Filling a Pail, Lighting a Fire: what works best for learning?

At Edkimo we regularly meet with actors from the education, startup, and research community. Over the years we have encountered very different approaches when we discuss learning and technology. We have seen this for example at our EdtechXEurope startup pitch. The differences boil down to two basic ideas: “Lighting a fire or filling a pail.” Justin Reich makes this point in his new book, Failure to Disrupt – Why Technology Alone Can’t Transform Education.

Filling a pail, lighting a fire. Symbol image for two basic approaches to learning.
Christopher CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Filling a Pail or Lighting a Fire

“Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.” This idea was developed by the ancient thinkers Heraclitus, Aristophanes and Plutarch. The last one writes about it in his essay On Listening. Rabelais and Montaigne rediscovered it during the Renaissance. Until today, public education as well as edtech approaches can be broken down into these two concepts. Justin Reich makes this point in his essay “Failure to disrupt”.

Social Constructivism – The Fire

The people in lighting-the-fire camp adhere to John Dewey (1859-1952): “I believe that education, therefore is a process of living and not a preparation for future living.” Learning is socially situated and knowledge is constructed through interaction with others. A person constructs a new understanding based on prior understanding in the context of learning communities. Researchers label this idea as social constructivism.

Instructionism – The Pail

Filling the pail comes with measuring whether it is still half-empty or starting to fill up. Edward L. Thorndike (1874-1949) believed that learning could be precisely observed and measured. He was an early developer and advocate of standardized tests, textbooks, and intelligence testing. You might label this standardized approach to teaching and learning as instructionism.

New Technologies, Old Pedagogies

Public schools as well as educational technologies that emerged in the 20th and 21st centuries, each align with one of these two ideas – either lighting the fire for learning itself in the Plutarch/Dewey sense, or, and far more often, filling an imaginary bucket with knowledge and skills, following in Thorndike’s footsteps.

In most cases it’s a combination of both ideas, and this is probably a good thing. This would be a school where knowledge is measurably enriched, pails are filled and at the same time a fire, a passion for a subject is ignited. However, one should be very careful not to extinguish the sparks or the fire again with the bucket.

Student Voice, Student Choice, Feedback for Learning

After reading “Failure to disrupt”, the main difference between Edkimo and other online feedback apps can be found in exactly these two approaches. Edkimo relies on a constructivist approach with tested questionnaires created by teachers themselves. We are convinced that learning and good teaching is socially situated: in this school, in this class, with this teacher, at this time. The learning process is co-created through student voice, student choice, feedback, and interaction. Other project like MET or Tripod 7C seek to measure learning and instruction more closely with validated questionnaires: “to capture essential elements of instructional practice” as they put it. This falls more in the instructionism bucket so to speak.

The tools are not equal as the different approaches are also reflected in software development and the way data is collected. Teachers and schools have a choice and can opt for the tool that suits them best.

If you like our approach and want to try out Edkimo, sign up now. It’s free!

Further Reading: