15/365 Back to Dewey 1.3 – ‘Criteria of Experience’

The most important attitude that can be formed is that of desire to go on learning.

– John Dewey

Experience & Education

This post continues a mini-series examining John Dewey’s Experience & Educationchapter-by-chapter.

If Chapter 2 saw as its purpose the definition of the need for a theory of experience, in Chapter 3, Dewey sets about defining what need happen in education experiences. Before he can do that, though, he sets the “autocratic and harsh” practices of traditional schools in relief against the democratic goals of progressive education.

For me, the poster-worthy section of the chapter comes as Dewey asks whether we would prefer democracy to something else:

Can we find any reason that does not ultimately come down to the belief that democratic social arrangements promote a better quality of human experience, one which is more widely accessible and enjoyed, than do non-democratic and anti-democratic forms of social life? Does not the principle of regard for individual freedom and for decency and kindliness of human relations come back in the end to the conviction that these things are tributary to a higher quality of experience on the part of a greater number than are methods of repression and coercion or force? Is it not the reason for our preference that we believe that mutual consultation and convictions reached through persuasion, make possible a better quality of experience than can otherwise be provided on any wide scale?

Were it not so lengthy, I’d say I’d found the premise of my next tattoo. Schools, Dewey is arguing, should be the training grounds of citizenship and act as the vanguard of humanity and freedom. These are better goals than adequate yearly progress.

If these are our goals, Dewey moves on to explain the types of experiences necessary to help students reach those goals. They must be continuous and promote growth in general.

Those experiences Dewey is attempting to define? They must arouse curiosity, strengthen initiative, and set up desires and purposes sufficiently intense to carry a person over dead places in the future, continuity works in a very different way. To judge this, we need only ask toward and into what an experience moves an individual. Simple questions, again, with no easy answers.

Here too, Dewey argues the importance of the adult in helping to shape the experience. There’s no point to having maturity, he writes, if we are not to use that maturity of experience to help craft the conditions whereby students might better learn. It is not enough to say, “Go, have experiences.” Adults are beholden to draw on their knowledge and their own experiences to help turn students toward experiences that might fulfill our democratic goals.

All of this must ask the question, “Have I created something that increases the innate curiosity of my students?” rather than depletes it as is often the case of traditional schooling? This, in the end, is Dewey’s primary criterion for experience. The only way to accomplish this is to understand the student in the moment and work to craft experiences that build on a continuity of understanding toward the goal of increasing that student’s drive to ask and seek more.

Traditional education, Dewey writes, asks students to adapt to school, but fails to adapt to the students.

This is more to do with listening, it seems to me, than speaking. If we wish for our students to ask questions of the world, we must ask questions of our students. Often, when we speak of modeling, we have no trouble modeling how we get to the answer of a problem or how we build the finished product.

What we’re not great at, where teachers are found lacking, is the modeling of how we got to the questions and how we came to shape those questions in useful ways. If we want our students to be the builders of great ideas, they must be the askers of great questions. Too often, classroom questions fail to move past the meager, “What are we supposed to be doing?”

Dewey’s idea of “collateral learning” is diminished as a possibility when this is the case.

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