Thursday, September 14, 2006

Einstein and the Dominant Paradigm

Corey Powell wrote an interesting essay for the book My Einstein, reprinted in the October 2006 Discover magazine, about Albert Einstein’s enduring legacies as scientist, philosopher, and symbolic figure. Powell’s description of how Einstein revolutionized physics with unconventional thinking got me thinking about the potential for revolution in education:

“Einstein was a kind of physics hippie, a man whose creativity was inseparable from his refusal to play by the rules of academia and buy into its comfortable certainties. He reminds me of Bob Dylan kicking out an electrifying “Like a Rolling Stone”… Einstein could easily have compromised…Instead he chose a line of work that allowed his thoughts to hum freely until they spun out the song of special relativity.”

“every natural philosopher before Einstein, going back to Aristotle and beyond, accepted some version of [absolute space with variable physical laws.] Einstein arrive at special relativity almost purely from an examination of logical flaws in the then current theories of physics, flaws that were evident for all to see. … He insisted on examining the workings of the world at a more rigorous level than even the most illustrious of his predecessors, until he was totally certain that the system made sense. His requirement of total consistency forced him to take seriously the problems that his predecessors and colleagues alike had swept aside as trivialities or unanswerable…”

Can education, like physics, be revolutionized by a “Swiss Patent Clerk,” looking at the fundamental things that fade into the background for those too close to the issues? Clearly this has already started to happen with fundamental laws of schooling being challenged by grassroots or non-“establishment” efforts (See Deborah Meier, KIPP, High Tech High, and more!)

Einstein’s revolution was built upon critical work by Maxwell and others, and relativity was only acclaimed after being confirmed by findings from other researchers. We can expect an education revolution to be preceded and followed by critically important work by established experts. But the lesson of Einstein is that anyone out there can push the fringe, even challenge the fundamental principles – the length of the school day, governance, funding streams, or anything that needs to change if every child is to succeed.

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