12/365 Back to Dewey 1.1

After a year and a half of grad school across two separate institutions, we’re finally moving away from paying lip service to Dewey in discussion of policy and a course is asking us to actually read what he wrote. It’s a return to the roots not only of progress pedagogy, but of the ideas that inform my own practice as well.

Specifically, we’re look at Dewey’s Experience and Education. (Read along if you like, I’ll be examining a chapter each day for the next 8 days.) Most exciting there is the fact that the text came later in Dewey’s career, at a time when he had enough perspective to stand back and look at the attempted enaction of the beliefs he championed. As much as it sets an agenda and outlines goals, Experience and Education serves a reflection on how progressives had lost their way or misunderstood the initial map.

A short text, Dewey fits his ideas into 8 chapters. Rather than a summary of the entire text, I’ll be thinking here about the content of each chapter. Famously dense, Dewey’s writing deserves a closer read than many contemporary education writers.

Ch. 1

Traditional vs. Progressive Education

Dewey begins with an analysis of our love of dichotomies and sets up the battle of progressives and traditionalists (today’s reformers).

Given students’ distance from intended subject matter, Dewey asserts traditionalists find that subject matter “must be imposed; even though good teachers will use devices of art to cover up the imposition so as to relieve it of obviously brutal features,” thus limiting much legitimate participation by students.

This matter “is taught as a finished product, with little regard either to the way in which it was originally built up or to changes that will surely occur in the future.”

Dewey then lays out the oppositions to be found in progressive schools:

To imposition from above is opposed expression and cultivation of individuality; to external discipline is opposed free activity; to learning from texts and teachers, learning through experience; to acquisition of isolated skills and techniques by drill, is opposed acquisition of them as means of attaining ends which make direct vital appeal; to preparation for a more or less remote future is opposed

making the most of the opportunities of present life; to static aims and materials is opposed acquaintance with a changing world.

Most interestingly, and where I’ve encountered the most frequent misreadings of Dewey is his understanding of controls. He argues not for an absence of control, but for control rooted in authentic and catalyzing learning experiences. What are the controls inherent to the genuine experiences we hope to provide students? How can the adults who have participated in these experiences help to control students’ experiences in a positive way?

These and other questions are key for Dewey in Ch. 1. He outlines the importance of critical thinking in the development of a new way of thinking about and organizing school experiences. “For any theory that and set of practices is dogmatic which is not based upon critical examination of its own underlying principles.” It is not enough to stand for something; one must also struggle with the questions of what it means and looks like to stand for that thing.

Dewey sets up Ch. 2 with the question of how to bridge the past with students’ present in real ways. He frames it as a question that is new to the story of education: “How shall the young become acquainted with the past in such a way that the acquaintance is a potent agent in appreciation of the living present?”

How, indeed? Stepping into this text raised several concerns for me regarding the current educational practice and policy landscapes. Dewey’s words resonate deeply with me. As I read, I find myself nodding and saying to myself, “Yes, this is what we must do.”

The problem is this is what we have needed to do since long before Dewey put these words to the page. His thoughts have served as a call to arms for generations, and still we falter, making the same mistakes on new and grander scales.

To some extent, I can understand the difficulties. Progressive thinking about education means turning away from or turning a critical eye toward the way we’ve always done things. That, on its own, is scary.

Still, we’ve had time to get over our fears. We’ve had time to ask the questions Dewey poses about our educational practices. Why, then, aren’t we working to develop better answers to those questions and then build schools around those answers?

Not broken.

Get in your seats.

Take out your books.

Get in your pods.

Matt hollers to his class of 9th grade English students.

They’re studying Homer’s Odyssey. Once in their pods, the students pull out permabound copies of the text littered with fluorescent sticky notes. The notes are covered in the scrawl of ninth-graders. Each one unique, but all of them somewhat crude and uncertain.

The pods are charged with discussing “Book III.”

“This book was awesome,” one student says when I ask what he thought of the chapter.

“It was boring,” said another.

“No it wasn’t!” shouts the first, “I don’t know why he doesn’t just say things more simply.”

Matt interrupts.

“What do all the characters have in common?”

A girl with a feathery voice raises her hand to answer.

Matt asks why King Nestor tells a long-winded story only to say that he does not know anything.

Hands shoot up.

“No, no, no. This is a question for your pods.”

The room is again engulfed in noise.

“Just so you know, Dawn is a god,” one student tells his group.

“This was a lot easier to understand than ‘Book II,'” another student says to hers.

Matt and the senior assigned to this class roam opposite sides of the room, checking in with the pods.

The senior is part of the school’s Student Assistant Teaching program. Now in it’s second year, the program matches seniors with the sections of lower-classmen to help with the class. More than 30 of the school’s grade 9-11 classes have SATs.

