Experience&EducationCoverIn the second chapter of Experience and Education, Dewey begins to address some of the questions (who, what, when, where, how, and why) that need to be explored in order to create New Schools that are not simply the opposite of Traditional Schools. In this chapter, he proposes a theory of education that is committed to experimentation and empiricism. Education, according to Dewey, should emphasize the organic connections that exist between learning and students’ (and teachers’) personal experiences. However, he points out that not all experiences are educative. He posits that we ought to emphasize those experiences that are of high quality. High quality experiences for Dewey are those that are:

  • Agreeable to the student in the present
  • Have a positive or commutative influence on future experiences

I would add to Dewey’s list by including experiences that are (1) inclusive of diverse cultural perspectives, (2) respectful of students’ individual experiences, and (3) relevant to the contexts in which students currently live as well as to future environments (college, work, etc.) in which students may find themselves. I feel it necessary to emphasize the previous three points because many teachers, some through willful ignorance and some through honest ignorance, fail to see the value in the experiences that so-called marginalized students bring with them into the classroom.

Rather than simply describing what we ought to do, Dewey also points out the kinds of experiences that may stifle students’ intellectual (as well as social and emotional) growth. I include some of these here to point out how some in our field use these sorts of experiences and then wonder why students lose interest in their studies.

  • The overemphasis on drill and practice may render students callous to the development of ideas or on critical thought
  • Experiences that are foreign to students’ life outside of school or those that fail to include them may rob students of control/power in the learning process.
  • Experiences that are agreeable, but so disjointed from one another may fail to create a foundation on which future learning may occur.

The major takeaway from comparing and contrasting quality experiences with those that may stifle students’ growth is that it is not enough to say that a school, program, or teacher uses “research-based instructional strategies” or emphasizes “experiential learning,” rather it is essential that these strategies, activities, and even the very organization of a classroom itself must lead to experiences that are (1) agreeable to the student in the present, (2) are structured and delivered in a manner as to create opportunities for future learning, (3) and are inclusive of students’ cultures.

In order for educators to create environments that include the specific resources, physical spaces, and cultural norms where high quality experiences may occur, educators must:

  • know their content,
  • know what knowledge and skills students already have as well as the knowledge and skills they will need in future courses,
  • understand and be respectful of students’ lives outside of school in order to help students make connections, compare, contrast, and critique the knowledge and skills to which they are being exposed.

All of this sounds like an excellent and worthy goal. However, none of this can take place unless it is guided by a philosophy of education that not only addresses WHAT is to be accomplished, but also HOW. I would like to add, “By WHOM?” to the list of questions that must be asked in order to develop a meaningful philosophy of education.

WHAT are we doing? HOW will we do it? BY WHOM will certain tasks be carried out? These are difficult questions. We still have yet to address what we mean by experimentation and empiricism. We have to address the organization of content, of physical spaces, and of students. Is it best that students are grouped into cohorts defined by age? By ability? Should they be grouped by gender? What is it that students will be expected to learn? Are our current conceptions of math, science, literature, and history adequate for our vision of Progressive Education? History curricula will most certainly have to be re-written to provide a clearer picture of our collective past.

This is difficult work. It will require more than just a little bit of imagination. And testicular fortitude. I have more reading to do, more questions to ask, and much more to consider.

Experimentation and Empiricism: More thoughts on Dewey

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