Pedagogical Nihilism: An Idea Worth Exploring

One of the first steps I took as an undergraduate student to become in independent intellectual—which I define as taking an active role in defining the course of one’s own learning—was to begin reading essays by scientists. At the time, there were Lewis Thomas and Stephen Jay Gould who were regular contributors. It was a good time to have that interest. While we cannot read any new works from either, I continue to reread their works and find new connections in each essay.

excerpt from Lewis Thomas essayIn “Becoming a Doctor,” Lewis Thomas describes the reality of 18th century medicine and gives ample evidence that many of the treatments performed by doctors did more harm than good to patients. He even suggested the bloodletting doctors administered to George Washington after he caught a cold led to his death.

A revolution of sorts occurred in the 19th century. Until for several generations, physicians had believed they had a duty to cure all illness. Without their intervention, it was reasoned, any illness would lead to death. So, intervene they did. As I reread Thomas, I found my note in the margin from years ago, “sounds like education.”

Reflecting on Thomas’ words and my notes led me to the conclusion that education does proceed as if no learning occurs without the active intervention of a teacher (or an instructional coach or a curriculum or a program or a textbook or any other shining new practice that has caught the attention of a leader). This really is contrary to much that we can observe in human learning. Just think of the obvious example of learning to speak.

Thomas described the rise of “therapeutic nihilism” that followed physicians’ realization that many of their therapies were harmful. Therapeutic nihilism found doctors comforting patients, but taking less drastic actions. Many illnesses were left to run their course and their patients’ immune systems functioned to rid the body of the problems.

As I enter my fourth decade as an educational professional, I am convinced that it is time for educators to consider pedagogical nihilism. Our work as teachers will transform from assuming responsibility for instructing and assessing each “thing” we want students to learn to creating environments with rich and relevant problems. Faced with those problems, young human brains will do what they do… they will learn.

Of course, medical therapies are essential for serious problems—I can attest to the value of the interventions that remove blood clots from brains. Some educational problems need intervention. Differentiating equations is a very useful activity, and our (and our students’) brains will learn to do it when we are solving a problem in which it is needed.