Relevance, meaning and the myth of the empty vessel

We all should now know that Yeats never said that “education is not the filling of a pail”. The sentiment, however, is true. Various ‘constructivist’ theories of learning have argued, time and again, that learning must be a meaningful experience where new knowledge is placed in the context of old. Similarly, ‘cognitive’ theories of learning have argued that learning involves the growth of schema where new ideas are more likely to be remembered if associated with existing knowledge structures. In part this is a self-evident point – the vast majority of what we teach comes via the medium of language, and, to understand the meaning of what is being taught, children need to understood the words being used. Although I am sure there are a few examples that can be found, I do not think that any voice in the great education debates ever claims that children are in fact ‘empty vessels’ or ‘blank slates’: it is a straw man position par excellence.

The problem here, however, is that the existence of that straw man often distracts from a more important debate. We know that children are not empty vessels or blank slates, but what then are the implications of this for teaching? The most common response, and with some justification, is that teachers should attempt to relate the new knowledge being taught to what children already know. In some circles, this is framed as ‘drawing on a child’s experience’. It is a position frequently associated with the idea of relevance: we make things meaningful to children when we make them relevant, and relevance means relating to a child’s experience.

The mistake here is to think that new things that are learnt have to be linked to everyday experience, as opposed to what children already know. The assumption that new knowledge within the domain should be linked to something learnt beyond the domain results in questions like “Was Henry VII a gangster?” This question is nearly meaningless in historical terms, and indeed could easily result in anachronistic misconceptions. Yet it is a question type that is quite common – and indeed seen in some published resources – precisely because it takes something which is supposedly distant and abstract (e.g. a king who lived half a millennium ago) with something that children can ‘relate to’ (e.g. gangsters).

To continue this example, a more meaningful approach would be to start with what the children already know within this particular domain. Have children already learnt about Edward IV and late-fifteenth century politics? If so, great, relate this new knowledge of Henry VII to that. Perhaps your time for history is very limited and you have not been able to focus on fifteenth-century monarchy, but perhaps they have studied kings from an earlier period, or from another part of the world.

This is not to say of course that new knowledge should not be taught in the context of what has been learnt in other domains. Teaching the Reformation is a great deal easier if children have already learnt something about Christian theology in their lessons on religion. I always find I can teach the Black Death more quickly if pupils know something about bacteria and the spread of diseases. Indeed, these are precisely the kinds of examples where meaningful cross-curricular links can be teased out and built upon. I should also point out that I am not arguing that new knowledge should never be related to a child’s everyday experience: indeed, there are many times when this might be helpful. My point, rather, is that not every conversation about tyranny needs to start with contemporary political questions: indeed this may confuse matters as much as shed light on them.

So children are not empty vessels. They know a great deal already, and as teachers we should be tapping into their prior experiences wherever possible. But, crucially, we should not assume that ‘their experiences’ means ‘things they experience outside of school’. We do not need endless history lessons where wars are compared to playground arguments, where political parties are compared to football teams, or where the agency of people in the past is reduced to the decision-making process in a television gameshow. Rather, we are better off spending our time attending to the pupils’ prior experience of the thing that they are learning. It is that which will most frequently be the site of the construction of greater meaning.

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