TCS - Not taken seriously

I start my evaluation of educational philosophy with one of the fringe movements called Taking Children Seriously (TCS). I was first introduced to the philosophy of TCS many years back when I attended a TOC summer seminar. It wasn't actively supported by TOC, but one of the attendees was handing out fliers about it. (In hindsight, there's no wonder as to why such a seminar attendee was attracted to TOC).

As I started reading about their explicitly defined philosophy, a voice kept echoing in the back of my head that something wasn’t right. Many of the words the advocates used sounded reasonable, but an unstated assumption seemed out of place. The answers seemed to click in place as I read the following statements about their philosophy:

“David Hume pointed out that the commonsense theory of knowledge (i.e., that we learn by generating theories directly from experience or generalizing ‘input’ from outside) does not make sense. Yet we do gain knowledge! That raised the question, how can we possibly gain it?

“These questions had been exercising philosophers for a century or two before Karl Popper resolved the issue in a hitherto unexpected way. He pointed out that such questions rest upon false premises, that the Baconian view of scientific discovery is entirely mistaken, and that it does not proceed from data to theory at all. Instead, Popper argued, science proceeds from problems to solutions through what he called ‘conjectures and refutations’:

“The growth of knowledge proceeds from old problems to new problems, by means of conjectures and refutations.”

– Karl Popper, Objective Knowledge, page 258.”

What Karl Popper means by objective is NOT what Ayn Rand means by objective. To Popper, objective means that once knowledge is stated in human terms, it is no longer a part of ourselves but external of ourselves and subject to critical analysis and falsification. In Rand's terms, Popper defends intrinsic knowledge. Intrinsic knowledge exists independent of humans. This leads Popper and his followers to claim that problem solving is a means gaining knowledge. But that is not the purpose of problem solving. Problem solving is for gaining and/or protecting values. Knowledge in and of itself is not of value, it is only in relation to the values one is trying to gain or keep. Gaining knowledge is hopefully a by-product of problem solving, but is not guaranteed. I have witnessed countless examples of people that solve a problem today, only to have the problem re-emerge later.

TCS goes on to say:

“A child's mental growth is, like scientific research, a knowledge-creating process initiated and carried out by the individual child, with the help of others. Because it is a knowledge-creating process it cannot be planned in advance even for one child, let alone for children in general. Its course cannot be predicted, nor can its objectives and its methods. All these are new, and different, for each child. For the same reason education, like scientific research, is not, and cannot be, something that is done to the child by others. Anything of that form, including conventional child-rearing and almost all ‘teaching’ as normally understood, is not education but an impediment to education.”

Their argument is rather sophisticated, but from my understanding the logical flaw evolves from the association of active learning process with the absence of motivation. Their is no basis in that active learning means an absence of external motivation. They claim:

“Because it is a knowledge-creating process it cannot be planned in advance even for one child, let alone for children in general.”
Why is this true? Certainly knowledge creation can be planned in advance. I do it all the time in my personal studies as well as my classes. I plan out the educational objectives and I present material and exercises that facilitate that knowledge-creating process. While there may be slight variations in understanding, knowledge is objective in nature. Reality is knowable.

But TCS fell down into the abyss of rotten philosophy when they finally get around to this statement:

“It begins with this point: any suggested behaviour or system of behaviours that, if taken sufficiently seriously (enacted by enough people with enough precision), would lead to disaster, is wrong.”

This is simply a variation of Kant’s categorical imperative "Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law."

“Now, imagine a theory that it is good to force children to learn our best theories of math (put another way: teach them math, whether they like it or agree, or not, rather than suggesting to and advising children). If taken seriously (by future generations too), this suggestion will lead to the same math theories being passed on for eternity. On the simple premise that some of our current math theories are imperfect, this is an entirely disastrous course of events.”

No matter how far into the future we go, I can say with absolute confidence that 2+2=4 will always be true and that addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division will be necessary concepts to understand before understanding more complex theories. TCS wants uncertainty to rule all knowledge. They want us to accept that no knowledge is certain.

TCS seems to want it both ways. They claim that humans (including children) are all fallible, so we should approach parenting as if we didn’t have the answers. And approaching parenting in anyway other than the TCS way shows you don’t have all the answers, therefore we should do it the TCS way because it is the “truth”.

In the end, I conclude that TCS is rife with philosophic problems that render it dead on arrival. Taking Children Seriously should not be taken seriously.


  1. So why didn't you notify the TCS community of your criticism, so that they would have the chance to rebut it? Were you not interested in the possibility of truth-seeking discussion?

  2. Nice bait, but your implicit assumptions do not hold. First, I did perform a truth-seeking exercise by reading the official "philosophy". I did not take someone else's word for it, I went directly to the source, analyzed what they had to say, and formed my conclusions. Second, I do not believe I need to engage with every community to truly understand their underlying belief system. If I can't take their "official" stance seriously, than what is the point of publishing that stance. Third, you are guilty of the exact same avoidance of truth-seeking discussion by not directly addressing my comments on my blog (the comments are open to discussion, as long as you're civil). Why do I need to go to the TCS discussion board? Fourth, you seem to imply that I owe the TCS community a chance at a rebuttal. Let me be clear, I do not owe them anything. My goal with this post was to highlight my thinking on the TCS movement, that's all. If my thinking on the movement were at all fuzzy, I could have sought more information, but that's my prerogative. Whether or not I speak publicly about my beliefs is my prerogative as well.

  3. Are you interested in discussing it, if I post here? You can't ask me to assume that on an old post, about a topic you don't seem to like.

  4. I have some time, but not a lot. I cannot promise a deep discussion, but I will listen to what you have to say and as time allows, reply. Unfortunately, this is a really busy time of year with the end of the semester and the holidays looming. You may have noticed I've been struggling to find time to post anything. But, by all means, comment away.

  5. OK, first criticism: the section about Kant is unclear.

    You say TCS philosophy is rotten, give a quote, and then assert that quote is equivalent to something Kant said.

    How does that make TCS philosophy rotten? Are you using an unstated and unargued assumption that Kant is rotten? If not that, what is the claim?

    The equivalence is not clear either. For example one talks about (objective) disasters and one talks about what people will (which kinda sounds subjectivist). Well, OK, you didn't actually say equivalent but just one is a variant. But if it's just kind of similar, then even if Kant is rotten it wouldn't imply TCS is, since variants of rotten ideas can be true.

    PS If it's any help I am not a fan of Kant in general, and am a fan of Rand. Also: http://curi.us/1520-the-categorical-imperative-is-mistaken

  6. Next time you don't want to discuss one of your old blog posts, do the decent thing and don't claim to be interested.

  7. Perhaps you missed the part where I said "... as time allows" and "...this is a really busy time of year". Frankly, if this is your approach to discussions, then it would probably be best if drop it. I was going to respond, but you just killed any incentive for me to do so.

  8. What did you think your incentive was?