Monday, January 29, 2007

The Aims of Education

I've been enjoying reading Alfred North Whitehead's The Aims of Education (1949), and impressed by its implications today. He had a developmental view of education, and suggested that student instruction change fundamentally at different ages.

Whitehead: "I call the first period of freedom the "stage of Romance," the intermediate period of discipline I call the "stage of Precision," and final period of freedom is the "stage of Generalization."

The Romantic Stage
: " the stage of romance the emphasis must always be on freedom, to allow the child to see for itself and to act for itself...Without the adventure of romance, at best you get inert knowledge without initiative, and at worst you get contempt of ideas--without knowledge."

The Stage of Precision
: Romance should not be dead in the age of precision, but now as students enter their teen years, precise knowledge should become more the emphasis. " be effective in the modern world, you must have a store of definite acquirement of the best practice. To write poetry you must study metre; and to build bridges you must be learned in the strength of material...I am certain that one secret of a successful teacher is that he has formulated quite clearly in his mind what the pupil has got to know in precise fashion. He will then cease from half-hearted attempts of inferior importance. The secret of success is pace, and the secret of pace is concentration. But, in respect to precise knowledge, the watchword is pace, pace,pace. Get your knowledge quickly, and then use it. If you can use it you will retain it."

The Stage of Generalization: "There is here a reaction towards romance. Something definite is now known; aptitudes have been acquired, and general rules and laws are clearly apprehended both in their formulation and detailed exemplification. The pupil now wants to use his new weapons. He is an effective individual, and it is effects that he wants to produce. He relapses into the discursive adventures of the romantic stage, with the advantage that his mind is now a disciplined regiment instad of a rabble. In this sense, education should begin in research and end in research...The stage of generalization is the stage of sheddingdetails in favour of the active application of principles."

Whitehead raises some excellent points.

1. Romance should be an essential ingredient to education, but it should not be its sole ingredient. Students who fail to learn intellectual precision in their thinking and habits of learning and analysis, will exclude themselves from many disciplines and activities that require high-level competency and funds of knowledge. Precision is acquired by essential knowledge, challenging analytical work, mathematical or scientific problem solving, writing to a high standard (redrafting), high-level musical training, and subjects such as logic, computer programming, or Latin.

2. The stage of generalization is usually woefully ignored in the conventional educational process, although it is an critical feature and impelling force for virtually all higher-order intellectual and creative work. BTW, Whitehead mourned the state of affairs at his own institutions: "In my own work at universities I have been much struck by the paralysis of thought induced in pupils by the aimless accumulation of precise knowledge..."

3. We should be wary of standardized tests and their resulting effects on classroom culture if they clash with normal developmental shifts in the emphases of learning or the ultimate aims of education at that time.

Whitehead's model may fit in well with many K-12 classical education (trivium) and liberal arts programs like the International Baccalaureate, but it's a good reminder all the same. When students can cram lots of facts into their heads, the temptation is to give them more. But that is why Whitehead was so vehement about careful pacing of the schoolwork at this stage. Multum non Multa (Not many things, but much). Students at this age need to be allowed time to reflect and critique knowledge, then deeply consider where applications and intersections of ideas exist.

The Aims of Education and Other Essays (Alfred North Whitehead)

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  1. Jeremy Price5:15 AM

    Another framework, which seems to include some similar ideas, is Keiran Egan's Imaginative Education ( It seems to update and expand upon some of Whitehead's ideas. Egan's work, also based on a developmental view of education, suggests a framework of Somatic Understanding, Mythic Understanding, Romantic Understanding, Philosophic Understanding, and Ironic Understanding. Also worth looking at whenever considering a developmental view of education is "Making Differences: A Table of Learning" by Lee Shulman (,
    while it is a helpful and friendly critique of the way that Bloom's taxonomy specifically is often (mis-)used, it is a good reminder that a developmental theory or taxonomy is not necessarily a straight and narrow linear path.

  2. These are wonderful links, Jeremy - thank you! Yes, the path is often not straight and narrow.

    Because conventional education organizes itself according to grade level, few teachers really experience the breadth of differences in development or skill acquisition. It would be nice if teachers could see first-hand how their students changed as they matured.