Silver Donald Cameron

Beyond the Teapot Theory

July 11, 2010

The meaning of the PhD degree, said Stephen Leacock (who had one), “is that the recipient of instruction is examined for the last time in his life, and is pronounced completely full. After this, no new ideas can be imparted to him.”

That’s the Teapot Theory of Education, stripped naked. The teacher is the full teapot, the students are empty cups. Tilt. Pour. At the end of the course, you put a measuring cup beside each student. Tilt. Pour. If there’s sufficient tea in the students, education has occurred.

That’s the unacknowledged model of education that underlies much of what we do in schools, colleges and universities. But it’s nonsense.

For two years I’ve been working on big projects about education. I recently completed a booklet for the J.W. McConnell Family Foundation on community service-learning, which is why I wrote no columns last month. I also wrote a book called A Million Futures: The Remarkable Legacy of the Canada Millennium Scholarship Foundation, which will be published around Labour Day.

The immersion in education powerfully reinforced what I already knew: the Teapot Theory is obsolete. It’s an industrial-era model, an assembly line designed to churn out interchangeable workers. Teapot education is a dreadful preparation for a tumultuous, shape-shifting post-industrial society. That’s not the way people learn.

So how do people learn?

One revealing analysis of human learning is a four-stage model created by David Kolb of Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. Most people start, says Kolb, with a concrete experience. We reflect on the experience, formulate some ideas, and then test those ideas by visiting the experience again. The result is a “spiral of learning” that gets steadily deeper and richer.

Notice this: in Kolb’s model, there is no such thing as a teacher. There’s only a learner — and learning is an active, iterative process. People don’t just sit there while knowledge is poured into them. They go seeking it, testing it, figuring it out. Isn’t that the way you learned to tie your shoes, reconcile your bank statement, take good photos? Nobody put those things on a curriculum and insisted that you learn them. You needed and wanted to know, and you sought out resources to help you, including people.Your mother. Your uncle, the book-keeper. The instructor at the evening class in photography.

That’s the natural and normal procedure. You try things on your own. You read a book. You apprentice yourself, perhaps only briefly, to someone who can show you.

So why do we need an educational system?

Primarily for the benefit of employers and clients. What the system provides are credentials — and that’s not a bad thing. I do want some reassurance that cardiologists and airline pilots know what they’re doing. But that doesn’t mean they have to acquire the learning in the same place they acquire the credential.

In aboriginal cultures, in pre-industrial societies, kids learned by hanging around with adults who knew useful and interesting things. In 19th-century Nova Scotia, nobody went to ship-building college, but every village had master shipwrights. A Cape Breton apprenticeship agreement binds a young man to a blacksmith “to learn his art and mystery.” What a noble description of knowledge!

Similarly, in my youth a person could become a lawyer without attending university simply by apprenticing — or “articling”– with a lawyer, and passing the bar exams. To this day, graduates from some English universities can get “higher doctorates,” such as the DLitt, DD and DMus, simply by submitting a portfolio of published research that demonstrates the applicant’s scholarly eminence.

In a networked world, where some universities only exist online, why not award other degrees the same way? We already have student exchanges, off-campus placements, work terms and co-op education. Why shouldn’t a young person engage an academic planner — a personal teacher, like a personal trainer — to design a completely individualized program of apprenticeship, courses, work placements and independent study that could then be presented to a university for a degree?

Teapot education won’t do any longer. We need art and mystery, the liberation of learning. It’s an utterly glorious prospect.

– 30 —

To learn more about Silver Donald’s new book, A Million Futures, to read the Preface, and even to pre-order it, visit his web site,

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14 Responses to “Beyond the Teapot Theory”

  1. Excellent article! Moe and more, the world is catching up to the ideas presented by the likes of Ivan Illich with his work, “Deschooling Society’ and “Tools for a convivial Society,” back in the 1970s. These works went further than questioning the entire ‘business’ of intituitionalized, compulsory schooling to examine the ‘educational process’ that had emigrated to all areas of life-including medicine, travel, sex-you name it- where individuals in society now defers to ‘experts’ and has basically given up their autonomy and creativity.

