Institute for International Research, April, 1996


The dominant metaphor for nature and society during the 18th-20th centuries has been mechanical. Our schools today reflect a Newtonian, positivist world view.

Schooling is the most conservative of social institutions. It takes about 100 years for scientific theories and ideas to affect the content, processes, and structure of schooling. But the pace of change accelerates. The 20th century has produced a radical shift in scientific concepts of nature, reality, and epistemology: relativity theory, quantum mechanics, the discovery of DNA and, since mid-century, the development of theories of chaos and complexity. While the popular concept of reality in the 20th century has been mechanical, the metaphor for the 21st century is likely to be organic. Public schools have not yet reflected this shift.

Every historical period believes itself to be at the pivot of turbulent change. At the dawn of the 21st century we have an especially strong claim to this position. It is evident that recent shifts in our knowledge of nature and ourselves, our ways of knowing, and our technology are rapidly transforming the way we live and learn.

One key current scientific idea, emerging from research into what are described as complex adaptive systems, is that human learning is the leading edge of the evolutionary process. This suggests that a concern for learning is likely to become central to our concepts of social development and this will accelerate the transformation of what has been known as the school into a more responsive educational environment.

Education and Positivism

“The belief in the instrumental power of reason and its corollary emphasis on scientific knowledge as the paradigm of understanding is firmly rooted in our bureaucracies and corporations…Scientifically informed, if not scientifically managed, social control is the ideal to which we aspire. It is the ground for our conception of planned change, our models of knowledge production, dissemination and utilization. (Schwand, 1989)

Our contemporary concepts and practice in politics, organizational change, and development assistance are defined for the most part by an intellectual framework that began with the development of physical mechanics in the seventeenth century. We speak of the machinery of government, re-engineering institutions, and the inputs, processes, and outputs for instructional systems.

The industrial age was built upon the theories that pictured the entire universe as a machine. The image of a uniform, mechanical, and ultimately predictable universe not only shaped the development of science and technology, it became the dominant metaphor in politics, economics, organizations and education. (Toffler in Prigogene 1984). The American Constitution regulated political forces with checks and balances, striving for equilibrium; economic theory strove to analyze trends, develop input-output matrices, and to bring the economic system into equilibrium; organizations were studied by the science of ‘industrial engineering,’ which analyzes the system to improve efficiency and fine tune operations. Within the development field, the education sector is analyzed by economists for rates of return, which drives the current argument for higher investments in girls’ schooling. Education is described as an input-output-outcome system which good policy can make more efficient (Windham, 1990).

Positivism is the belief that science and the scientific method can ultimately fully understand physical reality, and use that understanding to predict and guide the future. This presumption led Laplace to his famous claim that, given enough facts, we could not merely predict the future but retrodict the past. (Toffler in Prigogene 1984 p.xiii). The spread of positivism was a pragmatic response to the remarkable success in the application of science for the invention of new technologies. It was this technology, applied to production, transportation and warfare that made Europe and America dominant world powers into twentieth century.

The University of Berlin, founded in 1810, established a model of what became the most successful and widely copied national system of higher education. By the mid-nineteenth century the modern, secular university had largely displaced traditional universities which were founded by religious orders, staffed and led by clergy, and had the central mission of preparing churchmen. By the end of the nineteenth century the establishment of secular education systems, emphasizing scientific, engineering and agricultural knowledge, was seen by leaders as an essential national strategy. Newly independent countries, first in South America and Asia, later in Africa sought to replicate this strategy, and placed a significant proportion of state resources into scientific and technical secondary and higher education.

Although there is a rich and continuing history of alternative schools and experiments with constructivist learning (Brook, 1993), these movements are on the periphery. The mainstream public schools in America, in Europe, in the East, and certainly in the Third World, are remarkable in their structural similarity: graded classes and annual promotions; trained, certified teachers; standard texts for a curriculum based on discrete subjects; and national examinations to certify and select. The shape and feel of the formal school makes it unmistakable, wherever one is in the world.

Universally, schools teach language, mathematics, science, social studies, and cultural/religious studies, with a few periods for ‘practical’ crafts and physical education. Science and mathematics are almost entirely devoted to pre-twentieth century concepts and models. They are considered the most academically rigorous of subjects, and are given the greatest intellectual prestige, particularly in the third world.

In this chapter we are not so much interested in the details of this history as in the ideological, epistemological framework which has defined the structure and content of formal education in the twentieth century. Schools teach and reinforce by their structure and method a positivist, secular version of reality. Yet, virtually all the positivist assumptions have been transformed by twentieth century scientific ideas: the theory of relativity, quantum mechanics, the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, Godel’s theorem, information processing, chaos theory, and most recently the theory of complex adaptive systems.

The schools and universities are as yet little affected by these radical ideas. It is said that education is the most conservative social institution, the last to change in response to a new world of thought and practice. In this chapter we will sketch contemporary scientific theories of nature, reality, and epistemology, examine how these ideas are beginning to influence social practices, and speculate on what they might mean for education in the twenty-first century.