Wednesday, March 02, 2005

Experience and Education

Coming back on Monday from reading week, I had a fair number of assignments and tests to deal with. This week was also the deadline for submitting my student teacher placement requests. I've gotten firmly on the horse by arranging for both of my placements already. I will be at LCI first and ECI second — Mr.Koczij equals psyched.

The stand-out this week, as far as material covered, was definitely the arrival of John Dewey on the scene after so many weeks of allusion, innuendo, and hushed whispers. This week in the Philosophy of Education course we discussed Dewey's seminal 1937 Education and Experience wherein he attempts to right the course of education reform in the United States. After his groundbreaking work in outlining a progressive vision for education at the turn of the century, he finds the pendulum has swung too far in the direction of a shapeless, wandering, uncontrolled style of instruction. His short — and razor sharp — resetting of the progressive course is pure pleasure to read. A few excerpts for your reading pleasure.

On the merits of a progressive education:
One may safely assume, I suppose, that one thing which has recommended the progressive movement is that it seems more in accord with the democratic ideal to which our people is committed than do the procedures of the traditional school, since the latter have so much of the autocratic about them. Another thing which has contributed to its favorable reception is that its methods are humane in comparison with the harshness so often attending the policies of the traditional school.

On the absurdity of emphasising content knowledge as preparation for the future:
When preparation is made the controlling end, then the potentialities of the present are sacrificed to a supposititious future. When this happens, the actual preparation for the future is missed or distorted. The ideal of using the present simply to get ready for the future contradicts itself. It omits, and even shuts out, the very conditions by which a person can be prepared for his future. We always live at the time we live and not at some other time, and only by extracting at each present time the full meaning of each present experience are we prepared for doing the same thing in the future. This is the only preparation which in the long run amounts to anything.

The reference to extracting the full meaning from each present experience is really the core of this man's thoughts on education and the message is an inspiring and powerful one for educators. Having the responsibility for planning (creating? designing? each has its own subtle angle on the process) an environment within which students are able to experience and construct knowledge is the central task of teaching. Dewey's formulation of the environment as the place where learning happens is just right I think. It forces me to consider that the environment is perceived and experienced differently by different people. It forces democratic and inclusive thinking. And when that is combined with his emphasis on the teacher's responsibility for creating such an environment, there's little doubt why his ideas really are infused within every discussion we have as we consider the art of teaching. Dewey finds, in classic Pragmatist fashion, the most concise and intuitive way to combine the power of empiricism, the scientific method, and clear social structures with the beauty of freedom, creativity, and discovery.

To paraphrase Whitehead for teachers: All of Western educational philosophy is but a footnote to Dewey—his shadow falls over all of us.

As a final idea and slightly off topic, Dewey's discussion of freedom in a social context is beautifully done, and I'm including it below, just for those really interested in reading more of this man's great ideas.
Without taking up this extreme position, let us note some examples of social control that operate in everyday life, and then look for the principle underlying them. Let us begin with the young people themselves. Children at recess or after school play games, from tag and one-old-cat to baseball and football. The games involve rules, and these rules order their conduct. The games do not go on haphazardly or by a succession of improvisations. Without rules there is no game. If disputes arise there is an umpire to appeal to, or discussion and a kind of arbitration are means to a decision; otherwise the game is broken up and comes to an end.

There are certain fairly obvious controlling features of such situations to which I want to call attention. The first is that the rules are a part of the game. They are not outside of it. No rules, then no game; different rules, then a different game. As long as the game goes on with a reasonable smoothness, the players do not feel that they are submitting to external imposition but that they are playing the game. In the second place an individual may at times feel that a decision isn't fair and he may even get angry. But he is not objecting to a rule but to what he claims is a violation of it, to some one-sided and unfair action. In the third place, the rules, and hence the conduct of the game, are fairly standardized. There are recognized ways of counting out, of selection of sides, as well as for positions to be taken, movements to be made, etc. These rules have the sanction of tradition and precedent.

If you're interested in education as an art, science, or career and you haven't read John Dewey's Experience and Education for yourself, do it. You'll thank you later.