    Illich wrote:
    “other forms of compulsory learning would be instituted in modern society. It would become compulsory not by law, but by other tricks such as making people believe that they are learning something from TV, or compelling people to attend in-service training, or getting people to pay huge amounts of money in order to be taught how to have better sex, how to be more sensitive, how to know more about the vitamins they need, how to play games, and so on. This talk of “lifelong learning” and “learning needs” has thoroughly polluted society, and not just schools, with the stench of education.”

    He challenged us to think about why we ‘need’ to educate at all? Why we believe that we have educational needs at all when in reality, learning is a natural process of being in the world.
    For more read:

    Other pioneers in this type of thought include William Godwin, Paul Goodman, Emma Goldman, John Holt, John Taylor Gatto. In Canada Wendy Priesnitz has done loads to get the word out about natural learning, life learning and unschooling with her many publications an books.

  2. Adam Bepp says:

    Dear SDC;

    While I agree with you in general terms that a “teapot education won’t do”, I disagree profoundly with your over-broad conclusion for several reasons. One of the principal causes of the failure of modern grade school education is that learning, contrary to your assertion, requires structure that students don’t get. Discovering arithmetic and mathematics for yourself just doesn’t cut it; it requires guidance, examples and exercises to get over its many conceptual hurdles.

    Write 5 – 2 = ? on the blackboard, explain that it means “five take away two leaves what?” and many children encountering this for the first time will say 5. Perfectly logical. Ignore the dash and equals sign, remove the two and you’re left with 5! They have not made the leap that those numbers are not the objects being manipulated, but represent the count of real objects not seen.

    Arriving at university, students with an interest in Nursing, Medicine, Dentistry, Physiotherapy, Engineering, Architecture and Law, for examples, are entering professions to which national standards apply. The Faculties that teach those subjects are subject to accreditation requirements and the path to certification in those professions is bad enough for graduates and is very difficult indeed for students who have not attended and graduated from accredited programs somewhere.

    I taught Mechanical Engineering for nearly 40 years at three Universities: State University of New York at Buffalo, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and at the Technical University of Nova Scotia (now part of Dalhousie University). I spent the last six years of my career as Dean of Engineering and served one year as th Chair of the National Council of Deans of Engineering and Applied Science. During that six-year span I guided the Faculty through an accreditation visit. I can assure you that the courses Engineering students take are not a teapot education poured in one ear.

    In addition to classes in which the material is presented to build each course’s basic concepts into a coherent whole, there are tutorials where students solving problems can consult each other and their instructors while solving a set of problems and there are laboratories in most subjects where students make realistic measurements and observations of the phenomena under study in that course. To round out this experience, students spend cooperative education terms along the way engaged in real engineering work under the supervision of an engineer in industry and they all do a two-term senior project as a member of a group studying a real problem (typically from and often sponsored by a company).

    Having met the requirements for graduation, a student is still not an Engineer; he is an Engineer In Training (EIT) until he has completed four years of certified engineering work beyond his education. When he graduates, a student has the education he requires, but he doesn’t have the wisdom, experience, and practice that will come from real work. Does that sound like a teapot education to you?

  3. Adam Bell says:

    Name should be Adam Bell in previous submission.

  4. sdc says:

    radiofreeschool, thanks very much. I homeschooled my own children, two of whom are now professors themselves, so maybe I failed:-) — and I knew both John Holt and Wendy Priesnitz. So we’re very much on the same page.

    Dean Bell, I appreciated very much your lusty defence of the existing system, at least in professional schools, which I agree are a special case. At one level, I don’t think we disagree very seriously. I agree that a kid isn’t likely to discover complex mathematical principles very successfully by adventuring on his own. My argument, though, is that there are many ways and many places to learn those things, and in fact the schools don’t seem to be doing a spectacularly good job at teaching them, in part because the techniques of the school system fly in the face of what we know about the way people learn. If they don’t learn well that way, why teach them that way? Most home-schooling parents, by contrast, teach their children the things that they know, and get someone else to teach the things they don’t know — another home-schooling parent, an uncle who’s an accountant, etc.

