Monday, August 30, 2010

probing John Dewey's Theory of Education: Part One

Probing the Educational Implications of John Dewey’s Theory of Growth

I add John Dewey’s substantial work on education based on his pragmatic philosophy as a third resource to construct a learning theory and corresponding instructional design through the prism of his core concept of “growth.” In teasing out his subtle concept of growth, I draw on Dewey’s highly influential text, Democracy and Education (1916). For those who would like to incorporate Dewey’s ideas in their own work, an inexpensive print version can be accessed here The online version can be accessed here:

To open up this topic, I draw on some key statements by educational scholar, Jim Garrison, from his important book, Dewey and Eros: Wisdom and Desire in the Art of Teaching At the center of Dewey’s educational vision is a naturalistic philosophy in which inquiry is not an end-in-it-self, but a means toward establishing a more desirable state of things, whatever the specific context of the inquiry may be. Such a more desirable state of things in the light of some problem or experientially-driven perplexity requires a critical probing of the range of options within the realm of the possible. At the center of this is not only rational decision making based on a given set of choices, but also the illuminating impulse of “imagination [which] plays a crucial role in both rational cognitive and creative value appraisals” (Garrison, p. 127) of both the problem-focus and potential solutions. Hence, the title of Garrison’s book in which the most disciplined inquiry and the most sublime aesthetics converge in the realm of lived experience in a stimulating quest for some type of satisfactory resolution within a reconstruction of experience itself through a more desirable “ends-in-view,” which Dewey succinct fully defines “as that which, if acted upon will supply the existing need or lack and [thereby] resolve the existing conflict” or lacking gap (Quoted in Archambault (Ed.) John Dewey on Education, p. 90). As Garrison states it:

Deliberation allows us to see in the future of our best possibilities. It is part of moral perception to see beyond what is immediately present. The refusal to separate imagination and emotion from rational deliberation allowed Dewey to defy one of the most devious threats to critical thinking. If our critical thinking lacks imagination, emotion, and intuition, then we are only able to deliberate about preexisting alternatives. Value criticism would then be purely cognitive and dispassionately rational….To be free we need to imagine the possible beyond the actual, and to be moral we must distinguish those possibilities that ought to be (i.e., that are truly desirable) from those that ought not. Dewey understood that imagination could create new value alternatives for us to deliberate upon and perhaps to pursue. This is why Dewey’s complete theory of the education of eros is imaginatively creative as well as analytically critical (p.128).

This convergence between critical inquiry and the quest for an experientially grounded aesthetic fulfillment that gives shape to new potentialities in the very midst of the actual is essential in deploying the full range of available resources in dynamic problem resolution. That is, beyond setting a negative problem in a somewhat better light, which has much value in its own right, education, at its finest, holds the sublime potential in the setting forth of a new paradigmatic reconstruction that could not have been merely “logically” fathomed from the previously given. Thus, an adult learner goes beyond obtaining a better job, which, itself, may be viewed as an important positive value in its own right, and creates his or her new business with a resulting entrepreneurial reconstruction of the self that could not have been “realistically” envisioned from a merely rational extrapolation of the previously given options.

Based on this framework, Garrison lays out the pedagogical ideal in which “what we should always do morally is strive to perceive our students’ best possibilities.” An accurate assessment of what this may be for each student is obviously difficult, necessitating much discernment and empathetic experimentation, “requiring a good deal of imagination” and critical inquiry. Nonetheless, on Garrison’s view, “imagination [in the Deweyan vein of searching out for the better within every actuality] is the greatest instrument of the good.” Such teaching requires both critical and poetical sensibilities in “bestow[ing] value on our students by calling into existence their best possibilities” (p. 171). Such “reconstruction [in] transforming a situation from worse to better” is the essence of what Dewey means by growth. The process entails a progressively leading toward the more desirable (Dewey’s concept of “an ends-in-view). Throughout this reconstruction, each moment or event leads into an increasing “harmony” and unification” in which processes and desired outcomes are mutually enfolded and progressively worked through as the learning process unfolds (p. 198). An aesthetic sensibility is reflected in each moment as the sought for ends-in-view is embedded in each micro-cosmic element leading toward the desired fulfillment. This is intuited as much as it is consciously articulated in each creative “teaching moment” in which artistic sensibility and critical inquiry are constructively conjoined.

Pivotal Ideas in Democracy and Education

In light of this background I will focus on some of the key points in chapters 3-4 in Dewey’s Democracy and Education which provides the foundation for grasping the entire text. In Chapter Three, Dewey draws out the importance of direction, including the teacher’s facilitative role in “guiding the natural capacities” of students to progressively realize desired ends. By direction, Dewey means a continuous course of activity focusing on a coherent building toward a desired aim in which the teacher serves as a critical actor in bringing learning goals toward fulfillment in some student and teacher identified satisfactory result. In this respect, Dewey rejects either/or positions as to whether the curriculum can be planned in advanced, whether pre-designed learning goals can be drawn upon, whether instructional materials can be effectively brought in ahead of time or whether they need to be developed or identified as a result of the active engagement of the classroom setting.

