Saturday, January 16, 2010

if you care about schools, A Pedagogic Creed worth reading

originally posted at Daily Kos

I believe that all reforms which rest simply upon the enactment of law, or the threatening of certain penalties, or upon changes in mechanical or outward arrangements, are transitory and futile.
If the author of those words is correct in his belief, then the entire thrust of American educational policy of the past few decades, since the release of A Nation At Risk in the Reagan administration, is doomed to failure.

If the words sound like those of a contemporary critic of the sanctions No Child Left Behind or of the big stick approach of current Secretary Arne Duncan, then perhaps the author was more prescient than many realize. The words appeared in print on this day in 1897 in School Journal. The piece is titled My Pedagogic Creed and was written by the great American philosopher and Educator John Dewey.

You have the link to read the entire piece. If you are interested in school, students, and education, I suggest that you do. I will offer a few selections and my own observations.

There are five sections to the piece, which when published occupied pages 77-80 of Volume 54 of the publication.






I mentioned that Dewey was a philosopher as well as an educator. Here I think it worth noting that another Dewey, Melville, in his organization of knowledge in the Dewey Decimal System, classified psychology as a subset of philosophy. Anyone intimately involved with the educational process understands that effective pedagogy involves psychological proccesses. Thus it should not surprise you as you read the piece by John Dewey that he often turns towards how a child learns - a psychological process - to explain his pedagogical orientation.

We see this even in the first article, where Dewey - unlike too many educational "reformers" of more recent times, starts with first things: the purpose and nature of education. Perhaps I am unfair to many current "refrormers" but I see them as too focused on the utilitarian approach of economic benefit and the reduction of evaluation to performance on test scores as an external measure. Dewey was first and foremost committed to a democratic societ5y, and his pedagogy reflects that.

This is visible in his opening paragraph:
I believe that all education proceeds by the participation of the individual in the social consciousness of the race. This process begins unconsciously almost at birth, and is continually shaping the individual's powers, saturating his consciousness, forming his habits, training his ideas, and arousing his feelings and emotions. Through this unconscious education the individual gradually comes to share in the intellectual and moral resources which humanity has succeeded in getting together. He becomes an inheritor of the funded capital of civilization. The most formal and technical education in the world cannot safely depart from this general process. It can only organize it; or differentiate it in some particular direction.
The idea of sharing in hte intellectual and moral resources is, to Dewey, a fundamental benefit of a democratic society.

And while the individual has responsibilities within a democratic society, these can best be fulfilled by the development of the child not in isolated learning but through the social situation of interaction with other people. Thus Dewey continues
I believe that the only true education comes through the stimulation of the child's powers by the demands of the social situations in which he finds himself. Through these demands he is stimulated to act as a member of a unity, to emerge from his original narrowness of action and feeling and to conceive of himself from the standpoint of the welfare of the group to which he belongs. Through the responses which others make to his own activities he comes to know what these mean in social terms.
Education is thus both pyschological and social, with the former the basis. And for Dewey, it starts with where the child is:
The child's own instincts and powers furnish the material and give the starting point for all education. Save as the efforts of the educator connect with some activity which the child is carrying on of his own initiative independent of the educator, education becomes reduced to a pressure from without. It may, indeed, give certain external results but cannot truly be called educative. Without insight into the psychological structure and activities of the individual, the educative process will, therefore, be haphazard and arbitrary. If it chances to coincide with the child's activity it will get a leverage; if it does not, it will result in friction, or disintegration, or arrest of the child nature.

Let me make a brief excursus into my own experience as a teacher. I have tuaght from 7th through 12th grades. I have also taught adults in religious school and in the business world. Learning is always more complete, thorough and retained when it connects with the interests of the students, when there is a means of utilizing the new knowledge in immediate application. In a sense, this might lead some to believe that the most effective instruction would, therefore, be individual tutoring. But remember that Dewey also emphasizes the social context of education. Dewey acknowledges that it is possible to emphasize either the psychological or social apart from the other, but that the real value comes from recognizing the organic relationship between the two. He also undertands that the utility of education comes from its ability to be applied not merely in a contemporary context, which is why he seeks to empower the child. He writes
With the advent of democracy and modern industrial conditions, it is impossible to foretell definitely just what civilization will be twenty years from now. Hence it is impossible to prepare the child for any precise set of 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; that his eye and ear and hand may be tools ready to command, that his judgment may be capable of grasping the conditions under which it has to work, and the executive forces be trained to act economically and efficiently. It is impossible to reach this sort of adjustment save as constant regard is had to the individual's own powers, tastes, and interests - say, that is, as education is continually converted into psychological terms. In sum, I believe that the individual who is to be educated is a social individual and that society is an organic union of individuals. If we eliminate the social factor from the child we are left only with an abstraction; if we eliminate the individual factor from society, we are left only with an inert and lifeless mass.

