Monday, August 30, 2010

Dewey's Theory of Growth: Summary Points - Part Two

In the previous post I’ve attempted to sum up a great deal of Dewey’s core educational insights in presenting some of his major ideas while incorporating a few thoughts on implications for instructional design and actual classroom teaching. In Chapter Ten of Conflicting Paradigms of Adult Literacy Education, titled, “Toward a Mediating Pedagogy of Adult Literacy Education,” I summarize discussion of Dewey’s key assumptions about learning through eight points. In the effort to establish at least a few additional links between Dewey’s theory of growth and its implications for creating a viable classroom dynamic I’ve inserted a few points within each of these eight assumptions with the proviso that some of the fuller potential on implementing Dewey’s concepts would need much more work in the realm of practice than I can construct from his work at this point.

The more important point remains that Dewey’s philosophy of education and broader pragmatic philosophy has had a profound effect on 20th century education, including adult education especially in its formative, early years. Moreover, there is a great deal one can draw out for practical application for lifelong and experiential education from Dewey’s core ideas, especially from Democracy and Education and his short book written 20 years later, Experience and Education.

1. Learning is an intermediary process toward the resolution of a problem in the movement toward reconstruction in desirable ends-in-view established through the inquiry process.

a. Since the goal is not learning, which is a means to an end, but resolving some problem, identifying an appropriate problem or interest area to work on in a given educational context is essential in motivating students and engaging their most creative energies.
b. Adult education, with its strong focus on life application learning is an especially apt educational environment to institute such a framework.

2. Knowledge acquisition is a progressive affair of moving gradually from what is known to what is not known, with effective learning processes built throughout the means-ends continuum.

a. Dewey identifies a six stage learning cycle which he defines in the broadest of terms as “the controlled or directed transformation of an indeterminate situation into one that is so determinate in its constituent distinctions and relations as to convert the elements of the original situation into a unified whole” (Logic: The Theory of Inquiry, p. 108).
b. Specific stages include
i. A preliminary stage in which there is some felt matter that does not appear right, but what exactly that is is not quite clear.
ii. The acknowledgement and articulation of a specific problem that needs to be addressed which sets the framework for the inquiry process or learning process.
iii. A provisional problem solution (a hypothesis) that requires testing through reflection and critical action, or experimentation.
iv. Reasoning, reflection, and where appropriate, collaborative inquiry with the result of sharpening a more refined problem resolution statement
v. Experimental testing and further reflection on the implications on some well thought out activity following up on the logic worked through.
vi. Coming to some reasoned judgment, what Dewey refers to as a “warranted assertion” which provides some stable settlement to the means-ends continuum at least for the case at hand (Chapters 6-7 in Logic: The Theory of Inquiry)
c. Each of these stages can be built into a learning activity, even though in practice it is unlikely and may not be necessary for all of these sequences to be formally worked through.

3. Each moment of a learning process in the move from means to ends has its own internal integrity, what Dewey describes as a qualitative whole that moves throughout the entire process of learning.

a. Each of the six stages of inquiry contain much potential in unleashing rich teaching opportunity in which problem identification and provisional solution are built in as a microcosmic element. Each stage of learning possesses a particular function in stimulating the learning continuum in the passage toward the desired goal at the appropriate moment and way in a given consecutive learning sequence.
b. The critical teaching task is being attuned to the particular stage of learning underway in any given context and incorporating materials and keeping the educational direction focused on the immediate learning problem at hand in the midst of its unfolding toward the longer range objective. This includes making course correctives when needed, but being judicial in doing so.

4. What is experienced throughout the learning process, a qualitative whole, is a blending of emotion, social experience, and cognition, mediated by a situation that is culturally constructed. Symbolization is at the core of this phenomenon.

a. Each learning episode is fully contextual in its own right, possesses its own intrinsic integrity, and needs to be worked through as such.
b. Each learning episode, however seemingly mundane, such as learning the sounds of syllables and words is an end as well as a means in which effective learning requires engagement of the whole person whether in individual or collaborative settings. Learning is stimulated through a multi-methodology, multi-engagement approach even in teaching phonics.
c. While each learning process contains its own intrinsic integrity it also needs to be viewed in its contributory role to the learning continuum lest it be perceived as an end in its own right and thereby jeopardize some of its critical focus. For example, the purpose of teaching through phonics is to contribute to fluent reading rather than a mastery of syllable sounds in isolation. Unless this end goal is factored in, there will be more of a tendency with both teachers and students to stay focused on the immediate objective at hand, turning that into an implicit goal, or dropping it when no longer seemingly viable.

