What is the relationship, if any, between the teachings of Krishnamurti, and the findings of contemporary research in educational psychology? One might at first assume that the two have little in common: Krishnamurti's work is so broad in scope, so penetrating, and so radical in its intention that it cannot be expected to show much similarity with the modest achievements of social science. On the other hand, educational psychology has undergone a revolution onts own in recent decades, with a variety of interesting and fertile results. Some of these do bear some resemblance to selected elements of Krishnamurti's work.
Among the points of commonality are the findings of research regarding the way students learn about the natural world. Many educators appear to function as if the knowledge they wish to convey is being handed over to empty vessels, to students who are merely passive recipients of their teacher's intelligence. In the field of science education, however, research has revealed an entirely different pedagogical reality. Far being empty vessels, students are brimming over with ideas, concepts, opinions, and beliefs regarding events in the natural world. When these preconceived notions are not recognized and dealt with effectively, they serve to thwart the impact of the most dedicated and enlightened forms of instruction.
The theoretical model that has produced these findings derives from the cognitive approach to issues in psychology generally. Cognition is thought; the advent of the cognitive paradigm in psychology is important because it admitted thought into the arena of that which is scientifically respectable to study. Byacknowledging not only that thought exists, but that it is susceptible to systematic observation and analysis, the cognitive paradigm overturned the basic premise of behaviourism. That premise was that only externally observable events are suitable for scientific study - even when the objects of study are human beings. By opening up a window into mental processes, the cognitive paradigm restored to psychology its most essential and characteristic forms of data.
In its application to the field of education, the cognitive paradigm has produced, among other things, a model of learning called' constructivism'. According to the constructivist model, all forms of learning are essentially active in nature, whether they occur within or without the classroom walls. Knowledge is constructed by each individual for herself, typically by means of a network of associations with that which is already known. The construction of knowledge is the regular occupation of the growing mind, and it occurs through contact with every element of the child's environment. With respect to events in the natural world, the child absorbs knowledge through direct interaction and observation, as well as by acquiring ideas from friends, family, and the media, all in addition to whatever may be picked up along theway in school.
The difficulty with many of the ideas that the child constructs in this manner is that they are erroneous. Perhaps especially with respect to issues in the world of nature, the uninformed or 'naive, understanding that the child brings to the classroom is often at odds with the findings of science. In a way, this discrepancy is to be expected: if science produced only results which were obvious or evident to all, it would hardly be necessary to have it. To some extent, science is useful to the degree that its fmdings are unexpected or counter-intuitive. In any event, existing research makes it clear that a large number of students' preconceived ideas are directlyat odds with the scientific view.
One of the simplest illustrations of this phenomenon pertains to very young students' understanding of the shape of the Earth. Evidently, young students develop an understanding that seeks to reconcile the apparent flatness of the earth with the received knowledge that the earth is 'round'. This reconciliation is achieved by imagining that the Earth is shaped like apancake: that is, it is flat and round at thesame time. In this conception, the studentgenerally envisions the sun asrotating around the Earth.
A somewhat more advanced instance of an erroneous preconceived idea involves the explanation for the occurrence of seasons on Earth. According to the naive notion held by many students, the orbit of the earth around the sun is somewhat elongated or elliptical. As a result, say these students, the distance of the sun from the Earth varies at different times of the year, and the seasons are a consequence of this variation in distance. (In the scientific view, the seasons are an effect of the fact that the Earth's axis of rotation is tilted with respect to the plane of its annual orbit around the sun.) One study documented a significant percentage of graduating seniors at Harvard who subscribed to the naive explanation for seasons.
Research conducted over the course of the last two decades reveals a vast number of misconceptions of this kind. They range in subject matter from the laws of motion (students favour Aristotelian rather than Newtonian ideas) to the mechanism that drives biological evolution (where Lamarck prevails over Darwin). Electricity, light, sound, photosynthesis, and the properties of atoms and molecules are among the many topics susceptible to such preconceptions.
From a pedagogical standpoint, what is most disturbing about student misconceptions is their intractability. Misconceptions are actively resistant to correction through ordinary forms of instruction. Merely to tell a student that the idea she holds is erroneous is far from sufficient to cause her to drop the idea. Rather, a calculated educational strategy is requiredone designed to demonstrate to the student the inadequacy of her existing conception, as well as to introduce the corresponding scientific view. What this requires of the student is often a conceptual leap, a shift in understanding of a whole constellation ofrelationships among facts and events.
It is in this connection that a certain similarity with Krishnamurti's work begins to come into view. The kind of cognitive shift involved in the perception of a new set of relationships is best described as a moment of insight. In the case of the explanation for the seasons, students need to have an insight into the implications of the tilt in the earth's axis of rotation. This insight entails a perception of relationship among at least four elements: the axis of rotation; the plane of the Earth's orbit around the sun; the angle of incidence of the sun's rays; and the corresponding changes in climate. To see the manner in which these elements function together to produce the seasons is an insight. It is a psychological moment of the same essential quality as the kind of insight with which Krishnamurti wasconcerned.
One may envision an entire strand of the curriculum organized around moments of this kind. The field of science education provides an almost inexhaustible trove of topics for this purpose, but mathematics, language, and the social studies are similarly prone to misconceptions. Ultimately, one may envision an Insight Curriculum consisting of a structured sequence of topics, drawn from all areas of study, for which misconceptions are common and the corresponding insights are unusually interesting, novel, or fruitful in their implications. Such a curriculum might provide a key point of contact between the principles articulated by Krishnamurti, and . the practicalities of life in the classroom.
By means of the Insight Curriculum, it might be possible not only to accelerate students' academic achievement, but also to give them a grounding and a degree of expertise in the process of insight itself. Students who are guided through a sequenced series of insights may begin to appreciate more fully the nature of a cognitive shift of this kind. Krishnamurti often pointed out the general characteristics of this moment, when the mind must be quiet in order for something new to occur. Thus, not only does the academic side of learning provide dues to something more fundamental, but in addition, the teachings of Krishnamurtiilluminate the process of academic learning.
In the absence of a fully developed curriculun of this kind, packaged and ready to pull off the shelf, what can the practising teacher do? First and foremost, he can be sensitive to the presence of preconceptions among his students. Secondly, he can recognize that these often erroneous ideas represent the precious fruit of the child's cognitive labors, and are not easily given up. Thirdly, he can begin to learn about the kind of cognitive shift required in order to move from the preconception to another view. Finally, he may begin to appreciate the process of insight in his own life, and make his observations available to his students in any way he can. When all these elements are in place and functioning, the distinction between the teachings of Krishnamurti and the findings of research may seem less acute, and may even one day disappear from view altogether.
(We invite readers to respond to this thought provoking article, particularly to the question of whether the kind of insight required to 'see' relations among constructs in the field of knowledge is 'of the same essential quality as the kind of insight with which Krishnamurti was concerned'. Responses could be in the form ofshort pieces for the next issue cf the journal - Ed.)