    My argument is that kids frequently learn more efficiently out of school than in it, particularly if they’re better motivated elsewhere. If someone had told me that spherical trigonometry is the basis of celestial navigation, I would have paid attention. But it all came across to me as abstract gibberish, and I can’t remember a single thing about it — even though I’m a tolerable navigator. We agree on the need for kids to learn; we may disagree about how and where they’ll do that most powerfully.

    About engineering education in particular, I’m certainly no authority. I’m perfectly prepared to believe that the program you describe turns out very capable engineers, and I note with pleasure that there’s a considerable component of real-world experience and tutorials in it.

    That said, however, not all engineering professors are entirely content with the existing model. Here’s a precis of an interview I recently did with an engineering professor in Vancouver:

    “Engineering education, she notes, has hardly changed since World War II, and is now experiencing intense debate about its procedures and purposes. The traditional model is rooted in science and analysis, and shies away from concerns with ethics and values, but that stance is no longer viable. She quotes educational critic David Orr to the effect that most of humanity’s major problems are related to science and technology, and most of them were created by people educated in universities. It follows that engineers need a fuller understanding of the context in which they work, the way decisions are made, the social purposes that they serve, and so on.”

    Thanks again for commenting. These are fascinating and vital issues, and the more discussion of them, the better.

  5. @Adam-
    No child wants to grow up to be ignorant and useless. They all of them start out by wanting to be part of the world around them; and that means that they ask and learn. You don’t need to be siting at a desk to learn that 5-2 is 3. You learn that by going to the store and buying a candy bar.
    And although in your example, some of the kids you mention have “not made the leap that those numbers are not the objects being manipulated” they will. Eventually.
    Why do we believe that that knowledge needs to be imparted right now, on schedule. Correction-on MY schedule?
    And did you know that it is possible for kids to learn basic maths k-6 within 4 months – if they are keen and ready? Why do we make this information stretch out over 6 years?
    For more read:

    As for higher education, the teapot education is not much of an issue because kids take courses that are directly relevant to what they expect to graduate it.

    @sdc- It’s amazing how difficult it is for many people to wrap their heads around the fact that you don’t need to be seated at a desk in a classroom, 7 hours a day, 5 days a week, 10 months a year for a minimum of 12 years in order to learn. Thanks for clarifying this to readers.

  6. Adam Bell says:

    Let me address the second last paragraph in your response first, because a) I agree entirely that “engineers need a fuller understanding of the context in which they work”. and b) because I know more about it. My position would be that only experience can bring the wisdom that paragraph implies. Many years ago now, at a conference of engineering educators I attended, Edwin Land, founder of Polaroid Corporation, referring to engineering problem solving, asked the assembled professors: “when again in their career will an engineer ever face a problem whose context is clear and that only has one correct answer?”. The answer to that is never, of course, but on the other hand, an important responsibility of engineering faculty is to rate the student’s competence and for that, concepts have to be unequivocally testable.

    Real life just isn’t as simple and engineering school is. In addition to the engineering in the solution to a problem, there is a whole range of economic, business, political, environmental, health, and safety concerns as well. All of them are important factors in reaching solution. But design always requires progress in the face of uncertainty about these things; there is no such thing as zero risk and solutions must be economically viable and on time.

    What the last paragraph talks about really is not knowledge, which young graduates have — it’s wisdom, which they don’t have. Bertrand Russell said that of the all the elements that comprise wisdom, he put a sense of proportion first – as he put it “the capacity to take account of all the important factors in a problem and attach to each its due weight”. David Orr’s lament addresses that; young engineers are not wise, and I would debate that he is expecting too much to think that a 22-year old would be.

    Since problem solving and design are about making choices, and for so many of these there are no equations with single right answers to guide us, many of our decisions must be value judgements, tradeoffs, and estimates of all the costs of failure. This is where ethics and morality enter the picture – in making those value judgements, trade-offs, and estimates of risk. The general public expect and deserve engineering professionals who are both competent and ethical, where the first assures that they do a thing right, and the second assures that they do the right thing. Not easy stuff to teach; we can only give them a few wedges in the door. Russell also said: “Most people would agree that, although our age far surpasses all previous ages in knowledge, there has been no correlative increase in wisdom”.  Wisdom has not kept pace with knowledge because of the exploding extent and complexity of the specialized knowledge required in professions like engineering.


