Thursday, August 26, 2010

Reading Dewey: The Introduction

So, I've decided to read my way through John Dewey's essays. I have quoted him a lot in a variety of my ed work and on Twitter but have never read anything by him. So, I've decided to rectify that.
I will be reading my way through:
John Dewey on Education, Selected Writings
Edited by Reginald D. Archambault
University of Chicago Edition 1974
ISBN: 0-226-14390-2

So, here goes my thoughts, reflections, and critiques (well probably no critiques as these ideas are amazing and I'm not learned enough to critique them) on the Introduction (by Reginald D. Archambault <- which is an amazing name):
It is commonplace that everyone talks about Dewey and no one reads him.
~ Preface
According to Archambault, Dewey's philosophy of education is based on his philosophy of science. He was a strong skeptic and scientist who believed that the scientific method could be applied to pretty much anything and should definitely be applied to education. This to me is a breath of (old) fresh air. I am a skeptic and scientists myself and believe that those two items (coupled with critical thought) form the basis of education.
Dewey felt the aim of education was the 'development of reflective, creative, responsible thought' (p. xviii). This is a well stated, succinct purpose for education. With this goal in mind, students will be able to a) teach themselves b) critique what they are shown and c) further their own growth through self-reflection.

Although perhaps not in the sphere of educational philosophy but still interesting (as a skeptic), Dewey felt that morals should belong within the world of facts, not distinct from it. As the act of valuing is susceptible to the scientific method.
Back on education, he felt that the ends of education are not a fixed point. For to be fixed is to have 'rigid, habitual forms of behaviour [that] can lead only to stagnation' (p. xx). Instead the goals of education must shift in relation to the changing environment and changes in society. It is a common question in the Twitterverse about the goals of education. Dewey I feel would argue that that is not a good question as in his mind, the goals must be stated in terms of processes (i.e. the promotion of reflective thought not reflective thought). This means that education is the end goal in itself. He felt that a major aim of education was to help students become morally responsible so they can, as adults, create new societal rules and become autonomous. To achieve this end, Dewey argues that the desires of the student must be heard, addressed, and acted upon where reasonable. In essence, he is arguing for more student control in their learning.

Back on the subject of ends, Dewey believed that if the end goals are to be meaningful they must be defined 'in terms of the means which would be used in their attainment' (p. xxiii). Dewey argued against vaguely stated goals for education (such as 'freedom' or 'wisdom' or 'the full development of the child') as in his mind they were stated as ends within themselves and precluded the notion of a means of attaining them.

Dewey also fought against traditional (and popular) methods of instruction that he called 'assign-study-recite' (p. xxiii). He felt that the justification for these methods was faulty: the belief in a Tabula Rasa state and the idea of a child as a passive receiver of information. Instead he argued for a method of instruction that focused on the 'live, meaningful, and important problem to be grappled with and solved' (p. xxv). This to me indicates a form of PBL, an active integration of content with the student's interests in a way that supports learning and does not stifle it.
He also argued against the idea of separating learning into distinct subjects. He felt this caused the subject to be viewed as an unchanging collection of facts to be learned either through 'classroom management' or by applying a sugar-coating to the material to make it more palatable. In relating this back to his ideas of ends and means, he deduces that this method of instruction actually prevented the achievement of its own aim (the absorption of the distilled subject knowledge) by promoting a hatred of the subject by preventing an open and free exploration of the subject. Instead the knowledge is not the driving force of education, it must be subservient to the purpose and method of instruction. Knowledge should not be presented based on the ideas of tradition but instead organized and structured based on its relevance to the problem at hand. I have created some illustrations to illustrate this.Whereas Dewey's approach would look more like this:Dewey argues that content must be defined in terms of the relationship between the teacher and the student and must not be the end in itself. The end is the application of content to a real problem thus proving the means for synthesis of the learning.

In Dewey's mind the teacher's role is not to disseminate of content but is instead tasked with 'prompting the development of ideas in the pupil' (p. xxvii). The teacher's role becomes one of helping the student to develop relations and connections and their own ideas. To accomplish this the teacher must be foremost a learner, armed with a broad general knowledge but based on a sound grounding of educational theory; especially the relationship between theory and practice.

The introduction ends with a quote from Dewey:
If we are willing to conceive of education as the process of forming fundamental dispositions, intellectual and emotional, toward nature and fellow men, philosophy may even be defined as the general theory of education.
The editor concludes with a statement that in order to understand Dewey's thoughts on education, you must first understand his total philosophy. Let the education begin ...

1 comment:

  1. Very interesting summary. I'll have to look further into Dewey's concepts.