5. It is the integrity of working through the process via an increasingly refined recursive cycle of hypothesis formation, data-analysis, observation, and experimentation stimulated by “guiding ideals” or “leading principles,” that leads to the ends-in view.

a. The recursive learning cycle based on Dewey’s mode of inquiry was highlighted above #2. Note the broad similarity with Kolb’s four-part cycle
b. Guiding ideals or leading principles are the immediate sources of directive propulsion that guide learning at each and every stage of an inquiry process. In this function they provide the underlying cohesiveness that leads to consecutiveness in the development of a well-integrated learning process (see #6).

6. Making reasoned inferences throughout all the stages of working through the “means-ends continuum,” is an essential factor in the work of hypothesis formation, data analysis, and in the determination of what it is that is observed and focused upon.

a. Dewey identifies such inferences as some merging of formal thought and intuition; an informed educated hunch that is the deepest taproot of active thinking embedded in a problem resolution inquiry process.
b. Such inferences are ingrained habits of learning that can be developed and refined at some level with all learners, often by focusing on less coverage of the material or curriculum with more depth (see #7).
c. Their development and deployment represents a pivotal, if not the most crucial aspect of the entire educative process, which in contemporary terms might be at least partially associated with metacognitive learning.

7. Instructional materials are tools that help to facilitate and focus learning. Their value is the extent to which they connect the subject matter with some question, issue, or problem with which the students are concerned that in some way advances learning as discerned, in the final analysis, by the students.

a. In Dewey’s terminology, instructional materials serve as “middlemen,” “a bridge for the mind in its passage from doubt to discovery” (D&E, Ch 13, p. 188).
b. Rather than an end in their own right, instructional materials play a functional role in leading to significant learning (“the learning that matters” in my terminology),
c. This middleman perspective is also shared by Dirkx & Prenger in which for them materials are selected only after a learning process has been initiated and goals laid out by the students themselves. The difference with Dewey is that he is less dogmatic in terms of being open to the possibility that materials could be selected in advance in which what truly matters is how they are actually utilized in a given inquiry process. Moreover, Dewey is more inclined to view materials through both symbolic and more literal representations of what is to be learned. He thereby adopts a more fluid view of how they can be appropriated in any given context. Thus, a program may have little choice in deciding whether or not to use a given workbook. Even is such a selection is administratively imposed, the creative classroom teacher can develop a broad array of ways of utilizing such materials in a manner that facilitates what students and teachers together define as significant learning. Such efficacy may require a great deal of skill and a learning climate that trial and error experimentation.

8. “A curriculum which acknowledges the social responsibilities of education must present situations where problems are relevant to the problems of living together, and where observation and information are calculated to develop social insight and interest.”

a. For Dewey, education is not merely a technical pedagogical process. It is one with life itself as signified in his concept of growth. On this view, the purpose of education is the capacity to engage in more education which, for the purpose of enhancing living experience, has a broad array of personal, interpersonal, social, and cultural manifestations
b. Dewey would have shared strong affinities with historian Bernard Bailyn’s definition of education as the entire process by which a culture transmits itself across the generations” ( To this, Dewey would add the important transformational power of education as a pivotal reform engine of the entire society, which Dewey desired to see instituted in all of the public institutions of contemporary life.
c. The extent to which education could serve such a transformative social vision depended not only on the effectiveness of intra-classroom dynamics, but the very receptiveness of the nation’s public institutions, including the school itself, to embody and promote such a vision.
d. In this Dewey hitched his engine for the quest for the good school in dynamic transactional relationship with what he viewed as the good society. However great the distance between the reality and the vision, the progressive educational ideals have played a significant role in 20th century education, including the early history on adult education, especially on the work of Eduard Lindeman in the emphasis both o experiential and lifelong learning. That general and adult education alike have moved into other directions without totally losing their progressive edge is a social story also worthy of much focus, one we will not pursue here.

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