    On your first point, that “schools don’t seem to be doing a spectacularly good job at teaching them [things], in part because the techniques of the school system fly in the face of what we know about the way people learn”. I agree entirely. Somewhere in the now distant past, school systems decided that rote learning was somehow dull and demeaning which in my view is not the case at all. I have seven grandchildren (born of three children) between the ages of 7 and 13. Because I am an educator as is my wife who taught primary school for 33 years, we observe carefully as these kids develop. All their parents have higher degrees and they care about education too.

    My observation is that, starting pre-school, little kids are not only memory sponges, they enjoy the process. You can probably still remember your times tables, ditties and songs, and little poems you learned as a child. That’s the time in their life when reading, writing, vocabulary, spelling and arithmetic should simply be committed to memory. Who in a household learns how to run the VCR faster than a kid — they just memorize what the buttons do. Only later, as they develop the beginnings of abstract reasoning skills should these topics be revisited to point out the principles behind arithmetic, grammar, history, etc. Schools today fill their heads with concerns about what to do with their garbage rather than how to acquire the skill set they need to live a modern life at all.

    Kids do learn more efficiently out of school than in it because they’re exposed to broader experience than a classroom can wield and have higher motivation.

  7. sdc says:

    Thank you both once again. @radiofree, one of the joys of my life as a freelancer has been that I get paid to find out about stuff and write it up, just as if I were a perpetual student. You’d love the comment of my Aunt Ethel, who died last December at 98: “If, as I believe, we are put on this earth to learn, then I am not leaving until I have learned every single lesson that’s available to me.” She’s my hero, the person I want to be when I grow up. :-)

    @adam, I think you’re right about the need for wisdom, and the fact that you can’t become wise except through experience — though the Russell comment arguably suggests otherwise, since some people seem to be born with a sense of proportion. I think, though, that locking kids in a schoolroom for six or seven hours a day really ensures that they don’t get a very wide experience in their youth. When else in your life are you going to be forced to spend your days with a group of people with whom the only thing you really have in common is your birth date? I’m a big enthusiast about learning, but I think there are lots of ways to do it.

    I hadn’t thought of rote learning as you present it, and I’m sure you’re right — though probably not for all children. I loved to memorize, and I feel as though the things I memorized really belong to me — though my family is not always grateful when I break out in a fit of Gilbert and Sullivan or something. But in early childhood — yes, every kid loves to chant through the story alongside his parent, having effortlessly memorized it. So the trick is to keep that enthusiasm for memorization, isn’t it? And then rote learning works very well and seems very natural.

    We have a lot to learn, don’t we?

  8. snowygirl says:

    As a homeschooling mom I’ve learned to think outside the box about learning. Children want to learn. School type thinkers don’t know this, or perhaps have forgotten, the pure joy of learning new skills, exploring a subject in one’s own way for pleasure.

    We are born learners. It is necessary for human survival to learn. Children can and will learn what they need to survive if they are allowed to, and given access to the world and all the vast information out there.

    I’ve watched my children pick up information everywhere, and learn critical thinking skills and social skills from dealing with life. They read because they want to. They have huge vocabularies and win spelling bees. I facilitate their particular interests and the knowledge just expands exponentially.

    Homeschooled children, especially those who have lots of freedom to explore the world on their own terms, do exceptionally well not only academically but also are happy, fulfilled people in their careers and personal lives. Look at the research; it’s clear that homeschooled children are doing far better than both publicly and privately schooled children. Schools, more often than not, tend to kill the natural desire to learn, and are a breeding ground of social and emotional problems. Take ADHD for example. Homeschooled children don’t get this “disorder”. Because it’s caused by the unnatural, stressful school situation and its absurd demands on children.

  9. sdc says:

    Thanks so much for this. That was my experience too — although not with all of my children. Some kids really do need the social context of a school, I suspect. I’ve always meeting kids who cruise with their families on world-ranging sailboats, generally doing some form of correspondence courses to provide a bit of system. Boy, are those kids getting an education!

