Teaching and the Modern Prometheus

In 1818, Mary Shelley published her classic, Frankenstein, which she subtitled The Modern Prometheus. The book’s release coincided with the rise of the philosophy of vitalism; a belief that the phenomenon of life could only be explained with reference to some special spark.

The reanimation of Frankenstein’s monster is the artistic embodiment of this philosophy: brought to life with a jolt of electricity. The gift of life is given by Victor Frankenstein, but it is not his to give. Like Prometheus – who stole fire from the gods to give to men – he is punished for his impudence.

Today, over 200 years later, vitalism has been thoroughly repudiated by science. But how did we get from there to here? And what might this journey teach us about domains where a spark of mysticism remains?

The moment a lesson comes to life

The quest for the Outstanding lesson in the early years of this century brought about a fashion for pedagogic vitalism. The magic spark was quoted to many of us practicing the art of teaching at the time as being the missing ingredient which kept us from receiving the top grade for our lessons. Sometimes it was called ‘buzz’, at other times ‘flow’. I was once told about a ‘missing something’ that kept me off the A-list of sparky lessons. I hankered after that something.

It was a mystery to me then what the magic ingredient was, and it remains a mystery to me now. Looking back, I can recognise the mysticism as born of ignorance. Those judging me were no more enlightened than those who imagined that life could be created by a bolt of lightening.

What it means to live

In his book Being You, Anil Seth reflects on the path from the ‘myopia of vitalism’ to today’s understanding of what it means to be alive. He puts it thus:

‘Undeterred by vitalistic pessimism, biologists got on with the job of describing the properties of living systems, and then explaining (also predicting and controlling) each of these properties in terms of physical and chemical mechanisms. Reproduction, metabolism, growth, self-repair, development, homeostatic self-regulation – all became individually and collectively amenable to mechanistic explanation.

Seth’s insight is not merely that science will explain stuff that was previously thought to be mystical. He describes how the hard question of life was gradually answered (and is still being answered) not by tackling this ‘hard question’ head-on, but by addressing the ‘real questions’ of how life manifests through various functional mechanisms. This is not to claim that these mechanisms are all that life is, but by revealing the multi-dimensional, complex causal processes upon which life depends we inch towards the truth and chip away at the vitalism’s mysticism.

The mechanisms of learning

This week, I have been preparing to deliver a short session on memory to teachers. The aim is to ensure that everyone has a base level of understanding about the bi-modal model of memory: the one that says we have a long-term memory and a working memory.

Sessions such as this always start with a health warning. We start by declaring that what we are about to look at is a simplification of how memory actually works (in this case, we have good evidence to say that aspects of the model are so simplistic as to be misrepresentations of reality). We then point out that ‘remembering something’ is not the same as ‘learning something’: that the phrase ‘learning is a change in long term memory’ may be technically true, but rather trivialises the true complexity of the matter.

Once these caveats are stated, I am aware that there will be at least one person in the session who is internally scoffing at the whole ‘cognitive science fad’. They may be the teacher who has been around the block a few times and has seen it all before. Or they may be the teacher wondering whatever happened to the magic of teaching that they came into the profession to pursue. Either way, I will have given them plenty of ammunition.

Prepared for their scepticism, the next step is to explain why we need to know about this simplistic, flawed model of an aspect of cognition that itself is a reductive account of the process we are interested. The answer is threefold. First, it provides an explanatory account of a mechanism (memory) which is central to learning, and having a model – however flawed – is better than having no model at all. It is progress towards understanding. Second, the research based around such models has improved our ability to predict. In other words, we have been able to build knowledge which allows us to say what conditions will lead to improved memory. And third, the insights gained provide us with some degree of control which we did not previously have. We can influence what is remembered intentionally.

Explaining, predicting and controlling the mechanisms that lead to learning: the triple-threat to Seth’s ‘myopia of vitalism’.

But we will not placate the vitalists that easily. The charge of reductivism cannot be overcome will a simple appeal to progress.

The hard problem of learning

Even if we accept the advice to avoid tackling hard problems head-on, it seems sensible to at least have a conception of the hard problem. So what is the hard problem of learning?

Seth’s book is not about vitalism; it is about consciousness. My eldest daughter gifted it to me this Christmas. My wife commented that it doesn’t look like the sort of thing I usually read, but it turns out that it yields some insights into areas that do preoccupy me.

The science of consciousness, Seth claims, is on a similar pathway to that of the science of life: but far behind. Until thirty years ago, science had made little progress towards taking us beyond believing that consciousness is a gift of the gods, bestowed uniquely on homo sapiens. Consciousness was widely believed to be a ‘spark’; a single thing; quite separate to the physical matter of the brain and body.

Seth quotes David Chalmers conception of the hard problem of consciousness:

‘It is undeniable that some organisms are subjects of experience. But the question of how it is that these systems are subjects of experience is perplexing. Why is it that when our cognitive systems engage in visual and auditory information-processing, we have visual or auditory experience: the quality of deep blue, the sensation of middle C? How can we explain why there is something it is like to entertain a mental image, or to experience an emotion? It is widely agreed that experience arises from a physical basis, but we have no good explanation of why and how it so arises. Why should physical processing give rise to a rich inner life at all? It seems objectively unreasonable that it should, and yet it does.

In short, consciousness is, as the title of Seth’s book suggests, what it is like to be you.

Chalmers goes on to highlight the ‘easy problems’ associated with consciousness. These are the problems which relate to how physical systems (like the brain) generate particular behaviours and functional responses. Seth gives these examples: ‘processing sensory signals, selection of actions and the control of behaviour, paying attention, the generation of language’. Wait… paying attention. That phrase made me stop and think.

