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Educational Theory

Written by George Hein

Among the major changes in the United States in the 1960s was a gradual, but progressively more influential, shift away from behaviorist views about human learning. The range of programs that merited federal funding mentioned above was evidence of this change. At the beginning of the decade, schools of education were not only dominated by behaviorist, stimulus-response approaches to research and teaching, but were resistant to other views about how humans learn, how teaching should be carried out. Child development research and practice were beginning to acknowledge that learning was complex, involved a range of influences and needed to be examined more holistically, in situ, than was imagined in the behaviorist paradigm. But Piaget's work, influential in Europe and available in English translation beginning in the 1920s was essentially ignored in the U.S. From the behaviorist perspective, it was considered subjective, biased and not rigorous enough. If it was discussed in academic literature, it was frequently ridiculed as irrelevant and of limited interest. Jerome Bruner and others began to champion his work in the late 1950s, but it received only scant mention in the schools of education that produced most of the teachers in the United States. Not until James McVicker Hunt's Intelligence and Experience, published in 1961, was Piaget's work described in detail in a popular text for education students. As far as I know, in 1971, teaching science education in the School of Education at Boston University, I offered the first course on Piaget in that graduate school.

Jerome Bruner, an influential figure for both The Children's Museum and EDC, has written about the struggle of the newly emerging fields of developmental psychology and cognitive science to break out of the restrictions of behaviorist thinking and force a "cognitive revolution" by invoking the methodologies widely used in other disciplines to study how people learn. In 1990, reflecting on the effort to accomplish this, he wrote:

Now let me tell you what I and my friends thought the [cognitive] revolution was all about back in the late 1950s. It was, we thought, an all-out effort to establish meaning as the central concept of psychology—not stimuli and responses, or overtly observable behavior, not biological drives and their transformation, but meaning. It was not a revolution against behaviorism with the aim of transforming behaviorism into a better way of pursuing psychology by adding a little mentalism to it. Edward Tolman had done that to little avail...The cognitive revolution, as originally conceived virtually required that psychology join forces with anthropology and linguistics, philosophy and history, even with the discipline of law.

It took some time for these pioneers to receive acceptance in many schools of education and the associated research approach of what became known as naturalistic or "qualitative" methodologies, long the staple of anthropologists and sociologists. In the early 1970s, students at most schools of education who wished to submit doctoral dissertations that used such methodologies still had to find committee members outside that school to supervise their work. This tension between various research traditions still exists, and is influential in policy decisions—most evident in the privileged, but hotly contested, position that "standardized" test results have in national discussions about education and former President George W. Bush's administration's championing of "scientific" research. But in many current communities of both research and practice, the predominant models are based on socio-cultural models of learning, holistic concepts of meaning-making and expanded views of what constitutes the basis of human behavior. The 1960s were a time when an expansive, liberal social climate allowed more leeway for both practitioners and researchers to begin to accept these approaches and that encouraged us to pursue richer concepts of human development and behavior.

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