  10. Val Traversy says:

    Family Foundations: Silver Donald’s Nova Scotian piece this Sunday reminded me (armchair social democrat though I am) of the continuing value of family foundations. Growing up in Niagara Falls Ont., my wife used a ‘public’ library financed by Carnegie. Fund-raising for Dal. in the 1980′s, I send a simple letter to the Birks Foundation which resulted in a large (in those days 50K was substantial) donation. Involved now with coastal management issues (I live on the Eastern Shore), I find that the Pew foundation and others are directing more resources than governments towards responsible ocean management.
    Just this morning on the CBC, Walter Regan (Sackville River) was flagging that DFO continues to cut back on habitat protection and restoration (they were spending more in the 1980s!), and the EAC is about to lose their coastal coordinator (in the midst of a provincial coastal policy exercise) due to lack of funding. Living in rural NS, I appreciate the utility of stimulus spending on roads and community infrastructure, but must we rely on family foundations to look to a sustainable future for our communities?

  11. Adam Bell says:

    Both home schooling (which in my view should be ongoing even if your child is in grade school) and regular schools have serious disadvantages, for sure. Home schooling has the huge advantage of accommodating the student’s needs, pace, hangups, etc. on an individual basis — something no public school can ever do, particularly in this day of equal access for all irrespective of ability. Where home schooling falls short is in interaction with groups, socialization, social skills, dealing with bullies, getting used to the notion that there are others in authority besides your parents, stretching the apron strings.

    Regular schooling fails because it cannot take much account of individual learner’s needs, because (in my view) teachers are not very well trained, and because we insist on an egalitarian, pass everyone no matter what, approach. When I was a kid, in Queens, NYC, as it happens, I went to a huge public school in which kids were streamed by ability. The brightest were stretched and challenged, the least bright were helped and tutored. It worked. Of course in those days of yore, not everyone thought they had to go to college, and the trade schools were full.

  12. marke says:

    Thanks for the stimulating column and ensuing comments, SDC. The path of learning, experience and wisdom made me want to share a comment from Douglas J. Cardinal, the architect of such exquisite buildings as the First Nations University of Canada in Regina, the Museum of Civilization in Hull, Quebec, or the Museum of the Native American in Washington, amongst many others, including the St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Church in Red Deer, Alberta.

    With this last structure/sculpture, the church, he built in 1968 at the tender age of 29 or so, he had to prove that the huge, amorphous roof that he had designed would be engineered such that it would be safe to be under. He had to go to Chicago to use a computer there to do the 64,000 simultaneous calculations required to give this proof, as there were few computers in existence at the time. Through the use of this computer the roof was proven to be safe and he went ahead and finished the project.

    In 1990 or so, after many years in the business and many years designing these wonderful buildings (not to mention helping Texas Instruments develop their Computer Assisted Design (CAD) software, necessary for his signature curvilinear designs), he would say of this Red Deer building, “If I knew what I knew now, I never would’ve designed the roof that way, as I know it is impossible to build!” (Excuse the paraphrasing, Doug.)

    Point being? Well, the blend of knowledge and experience may bring about wisdom, but one has to be careful not to sit in the seat of expertise, of authority, for too long for fear of knowing too much (or at least knowing what is ‘safe’). It is the burden of the learned, of the expert, I suppose, to never be wrong. Of course, it is the prerogative of youth to make mistakes, as it is through mistakes that one learns most rapidly and assuredly.

    For more on D.J. Cardinal:

  13. @Adam- I couldn’t disagree with you more about the bully aspect of school. First of, this presupposes that every single child that goes to school gets bullied, or is a bully.
    It’s interesting how people think that being in one room with your agemates- and only a hand full of adults handing out arbitrary rules and who most often don’t have the time to get to know you personally is socialization, while participating in the community, meeting people from all age groups and all backgrounds and learning how to get along within this wide spectrum of people is not socialization!!!!

  14. sdc says:

    Thanks, Mark. One of the great joys of being a journalist is that you’re licensed to be ignorant, and to ask all the dumb questions. “Sorry, I still don’t understand, could we go over that again?” So you never get to be the expert, and you’re always kept humble, and as a result you never — if you’re doing your work well — get to suffer from petrification of the cranium. You can just keep on making mistakes — and therefore learning.