Search form

Children Are Not Blank Slates or Empty Vessels

children are not blank slates

My local newspaper features an education reporter who shares opinions that are often far outside of my own beliefs and experience in the field. Recently, he ran a column that summarized the thoughts of a professor emeritus who is, according to the article, “one of our nation’s most respected education experts.” Without giving this “expert” too much airtime, one idea he proposes in his most recent book is that not only are children unable to make their own meaning of learning autonomously in any way, but also that their minds are, in his words, a “blank slate.” In other words, until an adult steps into the classroom to fill children with information, they have nothing else to draw from. He also argues that student-centered learning is at the core of why achievement has plummeted over the past several years.

As a huge proponent of student-centered learning who believes in working to build the capacity of learners at all ages and stages, I find the concept of children as empty vessels to be absolutely abhorrent, not to mention inaccurate. To assume that a young human brain holds so little value masks an attempt to gain control over how cognitive development occurs. After all, why worry about what a child might be thinking if we can just impose our beliefs and viewpoints upon them and mask it as “knowledge?” 

Anyone who argues that lower achievement scores are the direct result of including more student voice in the classroom applies faulty logic to the results of standardized tests and other broad-based achievement measures. Yes, student gains in literacy and math have declined steadily over the past several years. The last two years have been incredibly traumatic with interrupted instruction and significant upheaval. What is causing the numbers to go down? The short answer is any number of variables. In other words, trying to boil anything as complex as teaching and learning down to one or two factors is a fruitless enterprise.

The phrase “student-centered learning” is widely misunderstood and misapplied. Fans of more traditional, teacher-directed methods believe that when a classroom shows value for student autonomy, the result is a sacrifice of structure, rigor, and the curriculum itself. Nothing could be further from the truth. When students are invited to be partners in learning, that does not mean that they generate content, determine the learning outcome for the class, or change the trajectory of expectations for standards-aligned instruction. Rather, the approach to learning shifts, not the curriculum or rigor. A curriculum is not the “how” of instruction, it is the “what.” It indicates the focus of lessons, but teachers should have the capacity (and the autonomy) to instruct in ways that best suit their own styles and the students in front of them. 

Getting back to the argument about what children know, the idea that anyone is a “blank slate” is highly objectionable because it disregards the importance of experiential learning. Last week, my family took a trip to New York City. While we were there, my children learned a lot. We went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and studied the work of the Impressionists, and then we walked through the streets and observed traffic and human behavior. At the Central Park Zoo, we watched ducklings learn how to swim and observed how the movement of the waves overpowered their tiny bodies. Before heading to the theater, we debated the custom of dressing nicely for the occasion and discussed why the expectations around formality have changed. To navigate the subway, we looked at maps and determined which routes might get us to our destination the most efficiently. 

All the while, my children encountered new information, but they also used what they already knew to make informed choices. For example, when my son was interpreting a museum guide to find the cafeteria, he called upon prior knowledge about where other institutional buildings place outposts for food and drink. As we watched the penguins splash around, my daughter shared details about how they essentially fly in the water and applied that knowledge to what we were looking at. My children were constantly able to use what they had already seen or encountered in various settings to new experiences. They were neither empty vessels nor blank slates.

Had I come into the trip with the expectations that my children needed to be filled with = knowledge in order to understand the surrounding landscape, the trip would have not been nearly as meaningful or exciting for them. Likewise, when teachers make the faulty assumption that students enter classrooms with nothing of their own to offer, they do them a grave disservice. Even very young children can tap into what they have learned as a gateway to new information, but adults need to listen to their voices for that to happen. Student-centered learning is the way to accomplish that goal and has nothing to do with whether the curriculum correctly addresses grade-level standards and skills.

There are any number of reasons that students are showing lower achievement gains, and that is a significant problem that must be addressed from a number of angles. However, misapplying correlation to causation is not the way to proceed, nor is assuming that students come to their classrooms entirely ignorant or “blank.” Instead, thinking about how inequitable systems have been designed to repress instead of empowering students who need their voices heard is the first step to making real, actionable change. 

Written by Miriam Plotinsky, Education World Contributing Writer

Miriam Plotinsky is an instructional specialist with Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland, where she has taught and led for more than 20 years. She is the author of Teach More, Hover Less and Lead Like a Teacher. She is also a National Board-Certified Teacher with additional certification in administration and supervision. She can be reached at or via Twitter: @MirPloMCPS