The easy problem of attention

If paying attention is an easy problem to solve en route to tackling the hard problem of consciousness, so too is it a preoccupation for those of us enquiring into the hard problem of learning. Perhaps this was ‘my kind of book’ after all. I have even written a Twitter thread on the topic of paying attention in the last couple of months. As I looked back through the list of easy problems – processing, control of behaviour, the generation of language – the synergy struck me. Those in pursuit of consciousness are tackling many of the same problems that those in education are fascinated by.

But why should that be a surprise? After all, learning is a subjective experience, described brilliantly by Graeme Nuttall in The Hidden Lives of Learners which documents how each individual in the classroom has a unique experience; one quite removed from that which the teacher imagines or intends. We should concern ourselves with what it is like to be a student in our classroom, shouldn’t we?

The link between consciousness and learning is nothing new, as revealed by our language. In my reading for this post I came across a description of Frankenstein’s monster as ‘sapient creature’: a being with a deeper understanding of subjective experience. The term comes from the Latin sapienta, meaning wisdom. The verb, sapere, means ‘to know’. It is the root of homo sapien, the name we give ourselves to reflect our very consciousness and separation from beasts.

Knowledge, wisdom, self-awareness: all inextricably linked with the idea of what it is to be human.

For the next two days, my mind played with the concept of consciousness and its relation to learning (that’s how I rock in the holidays). I wondered about paying attention: what gap exists between this simple mechanism and the hard question of what it means to be conscious of what is going on in the classroom. When the teacher speaks, what does it mean to pay attention to them? This must, I thought, involve some sort of processing of what is said – back to our model of memory and conceptions of what it means to think – but whilst these mechanistic explanations feel sufficient to explain attention functionally, they fall short in describing what it means to be conscious of the teacher and the knowledge they impart. What is it like to be subject to this experience? What indelible mark does it leave?

Attention problems are ‘easy’ problems, not in the sense that they are simple to solve, just that they are probably solvable. By contrast, it seems unlikely that an understanding of mechanism will ever reveal the truth about the hard problem we are trying to get at. As Seth says, ‘Even after all the easy problems have been ticked off, one by one, the hard problem will remain untouched’. Understanding how attention leads to the possession of knowledge is quite different to truly appreciating what it means to become learned and wise.

Acknowledging this explanatory gap helps us empathise with those who are frustrated by all this mechanistic talk: questions about how memory can be improved, how students’ attention can be directed more effectively, how working memory is limited, the role schema play in assimilating new information. Does all this effort, they might ask, get us any closer to answering the hard questions? And whatever happened to the romantic idea of igniting a flame in the mind’s of children that brought us into the profession? These are fair questions to which we must provide an answer.

Real problems

Seth contends that the way forward, as suggested above, is to tackle real problems, not the easy or hard ones. Real problems are distinct from the hard problem as there is no attempt to find the ‘special sauce’. Real problems are distinct from easy problems because they do not ignore the subjective experience of what it is to be conscious (or to learn) by focussing merely on function and behaviour.

I am still working through what these real problems might look like in relation to learning. For example, we might seek to understand what it is like to pay attention and what mechanisms and processes contribute to this. What exactly is the subjective experience of paying attention and how does it come about?

Whereas tackling the easy problem of attention may provide us with techniques which encourage students to behave in the desired ways or generate the right outcomes (like retention of information), the real problem of attention is to achieve an attentive state in students such that they learn to recognise what it is to pay attention and can begin to exercise control in achieving this state. Stated thus, we can begin to see that concepts such as metacognition become relevant to the real question of learning: an inner voice and growing awareness which increases a learner’s agency in the learning process.

As for the ‘mystery of life’, a scientific approach has undoubtedly taken us forward. Seth states that:

‘Not only did the basic mystery of “what is life” fade away, the very concept of life ramified so that “being alive” is no longer thought of as a single all-or-nothing property. Grey areas emerged… Life became naturalised and all the more fascinating for having become so.’

So too might ‘learning’ become appreciated as a multi-dimensional, complex, subjective phenomena; one which arises from the physical substance of the brain but is no less wondrous as a consequence. It feels like we are moving in that direction.

One obstacle is that many of our attempts to improve learning (and teaching) seem to take the easy problem route, bypassing the inner workings of the mind and focussing instead on simple input-output models. However, if these attempts generate results then we should not reject them too readily. For me, they are preferable to the mystical search for a special spark which ignites learning.

But we should also accept that if we only ever tackle easy problems we may get no nearer to dispelling the mysticism that surrounds teaching and learning. Sooner or later, we must also tackle real problems; those which acknowledge and factor in the subjective experience of learning. Students enter our classrooms as sapient beings, not automatons. The act of teaching is not to steal fire from the gods and ignite a spark of learning in children’s minds, but neither is it to cynically engineer particular outcomes.

Early next week, when I attempt to set out a simple model of memory, it will be in the spirit of those who ventured to dispel the myth of vitalism. But it will also be in the knowledge that at some point we need to move beyond the easy questions if we are to banish mysticism from the profession entirely. Prometheus’ legacy must end.


I have not done justice to the eloquent and profound ideas in Anil Seth’s book, so my apology for this. I recommend reading it in full. It has made be reflect on what we might learn from the science of consciousness and how this learning can be applied to education. My clumsy attempts to do so in this post are a starting point, but I suspect others have done so more effectively, Please let me know of people who are making this link if you know of them.

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