Dewey Experience and Education

One of the catalysts for writing in here was reading Dewey. I read him on a beach, so while it left me with a sense of ‘wow, he said lots of things I’ve been thinking but haven’t been able to quite put into words’ it was only a sense. The idea of this is to go back to him and write some of it down to try and see where I can make connections.
The quotes are from the Kindle version of his 1938 book Experience and Education.

It is the business of an intelligent theory of education to ascertain the causes for the conflicts that exist and then instead of taking one side or the other, to indicate a plan of operations proceeding from a level deeper and more inclusive than is represented by the practices and ideas of the contending parties. … not a compromise .. nor an eclectic combination … new modes of practice …
And that’s just in his preface.
And it resonates because there are so many arguments that seem to have been pushed to ends of a spectrum in ELT (tech as means or end or distraction, materials as supporting framework or obstacle) and the arguments seem good in that people are talking about what they do and why they do it, but not so good in that there is often a feel of someone wanting to win (or convert others) as opposed to wanting to learn from the dialogue. Dewey seems to have encapsulated the idea of the helix in what he says – not going round and round, but moving on to new understanding, but then if I’ve understood David White, perhaps going round does push us further on, we just don’t always see it.

The history of educational theory is marked by opposition between the idea that education is development from within and that it is formation from without; that it is based upon natural endowments and that education is a process of overcoming natural inclination and substituting in its place habits acquired under external pressure.
Location 110 (chapter 1)
Delta seems like a balance of both. Development should come from within (post lesson reflection / R&A assignment etc), but we are trying to speed up that process with some direction from without.
There seems to be a parallel with the input, output, focus on form thing in language learning. You can learn without the focus on form, but the focus probably makes the process more efficient. You could develop as a teacher without the tutor nudges (and in any case people only ever take some of the nudges on board, same as correcting language, learners want to be corrected, but not all the time and nicely and actually we do and we don’t …), but if you want to do it in a timescale and to an external qualification, then you probably need the nudges.
This also comes back to one of the subjects that kept coming up at the ELTER day last summer – should we be addressing teachers beliefs ? or their practice ? which comes first ? and can you even separate the two ?

He goes on in chapter one to talk about the conflict he sees between what he calls traditional education where the subject matter of education consists of bodies of information and of skills that have been worked out in the past; therefore, the chief business of the school is to transmit them to the new generation.’  and Books, especially textbooks, are the chief representatives of the lore and wisdom of the past, while teachers are the organs through which the pupils are brought into effective connection with the material which has a distinct air of the way Dogme sets up imaginary classrooms to tilt at. Learning means acquisition of what is already incorporated in books and in the heads of elders. It also seems to reflect the view underlying ‘I haven’t got time to do it your way in real classes, Sally, the programme is loaded so I translate most of it for them’. But he also warns against reacting to things by embracing their opposite, so here, he says progressive reaction calls for  individuality, free activity, learning through experience, acquisitions of skills and techniques as means of attaining ends which make direct vital appeal (that last reads like task based learning in 1930s phrases) and acquaintance with a changing world (the movement to make textbooks edgier ?).
And this is the bit that is the siren call for me The problem for progressive education is: What is the place and meaning of subject-matter and of organisation within experience ?
… basing education upon personal experience may mean more multiplied and more intimate contacts between the mature and the immature than ever existed in the traditional school, and consequently more, rather than less, guidance by others.

So the poles of what he is calling traditional and progressive education are knowledge to be transmitted leads to understanding and therefore potential implementation (using language or being able to teach most effectively) or knowledge to be discovered through experiment and experience leads to understanding and therefore potential implementation (using  language or being able to teach most effectively).
Learners of language and teachers on Delta are in ever more of a hurry in a world that becomes ever more complex and expects more and more of them. Some see a ‘traditional’ approach as faster, the idea that there are ‘answers’ that should be delivered to them and given the array of vehicles now available, that is in a sense feasible, but delivering information (is information knowledge ? that sounds like a can of worms …) is not the same as providing education (it isn’t, is it ? what is education ? getting to a point where you can create new knowledge ? a language learner who can make their own meanings fits with that, so does a teacher who can make materials that work for learners / design lessons themselves if they need to and know how to evaluate learners). I got that idea from Howard Gardner, but he wasn’t talking about education, but about intelligences. What’s the difference between an intelligence and a skill ? You don’t build new knowledge with skills (like driving), only with intelligences (like maths). Having an answer is of little use if you can’t understand the question or if you couldn’t have formulated the question for yourself (but perhaps it is if you are expected to pass it on to people who also believe that the questions and answers are all externally determined). I seem to have talked my way to the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and 42.
But then having experience of things doesn’t necessarily lead to making sense of them and going on to create something with them. Just telling someone to think about something or work something out will only produce results sometimes, Lots of people need ideas about how they might go about doing that. So we need structure to help people make sense of their own experience ? And that structure will come from the body of knowledge be that of language and / or of things we know about possible ways of learning and teaching. And if people are going to come to it through their own experience / in their own way, then there needs to be a greater range of support available to help them to do that (as opposed to if you drip feed it to them via your own view of it in which case they have to come to it in your way).

So asking people to work things out for themselves means putting more different ways of accessing information in place, more suggestions of ways this can be done and ensuring they have more feedback on what they are doing … so that’s more of Dewey’s guidance. And be it language learners or teachers, that takes longer to do well than telling them an ‘answer’, and if not done well leaves everyone wondering what they have achieved, but told answers only get a person so far …

And the wealth of technology and the possibility of adding things and keeping them in place as alternatives means you can build courses with more and more alternatives over time as long as you keep seeing them as living things that need feeding and checking, so maybe the opportunities afforded by sites and links and LMSs and forums can provide a richness of ‘intimate contacts’ that Dewey could not have envisaged.

And that’s only chapter one, but it is a nice positive thought to stop on.


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