Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Experience and Education -John Dewey 1938

Such a lot of the ideas expressed today have their genesis in the ideas of John Dewey.That Dewey's ideas have yet to be fully realised says something for the power of conservatism in education. 'Experience in Education' is Dewey's most concise statement of his ideas written after criticism his theories received. In this book Dewey argues that neither 'traditional ' nor 'progressive ' ideas are adequate and he outlines a deeper point of view building on the best of both. The following are ideas he expresses in his book.

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Maybe ,as the self centred greedy capitalism of the West is crumbling, the time is right to develop a new democratic vision for the 21st Century. John Dewey's book Experience and Education provides idea to think about for the century ahead of us? Dewey wrote extensively about the relationship between education and democracy (1916) - a link that those in power today choose to ignore but what better place to establish democratic ideals through example than the school.

Dewey wrote Experience and Education after criticism of his earlier ideas and was an opportunity to reformulate his philosophy.

Dewey was concerned that education had divided into two camps, the 'traditional' and the 'progressive'.One relying on the transmission of traditional subjects the other exalted learner's interests, Neither he thought were sufficient in themselves. Neither of therm applies the principles of a carefully developed philosophy of experience. He was particularly concerned that progressive education must employ progressive organisation of subject matter and not be limited to children's fleeting interests.

John Dewey's ideas have all but been lost in our current system particularly as students reach higher levels and, because of this, we now have such worrying problem of dis-engagement of learners.

Dewey introduces his book with the idea that we like to think of either-or opposites recognising no intermediate possibilities.

Traditional education is one of imposition from above and outside and the attitude of pupils, on the whole, must be one of docility, receptivity, and obedience. Unfortunately much of the subject matter is beyond the reach of the experience of young children.

This imposition from above, even in so called child centred primary schools, is opposed to personal expression and individuality and learning through experience. Such an education is all about preparation for a distant future than the opportunities of present life.

It is at this point the either-or philosophy becomes pertinent.Dewey believed there needed to be an intimate relationship between experience and education and that students had to construct their own learning.

It does not follow however that the knowledge and skill of the mature person has no direct value nor the knowledge that is contained in traditional subjects. Early progressive schools made little use of organised subject matter nor any form of direction and guidance. This , Dewey believed, was too much of a reaction against the sterility of traditional teaching. Too much emphasis was placed on freedom for its own sake and neglected the role of the teacher.

Dewey believed in one permanent frame of reference; namely the organic connection between education and personal experience. This however did not mean that all experiences are genuinely or equally educative. Some experience can distort or arrest growth and can also lead learners to land them into a groove or rut.

Traditional learning experiences render many students callous to ideas; many students lose their impetus to learn; and all too often leave students with no power to continue learning.

Everything Dewey believed depended on the quality of the experience; experiences that lead to desirable future experiences. The problem for teachers is to select the kind of present experiences that live fruitfully in and creatively in subsequent experiences.The more definitely and sincerely it is held that education is a development within, by, and for experience, the more important it is that there should be clear conception of what experience is.

Traditional schools, to this day, can get along without any consistently developed philosophy of education but educational reformers and innovators alone have felt the need for a coherent philosophy of education. And, Dewey, writes, it a difficult task to work out the methods for a new education that for traditional schooling.

Dewey admits that the 'new' education is simpler in principle as it is in harmony with growth but the easy and the simple are not identical. To discover what is simple and to act upon the discovery is an exceedingly difficult task.

This is the challenge of creative teaching. It is easier to follow the old ways. Those who wish to be creative need to develop new organisations, says Dewey, beyond current fragmented timetabling.

Deciding on experiences that are worthwhile is vital. Every experience enacted modifies further experiences and results in positive attitudes and growth of understanding and skill. A worthwhile experience arouses curiosity, strengthens initiative and provides a desire to learn sufficiently intense for students to apply effort and to persevere through difficulties.

Teachers need to be able to evaluate each experiences and to assist the student to gain success without imposing control. Teachers need to be on the alert to see what attitudes and habits are being developed and this requires that the teacher has some ideas of what is going on in the mind of the learner. The teacher is an important part of any learning experience.

The primary responsibility of educators is to assist shaping the experience by providing environing conditions and to utilize the surroundings to build up experiences that interact with the personal desires of he students. This is in contrast to traditional teaching where learning is all too often disconnected from the learners experience. Dewey writes that enduring attitudes of likes and dislikes are the collateral results of teaching . Such, attitudes he writes, are what fundamentally counts in the future; the most important being the desire to continue learning. He writes, what avail is it to gain information if the learner loses his own soul - the ability to extract meaning from future experience.

Dewey asks us to look back on our school days and wonder what has become of all the knowledge that was taught to us.

This means , he says, that teachers must give attentive care to the conditions which give each experience a worthwhile meaning and the potential to provide a favourable effect upon the future.

An issue in traditional eduction is one of control. Dewey believes that the total environment the teacher and students create provides social control by being involved in a community in which all share responsibility. Students, Dewey writes, are controlled by the 'moving spirit of the group'. The teacher reduces to a minimum the occasions in which he or she has to exercise authority and when it is done it in behalf of the interests of the group.

