The Blue Paint Problem

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blue paintEducational theory these days frowns down on models of learning that see the learner as an empty vessel into which the teacher pours their knowledge and wisdom. It’s patronising to the learner, and it fosters a belief that so long as the teacher is well informed, the learners will become so too. This belief is clearly belied by real life.

The problem with these models is the assumption that the vessel is empty to begin with. Sure, learners may know little enough about what the teacher is there to help them with, but they will have been experiencing and making sense of the world every waking moment of their life to date.

If the teacher intended to pour, say, a pint of yellow paint into their pint-sized learner, and the learner was indeed empty, it would be a straight-forward matter. But if the learner’s head is already three-quarters full of blue paint, the teacher has two problems. First, there is only room for a quarter of what the teacher wanted to put in there, and second, that quarter-pint of yellow paint doesn’t stay yellow for long on contact with the blue. The teacher may succeed in making a difference to what goes on inside the learner, but the result may not look very like the one they had intended.

It follows from this that the major skill in helping people learn is not the acquisition of information to share, but in figuring out what they already know (or perhaps, think they know). Actually, even that isn’t the tricky bit – the really key part is in persuading people to let go of the stuff that’s currently in their heads to make room for the new. Teaching is mostly about helping people dispose of blue paint safely.


Agree with what you say re learning - the paint pot idea is a good way of illustrating it ( I will borrow/steal that one from you if that is ok)

I found this ( the other day - I thought it was quite interesting, see what you think?


Thanks for the link, Andy - interesting stuff. Clearly the main skills needed to thrive in the world it depicts are persistence, lateral thinking and healthy dose of scepticism - so a pretty useful set for real life too.

Go ahead and borrow my metaphor - glad it could be of service :-)


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