundamentalism and Right-Wing...
Fundamentalism: a theory.
A fundamentally wrong direction.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2018 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters