John Dewey was (and Still is) Far Ahead of His Time
Back in September, we shared the first half of this brace of pieces about Dewey, an education reform pioneer far ahead of his time. Perhaps it is fitting that we publish part II on this week of Thanksgiving here in the US. We should be very grateful for Dewey's work … he first bought to light so many ideas regarding how we should be improving education, so long ago (sadly, many of his ideas still have yet to be embraced and integrated in our educational systems and processes). Thanks, Patrick Cole, for these articles, and Happy Thanksgiving to everyone, everywhere (surely we can all appreciate and benefit from the giving of thanks, regardless of ethnicity, religion, and other ‘differences')! – KW
If we “boil down” Dewey’s philosophy of education into a few concepts, it would be these:
- Education must be pragmatic, that is, it should prepare students for their real-world adult lives
- Education should be experiential, that is, students should be engaged in experiences in their learning, by “doing,” not just by reading and listening
- Education should prepare students for a productive place in a civil society that rests on the principles of democracy
- Education should involve inquiry and promote problem-solving skills
- The process of learning is as important as the learning itself.
Interestingly, schools and school districts espouse these same principles in their mission statements today. They speak to preparing students for their adult lives; they speak to teaching critical thinking and problem-solving skills; they speak to experiential learning. Practical application of these principles, however, has proven to be a far more difficult achievement.
Dewey’s Lab School
When Dewey joined the faculty at University of Chicago, his goal was to start a lab school – his great experiment, he called it. Children learned botany in an outside garden; they learned about land forms by boxes filled with sand; they used manipulatives for math. Parents came to love this approach, because the child was more important than the curriculum.
Much of the type of learning that Dewey implemented has been embraced by teachers in today’s classrooms, especially at the elementary level. Much more could be done, however, but bureaucracy often gets in the way.
How We Stifle Our Kids
In Dewey’s time, public education was funded by state governments and local property taxes, just as it is today. The difference was that the state played a far more minor role in determining curriculum and teaching methodologies. These were left up to the professional educators. Over time, state governments became more and more involved in micro-managing education, however, with the result that non-educators in state legislatures are making decisions that they have no business making.
Oh, Those Tests!
Add to this the state tests that now must be administered every year. The results are made public, district by district, so the whole “world” knows how each district performs. And technology tells principals, superintendents and school boards exactly which teachers have “under-performing” students. The ultimate result, of course, becomes classrooms in which the entire year is spent preparing students for the state tests. Much of this is rote classroom work and rote homework drill. Teachers are quite literally teaching to the test.
EdTech Does Not Have Clean Hands Either
Edtech companies are well aware of the state tests and develop their software based upon them. Teachers, who spy software that teaches math facts within the context of a “game,” moreover, jump at the chance to load that right up on their classroom computers. Put the children in front of screens and let them practice there.
Antiquated Curricula Abounds
I often wonder what Dewey might think about our demands that students learn the mundane and tedious process of long division and all of the other algorithms that we insist upon. How much preparation for life is embedded in these learning activities, when we have calculators to do this work for us? Show me one adult who does complex division or multiplication by hand. And in no curriculum do we see teaching the concept that division is a shortened form of subtraction or that multiplication is a shortened form of multiplication.
And it gets worse. We are still insisting that students graph equations, when graphic calculators do this work for us. Show me an engineer without a graphic calculator, and I will show you a man/woman with too much time on their hands.
How Are We Preparing Our Kids for The Adult World of Work?
Dewey saw this as a major function of education. While he could not possibly have known how the knowledge explosion makes what kids learn today obsolete in just a few years, he knew full well that teaching students to be independent learners and to teach problem-solving through inquiry-based learning was critical. He was so right.
Unfortunately, two things retard progress in this area. First, it is hard to develop lessons for inquiry-based learning, if it is done right. Teachers often do not have the time. Second, teachers do not have the time because, in the classroom, they must teach to the test. Growing and tending a garden is just not “in the cards.” Writing a new Constitution as a group project takes too much time when students must learn the minutest details about the current one, along with dates, names, and places that they could find with a Google search if they ever needed to know them.
We no longer have the luxury of an antiquated curriculum. We have to make some tough decisions based upon what Dewey said many years ago, and prepare students for the reality that they may change careers several times in their lifetimes and that they will never be able to stop learning.
EdTech and Teacher Ed Programs Can be the Heroes
There is absolutely no reason why John Dewey’s principals cannot be applied to edtech. When software developers and teacher are given opportunities to collaborate, edtech can provide inquiry-based, problem-solving activities in all content areas. Edtech can provide the enhancements that teachers do not have the time to develop themselves.
The other changes must occur in our teacher preparation programs. Teachers cannot prepare inquiry-based learning, if they do not themselves have practice of their own, so they fully understand the components of such lessons. A few research papers will simply not cut it.
Educators Must Become Far More Politically Active
It is one thing for teachers and administrators to belong to their professional organizations and to make statements every four years about their presidential preferences. It is quite another to become more active at the local and state level on a regular basis and to put pressure on legislators to back off this persistent need to test and test. When teachers do not have the pressure of test preparation, they are free to provide learning experiences to their students that will bode far better for them as adults and, also, avoid plagiarism in preparations. In an ideal world, curricular goals will focus on learning processes and students will have multiple ways to demonstrate mastery of those processes.
John Dewey always said that teachers must teach kids. Unfortunately, for far too long, we have focused on teaching “stuff,” especially at the secondary levels. If we look at Dewey’s main tenets of effective education, it is obvious that he was ahead of his time. In a time when students were “trained” with very specific skill sets, he knew that this would not be sufficient. Many a skilled factory worker has been replaced by a robot; technology is wiping out any number of professions – stock brokers, med techs, publishers, etc.; and many new positions cannot be filled because of the lack of qualified candidates. The best thing we can do for our students is still what Dewey said – prepare them to be problem-solvers and lifelong learners, as well as good citizens of a democracy.