The Bucket Theory of Learning

Roger Titcombe's picture
In the 1980 science fiction romp ‘Flash Gordon’ (Universal Studios), Dr Zarkov, a major character, is subjected to ‘mind reconditioning’ by ‘Ming the Merciless’ using a ‘mind reprogramming’ machine.

We see the unfortunate Zarkov strapped to a bed beneath a huge device that resembles an X-Ray machine pointing at his head. When activated, the machine proceeds to suck out all the knowledge from Zarkov’s brain starting with the most recent then going back to early childhood and finally birth.

The dastardly Ming then switches the machine into reverse so that it proceeds to refill Zarkov’s mind with a new set of knowledge presumably prepared for the purpose by Ming himself. We know this is happening because we are treated videotape style (it was 1980) to a fast frame-by-frame rewind of Zarkov’s entire life followed by ‘fast forward’ reprogramming.

The serious point is that this is an excellent illustration of the ‘bucket theory’, which assumes that teaching and learning consist of filling the heads of pupils with knowledge. The common term, ‘empty headed’ referring to a cognitively challenged person, reflects the degree to which this false notion of learning is embedded in the popular culture. Steven Pinker’s ‘The Blank Slate’ (2002) refers directly to multiple aspects of this misconception.

The further assumption implicit in the ‘bucket theory’ is that, like Zarkov, school pupils are naturally unwilling participants in this process and require a degree of compulsion to facilitate the necessary degree of compliance. English literature, especially the writing of Charles Dickens, is full of graphic descriptions from educational history as to how the cruel traditions and theatrical ceremonies of traditional schooling, especially in the independent sector, have evolved so as to bring about this compliance.

Mmmm. Ming the Merciless - remind you of anyone? Could it go viral?
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