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What would John Dewey say?

May 11, 2011 4 comments

I keep thinking about this idea as education as a means for achieving social justice and why the exercise of designing, adopting, and implementing new standards does not seem to be the answer for me. I guess I feel as though new standards put a band-aid on the problem. They are reactions to a failing system and can only treat symptoms of a deeper, fundamental problem. Our mile wide, inch deep curriculum in American schools is not the result of too many standards, but of our overall philosophy and approach to education. The goal seems to be to fill up the knowledge deficits in our students by supplying them with the information they require to be “successful” or “competitive.” Reducing the amount of information we teach without addressing the underlying assumptions and values that inform our practices is not going to be a lasting or satisfactory solution. What is missing for me, and maybe for many others too, is a guiding philosophy or set of principles that I can buy into.

So I went looking for some in the best place I could think of, in the works of John Dewey. I read, “My Pedagogic Creed,” one of his earlier essays, and found myself taking notes on almost every sentence (as per usual).

The first theme that struck me in this “creed” is the idea of education as a social process. I read about “social constructivism” as a theory of learning in a previous class, but Dewey is not sharing a theoretical framework for how people learn. He is extremely adamant that the failure to appreciate the social nature of education will result in an educative process that is “haphazard and arbitrary.” A true, social view of education realizes that the process has two sides,”one psychological and one sociological; and neither can be subordinated to the other or neglected without evil results following.”

Currently, it seems we try to deny both elements in the classroom in order to promote the study of abstract knowledge. We do so for the sake of preparing our future students. But Dewey points out, “it is impossible to prepare the child for any precise set conditions. To prepare him for the future life means to give him command of himself; it means so to train him that he will have the full and ready use of all his capacities.” And although one could stop here and argue that Dewey would agree with the new standards as a way to develop these capacities, he goes on to say that studying specific subject matter should not be the focus of school. According to Dewey, the real “progress is not in the succession of studies but in the development of new attitudes towards, and new interests in, experience.”

When progress is defined in these terms, as I believe it should be, how do our current standards and practices measure up?

Just curious…

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