He also rejects either/or positions on whether teachers should provide a leading role or follow the prompting of students. In this respect, the teacher gives of his or her background, talent, and knowledge, as much as takes from the background, talents, and knowledge of the students as the social dynamic of the classroom activity unfolds. The issue for Dewey is less who provides the direction, and on his interpretation, the teacher needs to play a substantial role in helping students realize their own innate capacities in moving from any current actual to a progressive realization of the better. In the process, Dewey advocates for a highly interactive learning dynamic; one focused on the set of problems at hand through the engagement of a learning community where each contributes according to his or her capacity, interest, and commitment to the learning project at hand.

The more fundamental matter is that substantial sources of direction are built into the educational process so that the learning that truly matters, which in any given setting may best be served by a more cognitivist or a more constructivist design emerges fully flourishing in the process. For Dewey this “means that the successive acts” of each learning experience “are brought into a continuous order” so that they successively build on each other in leading toward a satisfactory and coherent learning outcome. In this respect, the attention is not only on the aesthetic appeal of a given teaching moment, though this is critical. What is even more important is that each educational “activity…be centered at a given time in such a way as to prepare for what comes next (p. 25). For without such continuity, the energies unleashed in any momentary learning episode is likely to get dissipated rather than serving in a contributory way to a more enduring educational end. Direction is, for Dewey, a “joint activity” (p. 28) in which each participates in a collaborative educational enterprise in both giving and taking direction in a manner that best moves the quest for the ends-in-view through desirable learning forward.

In this respect, “education is not an affair of ‘telling’ and being told, but an active and constructive process (p. 38) in which the setting out of an intelligent direction is an essential function in arriving at the desired destination.
Dewey’s more sustained discussion of “growth” takes place in Chapter Three. To put it in the most straightforward manner, Dewey defines growth as the “cumulative movement of action toward a later result” (p. 41). This core concept is premised on the emphasis Dewey places on the plasticity of human nature which serves as the basis for human power or potentiality as an underlying force of both creative and destructive change; what Dewey defines more dynamically as reconstruction. The positive point is the potentiality and desirability of education serving as a creative force that unleashes “the ability to develop” (p. 42) in the very midst of progressively moving from a problematic situation toward a more desirable resolution.

This process of growth remains continuous as long as people have problems to solve and solutions, however provisional, to seek out. Stating the core concept more fully, Dewey refines his definition of growth in the following manner:
It is essentially the ability to learn from experience; the power to retain from one experience something which is of avail in coping with the difficulties of a later situation. This means the power to modify actions on the basis of the result of prior experiences, the power to develop dispositions. Without it, the acquisition of [a constructive set of educational] habits is impossible (p. 44).

An adult learner returns to class after a less satisfactory job interview and through a class analysis carefully reviewed what worked well and what did not, what re-adjustments are needed for a more effective result, including a determination of whether the problem lies some needed mastery in the realm of interpersonal competency, in a technical skill area, or whether something else altogether may have been in play. With a plausible diagnostic serving as a guiding framework, the student, then, is in a better position to re-assesses his or her readiness for a given position and work on enhancing whatever skill sets require basic development or perhaps minor calibration.

Thus, “a possibility of continuing progress is opened up by the fact that in learning one act [in this case how to break down the negative and positive features of a given job interview], methods are developed [that can be] good for use in other situations.” In this case, the student has obtained a more nuanced understanding of his or her skill set in light of the range of the types of job for possible consideration as well as an enhanced set of presentation skills designed for a more effective presentation in a job interview. In the process this student “acquires a [better] habit of learning. He learns to learn” (p. 45) and achieves a certain level of growth in the process which can be transferred to other situations.

To be sure, additional steps are needed in drawing on such reassessment and re-tooling in preparing for other interviews and in ultimately landing a desired job, which could include a re-calibration of what that means. This effort also would also fall within the purview of a continuous learning inquiry process based on the subtle artistic and critical sensibilities unleashed in a working through the means-ends continuum in which some movement toward the desired goal would be ideally built into each teaching moment.

To sum up, the very purpose of education, according to Dewey, is to establish a learning environment which secures the full use of intelligence in the process of forming fruitful habits that can instill a mode of continuous inquiry in which greater learning in relationship to the issues of true significance is fostered. For optimal effectiveness, such a mode of learning needs to be institutionalized by a given school or educational agency and internalized among both teachers and students alike. In this respect, education at its best is a form of lifelong learning in which life itself is enhanced through continuous growing. In this respect, “the educational process has no end beyond itself; it is its own end,” a process of “continual reorganizing, reconstructing, transforming” (p. 50).

This, in short, is what Dewey means by growth, a vision of learning that holds much potential significance in adult education settings. It is this that I recommend that you focus on in reading Ch 4, “Preparation, Unfolding, and Formal Discipline,” by concentrating on sections one and three, and Ch 5, “Education as Progressive,” skimming sections one and two for core ideas, while concentrating on section three.

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