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.