The primary source of social control, resides in the very nature of the work done in which all individuals have an opportunity to contribute and to feel responsibility for.This is the essence of Dewey's concept of democracy. Dewey appreciates that some students, due to prior experiences, will not respond positively and will be challenge for teachers but he also believes many poor attitudes arise from a failure by teachers to arrange the kind of work that will create involvement. To achieve this will require considerable planning of powerful learning experiences but also that this planning needs to be firm enough to give direction yet not restrict individuality. Developing a positive learning community so all students learn one of the most important lessons in life, that of mutual accommodation and adaptation, is the challenge for all teachers.

Dewey's book is an attempt to define the nature of freedom. The only freedom of value, Dewey writes, is the freedom of judgement exercised on behalf of something worthwhile. It is a mistake to treat freedom as an end in itself as, he says, it can be used in destructive ways. Dewey believes in freedom to frame purposes, to judge wisely and to consider consequence. Dewey writes about the importance of reflective thinking, to stop and think before acting; to postpone immediate impulsive actions. The ideal aim of education is self control ordered by intelligent judgement.

Intelligent judgement is all about purpose in new situations that we need to pay attention to. To do this requires the learner to observe, to appreciate the significance of what is seen, to be aware of possible consequences. In such unfamiliar situation we cannot be certain of consequences so we need to reflect on past experiences and translate possibilities into a plan of action. The crucial thing involves the postponement of immediate action until observation and judgement have intervened. This reflective process gives direction and the beginning of a plan of attack. Teachers have a vital role to help students in this process. Combining suggestions from others assists in this process and can result in co-operative ventures.

This is in essence the scientific inquiry process.

Question and possible answers arise from observation and ideas must be tested. To ensure the process is of value demands keeping track of ideas, activities and observed consequences. Keeping track is a matter of reflective review and summarizing to record salient features and to extract meanings. Such studies will lead into the the expanding world of subject matter and a continual reconstruction by each learner of what is being learnt.


As for subject matter, Dewey writes, anything that can be called a study including, arithmetic, history, geography, must at the outset fall within the scope of ordinary life experience. From this experience the next step for the teacher is to develop it into a richer and also more organised form. The environment, the world of experience, constantly grows larger , and so to speak, thicker. Such experiences need to lead to appropriate subject disciplines.Teachers need to select experiences that have the promise and potentiality of presenting new problems and the opening of new fields - connectedness and growth need to determine choices.

The objectives of learning for the future needs to be found in present experiences but can only be carried forward only in the degree that present experience is stretched, as it were , backwards.

A single course of study is not possible but the selection and organisation of subject matter is fundamental but, whatever is selected, must allow for improvisation and unforeseen occasions.

Dewey saw the learning process as a continuous spiral linking past experiences with the present. This experiential process of learning would ideally begin early and carried out throughout schooling, making use of the method of intelligence as exemplified by scientific thinking.

No experience is educative that does not tend to both knowledge of more facts and entertaining of more ideas and to a better, a more orderly, arrangement of them. It goes without saying, Dewey writes, that the organised subject matter of the adult cannot provide the starting point nevertheless it represents the goal to which eduction should continually move.

Dewey was writing to answer both the critics of his ideas and those who misinterpreted them.

He appreciated that the road to the 'new' education was not an easy one but a strenuous and difficult one. The fundamental issue, he believed, was not of a new versus old eduction, nor progressive against traditional, but a question of what must be worthy of the name eduction.

Such an education needs to be based on a sound philosophy of experience.

Dewey's ideals about democracy and experiential learning as are relevant and distant as ever.

9 comments:

Anonymous said...

Bruce both of theses last two posts should be discussed at staff meetings around the country to begin the next school term.

If our secondary colleagues could pick up on Dewey's ideas and our primary staff were allowed to then the country would fly as kids everywhere actually began to enjoy their time at school.

Bruce said...

I couldn't agree more. I have been so impressed with my re-reading of John Dewey.It sure points out that nothing is new in our 'new' curriculum and that changing the mindsets of politicians and the public, let alone the teachers is a real challenge. And to think there were teachers in the primary service who were implementing such ideas before the right-wing revolution of the 80s!

Maurie said...

I continually refer my staff to this blog and many have it as a link to their own. As a result these ideas are often dicussed. We are attempting to pilot an integrated curriculum approach in one of our Year 9 classes. But where to from here?

Bruce said...

Hi Maurie

Hope the weather is great in Opotiki.

Great to hear you keep up with my blogs. That you have started your integrated class is a good start but I wouldv'e thought you would need to make use of various subject teachers to get the appropriate depth of learning?

As John Dewey wrote it was never going to be easy - particularly in a high school. Have you visited Edutopia site? Or Big Picture Company? Or Alfriston School Howick?

Mike Anderson said...

Uncanny Bruce. I am preparing a keynote speech for an Australian conference on a very similar theme, honour Dewey and don't forget our other wonderful educational ancestors like Beeby.

Cheers
Mike

Bruce said...

Greetings Mike

Great you find the Dewey stuff useful. I have sent you a link to blog about Dr Beeby.

Have fun in Oz!

Robin said...

Education is learning by another's mistakes. Experience is learning by your own.

Robin said...

Education is learning by others' mistakes. Experience is learning by your own. My father's most frequently repeated words to his children

Bruce said...

Thanks Robin. Learning by reflecting on your own experience for next time.