All so far has been from Article One. Allow me to briefly offer some selections from the other sections, starting with What The School Is:
I believe that the school is primarily a social institution. Education being a social process, the school is simply that form of community life in which all those agencies are concentrated that will be most effective in bringing the child to share in the inherited resources of the race, and to use his own powers for social ends.

I believe that education, therefore, is a process of living and not a preparation for future living.

I believe that the school must represent present life - life as real and vital to the child as that which he carries on in the home, in the neighborhood, or on the play-ground.

I believe that education which does not occur through forms of life, forms that are worth living for their own sake, is always a poor substitute for the genuine reality and tends to cramp and to deaden.

I believe that much of present education fails because it neglects this fundamental principle of the school as a form of community life. It conceives the school as a place where certain information is to be given, where certain lessons are to be learned, or where certain habits are to be formed. The value of these is conceived as lying largely in the remote future; the child must do these things for the sake of something else he is to do; they are mere preparation. As a result they do not become a part of the life experience of the child and so are not truly educative.

And the final, provocative paragraph of the section:
I believe that all questions of the grading of the child and his promotion should be determined by reference to the same standard. Examinations are of use only so far as they test the child's fitness for social life and reveal the place in which he can be of most service and where he can receive the most help.

From A THE SUBJECT-MATTER OF EDUCATION, let me offer what may seem most controversial:
I believe that we violate the child's nature and render difficult the best ethical results, by introducing the child too abruptly to a number of special studies, of reading, writing, geography, etc., out of relation to this social life.

I believe, therefore, that the true centre of correlation of the school subjects is not science, nor literature, nor history, nor geography, but the child's own social activities.
Note carefully these words: too abruptly. It is not that Dewey ultimately is opposed to discrete categories or division into subject matter. But the child's mind does not readily make such distinctions. Whereas the principles of each of the domains of human knowledge and endeavor can be learned by the doing of tasks and activities relevant to the immediate context of the child's life. Thus, to take a contemporary issue, it would be foolhardy to attempt to teach as a formal subject the principles of algebra to most 5-8 year olds, and yet the doing of activities that present the opportunity to apply algebraic thinking can lead to a more effective learning of the principles than would be accomplished by discrete and segregated instruction.

Dewey gives many examples of his understanding in this process, including his support of learning things like cooking and sewing, of how the science education of his day was deadly and one might argue very unscientific. Let me note that most children are natural scientists, and we could with proper instruction develop far more passion for and capability in science were we to be working with that natural tendency, even if it meant that their test scores on math reading did not progress as quickly. And yet consider that under NCLB we have ben testing reading and math beginning in the 3rd grade with such punitive sanctions possible that we have excluded the learning of science, of social studies and the like, to the severe detriment of how students perform in these other subjects further up the educational ladder.

In THE NATURE OF THE METHOD, Dewey writes that it
is ultimately reducible to the question of the order of development of the child's powers and interests. The law for presenting and treating material is the law implicit within the child's own nature.
From this he derives 4 principles, which are as follows (I am using Dewey's words, albeit somewhat truncated, which is why they are not in block quotes, but I use italics to indicate the words are not mine):

1. the active side precedes the passive in the development of the child nature; that expression comes before conscious impression; that the muscular development precedes the sensory; that movements come before conscious sensations; consciousness is essentially motor or impulsive; that conscious states tend to project themselves in action.

2. the image is the great instrument of instruction. What a child gets out of any subject presented to him is simply the images which he himself forms with regard to it... if nine-tenths of the energy at present directed towards making the child learn certain things, were spent in seeing to it that the child was forming proper images, the work of instruction would be indefinitely facilitated.

3. interests are the signs and symptoms of growing power... hey represent dawning capacities. Accordingly the constant and careful observation of interests is of the utmost importance for the educator.

