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.