20/365 Back to Dewey 1.8

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

Rather than taking us a step further, Dewey uses his final chapter to remind us where we’ve been and put to the future as well.
He points out he’s not attempting to justify his call to an experience-based they of education, saying he’s well aware that both conservatives and lie rails are well-removed from the actual workings of schools. The choices as Dewey sees them are a return to the reason and ideas of the ore-scientific age or a deeper and better utilization of the scientific method – giving it its rightful place as the basis for investigating the experiences he sees as key.
Failure, Dewey points out, is only possible if teachers agree to base their practice in experience examined through the scientific method without adequately utilizing that methodology.
To be successful, experiences must be thoughtfully designed with regard to the previous experiences of students, the mature knowledge of adults, and the thoughtful reflection on the goals of the experiences. To improvise or take a shortcut to learning is to sacrifice fidelity to experience and, thereby, learning.
Dewey concludes with his belief that we will attain this simple and difficult goal only when operating under a sound philosophy of experience.
This struck me most in that it wasn’t a hopeful call to action so much as it was a torch passing. Dewey seems to be saying, “Well, I’ve given you a plan. It’s up to you to follow it. If you choose not to, that’s fine, but we are all in trouble if you don’t make a decision one way or the other.
Looking at contemporary American schools, the landscape reveals the country didn’t make the decision en masse. While many schools languish in the same uncertainty Dewey warned against, two opposing forces are working to secure as much of that landscape as possible for either a purified version of what Dewey considered “traditional” education or the more slow-moving philosophy-driven “progressive” education he was championing.
It has not “become all one thing or all the other” to borrow a phrase. Instead, it has become some things some places and other things other places.
If this remains so, Dewey’s designs of a public education as the central democratizing force in society will never be brought to fruition.

19/365 Back to Dewey 1.7 – ‘Progressive Organization of Subject Matter’

Failure to give constant attention to development of the intellectual content of experiences and to obtain ever-increasing organization of facts and ideas may in the end merely strengthen the tendency towards a reactionary return to intellectual and moral authoritarianism.

– John Dewey

Experience & Education

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

In conversation today, I was discussing Magdalene Lampert’s Teaching Problems and the Problems of Teaching in an attempt to highlight important texts related to the idea of legitimate peripheral participation and building communities of practice.

Another teacher has expressed frustration in attempting to bring project-based learning into the math classroom. More specifically, he was trying to convince his colleagues that this was a feat that could be accomplished in the elementary math curriculum. Lampert seemed an easy sell at that point.

If I’d only thought of it, I would have sent him to Dewey as well. Specifically, Chapter 7 in which the patron philosopher of education turns his attention toward subject matter and the idea of “thick” vs. “thin” learning.

Having already set up adults as holding mature understandings of the ideas and knowledge they are working to pass on to their students, Dewey here works to encourage those adults to convince those adults to pull as few punches as possible in the teaching and learning ring.

“The next step is the progressive development of what is already experienced into a fuller and richer and also more organized form, a form that gradually approximates that in which subject matter is presented to the skilled, mature person.”

In the words of David Perkins, teachers much work to teach the “whole game.”

The subjects and disciplines of the traditional classroom infrastructure are to be ignored, Dewey suggests, in exchange for a deeper look at how to build on the past experiences of students in full and meaningful ways. Young children learn from life experiences, he points out, our job is not to get in the way.

Even more than this, in deciding content for learning, teachers are to consider earlier experiences, be mindful of the fullness of his lived understanding of the world, and attempt to craft learning experiences that thicken students’ understandings in authentic ways. As he’s done in earlier chapters, Dewey is presenting his readers with ideas that are simple, but hardly ever easy.

What’s more, he outlines a basic process for learning experiences. They must challenge because, “growth depends upon the presence of difficulty to be overcome by the exercise of intelligence.” From there, Dewey embraces the scientific method in a manner so unabashed that it could be described as devout.

Students should observe, hypothesize, organize, and build their knowledge. As Dewey called on teachers to develop a critical and thoughtful theory of education earlier on, here we find him transferring those same requirements to students in their learning.

Only when teaching is carried out thusly, Dewey concludes, will the subject matter be properly defined and organized.

16/365 Back to Dewey 1.4 – ‘Social Control’

The principle that development of experience comes about through interaction means that education is essentially a social process.

– John Dewey

Experience & Education

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

In Chapter 4, Dewey gets to the crux of the argument against many detractors as well as his warning to those who are doing progressive education wrong. Control, as it turns out, is not a dirty word. It is also, inescapable.

Control and rules, Dewey points out, are present in even the simplest of schoolyard games. When children bristle at rules, it is more the attempt of others to circumvent or wrongly implement rules that causes the problem, not the presence of rules themselves. In education, too, Dewey acknowledges the need for rules.

“[C]ontrol of individual actions is effected by the whole situation in which individuals are involved, in which they share and of which they are co-operative or interacting parts. For even in a competitive game there is a certain kind of participation, of sharing in a common experience.”

In a learning experience, children know the difference between a fair rule and a rule brought about by an adult in the interest of asserting individual power. The latter case is toxic to learning experiences.

What’s more, Dewey begins to look up the hierarchy of schools and points that much of what is expected of teachers is not of the teachers’ devising, but from somewhere up above. These rules and expectations come not from the community, but from the individual (in some form or another). Progressive education attempts to move counter to this design, “in what are called the new schools, the primary source of social control resides in the very nature of the work done as a social enterprise in which all individuals have an opportunity to contribute and to which all feel a responsibility.”

The rules are written by the community at all levels. Here is the seed of what I firmly believe, we must want for teachers what we want for students. That goes for question asking as much as for community formation.

Most striking to me is Dewey’s acknowledgement that teachers must also prepare for those students who are uncertain what to make of this new freedom to co-create community and experience. They are, he writes, broken by their previous experiences with schools, and teachers must be prepared to adapt and align their practice to helping to repair those wounds.

To help those who have been broken by traditional schools and to implement progressive education well, Dewey stresses the need of planning in all things. The weakness of control Dewey acknowledges in progressive schools, comes not from an absence of control.

“It is much more likely to arise from failure to arrange in advance for the kind of work (by which I mean all kinds of activities engaged in) which will create situations that of themselves tend to exercise control over what this, that, and the other pupil does and how he does it. This failure most often goes back to lack of sufficiently thoughtful planning in advance.”

And in that planning, there must be the ability to adapt to individual needs as they arise while also helping to use the knowledge of those who have come before to move students to the desired learning experience.

Again, this is simple, but not easy.

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.