Tuesday, July 14, 2015

What Must These Men Think Of Us?

For those of you who are unaware of John Dewey, he was, among other things, an educational reformer working during the turn of the 19th century and who can rightly be called the grandfather of our current notions on progressive education. He was born and raised during the Victorian era, a time not unlike our own, when the prevailing idea about education was that children were simply incomplete adults who needed to be stuffed with knowledge, forced into stillness and silence, and "manufactured" into little adults ready to go to work. If you've ever used the terms "hands-on education" or "experiential education," you're quoting Dewey.

At bottom Dewey viewed education not as a process of learning specific pre-determined skills and knowledge, and certainly not as vocational training, but rather as a process of each human realizing her full potential by learning how to contribute fully, productively, and ethically in a democratic society. The role of adults, Dewey said, is to facilitate and guide rather than control and instruct. As he wrote: "The teacher is not in the school to impose certain ideas or to form certain habits in the child, but is there as a member of the community to select the influences which shall affect the child and to assist him in properly responding to these influences."

This is the kind of education we strive for at Woodland Park even as our public schools have veered sharply back toward the Victorian "ideal" under such drill-and-kill federal initiatives as No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, and now the Common Core curriculum (and it is a curriculum in that classroom time in many schools has come to be largely comprised of teaching to the test, test practice, and test taking; it has become a stand-in for "the subjects that comprise the course of study," which is the definition of a curriculum).

Schools inspired by the work of Dewey can still be found, of course, and not just in the preschool world where we can more easily get away with our "play-based education," but most of those schools are private which greatly limits who can afford to send their children. My own daughter attended a Dewey inspired K-12 school here in Seattle that uses "Experiential Education" as it's slogan. President Obama's children attended the University of Chicago Lab School, a school actually founded by Dewey, as do the children of Chicago Mayor Rahm Emmanuel (a leading advocate for Victorian-style public schools). And, perhaps not surprisingly, so do the children of US Secretary of Education Arnie Duncan, the man most responsible for the current debacle taking place in our public schools.

The Chicago Lab School "is an excellent, well-resourced private school with a rich arts curriculum, small classes, entire rooms devoted to holding musical instruments, a unionized teaching staff that you pretty much never hear anyone suggesting should be replaced by untrained temp workers, and not one single standardized test until students reach age 14 . . . In other words, Lab School has to date experienced not on ounce of influence from Arnie Duncan's Department of Ed. Not one ounce of impact from his policies." Mayor Emmanuel has engaged in bullying and union busting in Chicago's public schools, and has unilaterally dictated curriculum despite protests from parents and teachers, while at Lab School the unionized teachers, by contract, must approve any changes to the curriculum.

John Dewey was a man who believed deeply in equality, education, and democracy. Indeed, he saw our schools as the proper source for social progress. As education historian and research professor Diane Ravitch writes: "If only Duncan wanted America's children to have public schools with the same rich offerings as the Lab School. Public schools that didn't have to waste time and money on endless bubble tests. Duncan knows what is best for his children, for Rahm's children, and for the President's children. Why isn't it right for other people's children? John Dewey founded the Lab School to see what was best for public education, not just for the children of elites."

Why can't our public schools be operated under the same principles as those of Lab School and others like it? It can't be about money because there is nothing inherently more expensive about experiential education. What must these men think of us when they seek to impose Victorian education on our children, while providing progressive education for their own?

I put a lot of time and effort into this blog. If you'd like to support me please consider a small contribution to the cause. Thank you!
Bookmark and Share


Seeker said...

My goal is to increase the number of creatives that make it through the (education) system from 8% to 16% (Sir Ken Robinson) and then to engage those creatives to harmonize the workplace(s) to at least provide growth experiences for the remainder ... much of industry would prefer human robots :((

Anonymous said...

The wonderful author/educator Vivian Gussin Paley taught most of her career at the Chicago Lab School and many of her books are accounts of her experiences there.