4. the emotions are the reflex of actions... to endeavor to stimulate or arouse the emotions apart from their corresponding activities, is to introduce an unhealthy and morbid state of mind...

The final Article is titled THE SCHOOL AND SOCIAL PROGRESS. Dewey begins
I believe that education is the fundamental method of social progress and reform.
That is immediately followed by the quote with which I began.

In a sense, this is the section which might be most controversial. Dewey conceives of a balancing of the individual and the social, or as he puts it, the reconciliation of the individualistic and the institutional ideals. There is of course the question of how that reconciliation is affected, and of who shapes the institutional ideals. Certainly as far back as Plato thinkers have wrestled with how to use education to advance the goals of the larger society. Humanity has never reached a consensus on this, and I sincerely doubt that even within one nation such a consensus is truly achievable. One can note Dewy's belief:, that it is
the community's duty to education is, therefore, its paramount moral duty. By law and punishment, by social agitation and discussion, society can regulate and form itself in a more or less haphazard and chance way. But through education society can formulate its own purposes, can organize its own means and resources, and thus shape itself with definiteness and economy in the direction in which it wishes to move.
But that implies a possible serious struggle over the definition of the very direction in which movement is desired.

Dewey concludes the piece with a series of short statements that might also be viewed as controversial. Consider for example his final three brief statements:
I believe, finally, that the teacher is engaged, not simply in the training of individuals, but in the formation of the proper social life.

I believe that every teacher should realize the dignity of his calling; that he is a social servant set apart for the maintenance of proper social order and the securing of the right social growth.

I believe that in this way the teacher always is the prophet of the true God and the usherer in of the true kingdom of God.

Framing his beliefs in semi-religious terms will certainly raise red flags for many, if for no other reason than it creates the possibility of another dispute, over what the true Kingdom of God is, or of how one conceives of God's will, or similar issues.

But even the idea of "the formation of proper social life" or "the maintenance of proper social order and the securing of the right social growth" are expressions with which many might wish to take issue. They might argue that such expressions could be utilized to maintain an inequitable and unfair social order. That is certainly possible, but only if those expressions were removed from the broader context in which Dewey presents them.

For some who consider themselves conservatives, Dewey is a bete noire, his name a red flag, his approach something to be rejected reflexively and unthinkingly. After all, he was involved with - gasp - development professional associations (aka "unions") for teachers, he had good things to say about aspects of the Soviet Union, and the "progressive" movement in education flowing from his ideas is easy to blame for all they find wrong with American schools.

I would disagree, and not merely because my own orientation as an educator is progressive. The Soviet Union gave us the work of Lev Vygotsky, which has been a huge contribution in understanding how children learn, and thus reshaping how we attempt to teach them. And I would argue that in many ways Dewey is conservative in the best sense of the word. He seeks to conserve the cultural heritage of humanity and society - might I remind the reader of the early appearance in his essay of phrases like "share in the intellectual and moral resources which humanity has succeeded in getting together" and "an inheritor of the funded capital of civilization"? Dewey seeks to broaden access to these. He may insist on starting with where the child is - he begins with the psychological because it is the best way of invoking the natural learning interest of the child and making meaningful the learning upon which he is embarking. But he also insists that there is always a social context. It is worth repeating what he offers as he insists on the organic relationship between the individual psychological and the social aspects of education:
f we eliminate the social factor from the child we are left only with an abstraction; if we eliminate the individual factor from society, we are left only with an inert and lifeless mass.

I wonder how much more productive our discussions about the direction of educational policy might be if the major participants had a better understanding of the history of education in this nation. I certainly think that awareness and UNDERSTANDING of the work of people like Dewey might well improve the process for anyone not coming to the table with predetermined goals that they are determined to impose, regardless of either their cost (monetary, financial, and social as well as pedagogical).

Today is the anniversary of this important statement by Dewey. I have no idea how many will read this posting. I felt it important to remind people of the words and ideas Dewey offered. How they respond is up to them.


1 comment:

Unknown said...

I read your post and enjoyed it. In my opinion, Dewey is not a casual read, but you use his ideas to properly apply them to some timeless issues in education.

Wouldn't it be something if some of these issues were no longer timeless?

Thanks for this.

If you are interested, I teach and blog here: