Clapham Christian Classical School

Clapham Journal

The Problem of Technicism in Conventional Education

By Jason Barney, Director of Instruction for Languages and Faculty Development


Technicism is not simply an over-fascination with technology as a means of stimulating student learning, though that problem plagues conventional education as well. Instead, technicism refers to a broader ideological approach to education that has become captivated by quantitative measurements and the economic evaluation of success. In technicism education has been reduced to something that can be measured in numbers alone. Teachers are made into technicians, who simply pull the levers and push the buttons assigned to them by the ruling technocrats. Technicism focuses on quantities and techniques, rather than quality and values.




It is not only the Classical School renewal movement that views technicism as a problem. For instance, in a leading educational journal David Carr and Don Skinner note the wide influence of technicist models on theory about learning and the professional role of the teacher, and then bemoan how “their baleful influence—on, for example, latter day talk of learning objectives, attainment targets, performance indicators and curriculum delivery—is everywhere apparent in the contemporary ‘audit culture’ of educational theory and policy….”[1] Now let’s not get this wrong. An ‘audit culture’ is a very fine thing, if what we are concerned with is factories, markets, money and products. But it is at least a questionable theoretical assumption that schools should be modeled on this plan. Inevitably, such a pattern turns the focus away from many of the things that really matter in education, like the cultivation of wisdom and virtue. A government bureau of education can hardly be concerned with such things, when handy charts and graphs stand before them emphasizing the bottom line and the achievement gap.


If there is a defense given for a technicist model of education, it rests on the assumption that education is an applied science, like the medical practice. In this line of thinking teachers themselves need not be concerned with the theory behind the practices they employ (Who cares for all that heady stuff, anyway?), only with efficiently employing them in order to get results, measured of course in high test scores. After all, the average doctor only needs to be able to diagnose and treat patients, rather than understand all the detailed scientific theory that may undergird such practices. It is hard to argue against an analogy with so revered a profession as medicine, but here the analogy must fail. Who will be a better teacher: one who has been given five ways to manage behavior in the classroom and eight types of lesson plans, or one who has refined and honed teaching practices over years of seeking the truth in the theories of educational philosophers? How can an unreflective teacher impart and embody wisdom?


In a session of the Society for Classical Learning’s 2014 conference entitled, “Teachers as Intellectuals, Not Technicians,” I heard David Diener discuss the wide gap between the conception of a teacher at a graduate school and at a grade school: the one an arcane intellectual with expert knowledge and often no training in educational practice or theory at all, the other trained in all the latest techniques but with requirements for knowing nothing in particular at all. At the institution where he earned his doctorate in the philosophy of education, the department of education had the lowest incoming grade point average of any department; ironically, it also had the highest outgoing grade point average, and he remarked wryly that this wasn’t because all the education majors suddenly became world-class thinkers during their years there. Such stereotypes point to a frightening general trend in technicist education. Many students go into the teaching profession, who neither love to learn, nor are particularly gifted at it.


Of course, I am not saying that only the best and brightest should become teachers. The challenges we teachers experienced in our education can be invaluable in mentoring a struggling student. But I do agree with David Diener that we need to recover a vision of the teacher as magister, the Latin word from which we get ‘master’, and the student as a discipulus, ‘disciple.’ Even the teacher of kindergarten should strive to be the master of a deep well of knowledge, as well as to be one who leads each disciple along the path of virtue. Every young child, created in the image of God, has a mind and heart intended to be disciplined, trained, instructed by one who is both virtuous and wise. A disciple will not be above his master.


Compared with the technicism of much conventional education, Clapham believes in a more holistic approach to teaching and education. Teachers are intellectual guides at all levels of the grade spectrum, and while we should acknowledge the real differences in child development, the love of learning and the pursuit of truth, goodness and beauty are tasks required of both teacher and student all the time. The use of advanced technology (like printed books, for instance) has its place. Learning how to be in the world but not of the world can include stewardship of the fanciest gadgets and gizmos. In the same way, the quantitative measurements of standardized testing and the techniques of “classroom management” have their place, but teachers need to know the why and how of whatever practices they employ. They need to respect the humanity of their students beyond any numbers-game.


Teachers and students are not simply cogs in a machine, run by the planners on Capitol Hill. A deep understanding of theory, embodied by the teacher as a person and refined over years of hard work, will make the master teacher, not some new gimmick. Theory breathes life into the dead bones of our machine-based world. Only a philosophy of education that focuses on wisdom and virtue, quality over quantity, will ultimately be life-giving to students. This is, after all, the classical and traditional model, and conventional education abandons it at its own peril and to its students’ great loss.


 [1] David Carr and Don Skinner, “The Cultural Roots of Professional Wisdom: Towards a Broader View of Teacher Expertise,” Educational Philosophy and Theory, 41, no. 2 (2009): 144.144.

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