At the back of the room, an observer from one of the local universities discusses the reading with a pod seated in dirty, over-stuffed chairs Matt has pulled in to his room over his five years at the school. It’s the kind of furniture you wouldn’t want in your room, but would expect to find in an ad hoc dorm room.

Traveling around the room, Matt overhears a pod discussing the Spanish alphabet.

“We’re good, we’re good,” he yells, “First question in 45 seconds.”

The students hurry to their original seats.

“Only a pencil or pen and a piece of paper. Everything else, including your Odyssey book and your old quiz, away.”

In a little over a minute, the kids are ready.

“Forty-five seconds,” is one of those teacher time warps that’s been around for ages.

“Ladies and gentlemen, no talking,” Matt says as he connects his laptop to the digital projector in his room.

“This is from class,” he says of the question on the board.

The students use their “off” or non-writing hands to protect their answers.

Aside from the shuffling inherent in ninth-graders at the end of a school day, the room is silent.

On the second question, the student beside me is stumped. “Just keep putting words down there until you’ve got it,” Matt advises. To the rest of the class, he encourages, “Folks, leave no doubt. Just keep writing.” It’s the first lesson some of them are getting in the importance of trying above all else.

“Hands up for more time,” Matt says. A third of the room’s hands go up. “Ok.”

Each of the questions pulls from the content of the previous night’s reading. They’re comprehension questions.

Matt is checking to make certain his students are understanding the reading before they move to student-generated higher-level questions later in the class.

Interested more in activating the students’ knowledge than trapping them in the details, Matt offers hints and rephrases the questions for those with stunned surprise registering on their faces.

Five questions in, during the last academic class of the day, the students remain silent and focused ’til the end.

“Quiet. Quiet.” Matt says after the quizzes have been turned in. He polls their feelings:

  • Hands up, I’m totally a rock star and got them all right.
  • Hands up, I’m getting there.
  • Hands up, I’m halfway there.
  • Hands up – listen to all of this – I sat down with no distractions with my Odyssey book, with my pencil or pen and my stickie notes, spent at least 20 minutes or a half hour and focused on the book, wrote down questions I didn’t know, came to class, sat down with my pod and asked questions of every member of my pod and still didn’t get anything right.

With snickers, a few hands go up.

Matt asks the students if they notice they’re understanding the book more because he is reading it to them in class. Many say yes.

“That may be because you’re what kind of learner?”

“Audio,” they respond in chorus.

Matt clarifies, “Even when you get your laptops with the audio, that doesn’t mean you’ll automatically get it.”

“No matter what, every lunch period, the lit lab is open. Take your book and everything else and an English teacher and several other students are there to help you.”

He explains the school’s Lit Lab, run mainly by upper-classmen, is another on the long list of ways the school helps its students.

“It’s one more reason I don’t accept what?”

“Excuses,” the class responds in the weary voice that denotes they know he’s not kidding.

Matt refers to higher-order questions as “HOT questions” and tells the class it’s time to discuss them now.

Matt takes the students’ attention to a flashback within the book and walks them through some of the complexities of the text.

Pens and pencils scribble new notes on stickies.

A confused student raises her hand.

“Can you say that one more time, but in baby language, so I can understand it.”

“Sure,” Matt says, “But not in baby language. I’ll fix what I said.”

He grabs a marker too draw a map of events while the students help direct him.

Back in the book, Matt begins reading again. “You with me?” he asks.

The students are silent.

“Talk back to me. You with me?”

“Yes,” they respond.

With the basic plot outlined, Matt turns class over to the students and his SAT. “If you have any high-order thinking or HOT questions, ask them and then ask your classmates.”

Hands shoot up around the room.

As the students answer their classmates, they turn not to Matt, but to the student who owns each question to make eye contact in their attempts to answer.

If an answer doesn’t seem quite right, hands shoot up for course corrections.

In this classroom of students with IEPs and 504s and home lives their classmates might never understand, everyone is participating.

When the last student is called on to offer her question, a few side conversations have broken out.

“Whoa, whoa, whoa,” Matt says, “Demand to be respected when you’re speaking.”

The student waits. The conversations stop. The question is asked.

By the clock, the class is over, but this last question has incited some disagreement in the class and the students make no movement to gather their things to leave.

“Take this sudden curiosity,” Matt says, “and read ‘Book IV.’ If, when you come in next week, and people are seeming like they read it, I will not give you a quiz.”

The deal made, Matt dismisses the students, “You’re beautiful. I’ll see you next class.”

And he did it all despite being in a public school, part of a union and having tenure.

I know. I didn’t think it could happen either.