I came across John and Evelyn Dewey’s “Schools of To-morrow” recently (free pdf download.) It’s 100 years old this year. And as I read through it, I get inspired and depressed at the same time, not unusual when I’m diving into some of the more Progressive texts on education. Inspired because the Deweys (in this case, plural) get it so right. Depressed because we in education don’t seem able to tap into the eternal truths about learning that they and others write about.
I know I’m not a brilliant guy. My education background is not Columbia or Stanford. I don’t remember all that much of what I read. And as I’ve written before, it took me until I was well into my 40s to really start to think deeply about learning and schooling, thanks in large part to the networks of passionate and smart educators I connected with online early on in the days of the social Web. But this is not difficult, esoteric, brain-challenging stuff. It’s common sense. Progressive ideas about education are built on the realities of learning. My love of Sarason and Papert and Dewey and others is because they stay true to the core of what learning is.
When I read stuff like the extended snip from the Deweys’ book below, it kinda gives me goosebumps. And I wonder why isn’t this what we do? Why aren’t these the conversations we are having daily in our schools? Why isn’t this the foundation for the way we prepare our teachers? Why are we so afraid or so unwilling (or so unable?) to meet kids where they are, to make the focus of our work to make sure (as Sarason says) that our kids leave us wanting to learn more about themselves, their peers, and the world around them? I know of no school that even attempts to measure that, as difficult as that may be.
The last line below really captures it for me. And it relates directly to what I’ve been preaching the last few months, that we really need to start connecting our practice in schools to our beliefs about learning. That shouldn’t be hard to do, but the cultures and architectures we’ve built in schools work against that in many ways.
Anyway, maybe this will get you thinking this weekend. I’ve added the emphasis.
“We know nothing of childhood, and with our mistaken notions of it the further we go in education the more we go astray. The wisest writers devote themselves to what a man ought to know without asking what a child is capable of learning.” These sentences are typical of the “Emile” of Rousseau. He insists the existing education is bad because parents and teachers are always thinking of the accomplishments of adults, and that all reform depends upon centering attention upon the powers and weaknesses of children. Rousseau said, as well as did, many foolish things. But his insistence the education be based upon the native capacities of those to be taught and upon the need of studying children in order to discover what these native powers are, sounds the key-note of all modern efforts for educational progress. It meant that education is not something to be forced upon children and youth from without, but is the growth of capacities with which human beings are endowed at birth. From this conception flow the various considerations which educational reformers since his day have most emphasized.
It calls attention, in the first place, to a fact which professional educators are always forgetting: what is learned in school is at the best only a small part of education, a relatively superficial part; and yet what is learned in school makes artificial distinctions in society and marks persons off from one another. Consequently we exaggerate school learning compared with what is gained in the ordinary course of living. We are, however, to correct this exaggeration, not by despising school learning, but by looking into that expensive and more efficient training given by the ordinary course of events for light upon the best ways of teaching within school walls. The first years of learning proceed rapidly and securely before children go to school, because that learning is so closely related with the motives that are furnished by their own powers and the needs that are dictated by their own conditions. Rousseau was almost the first to see that learning is a matter of necessity; it is a part of the process of self preservation and of growth. If we want, then, to find out how education takes place most successfully, let us go to the experiences of children were learning is a necessity, and not to the practices of the schools where it is largely and adornment, a superfluity and even an unwelcome imposition.
But schools are always proceeding in a direction opposed to this principle. They take the accumulated learning of adults, material that is quite unrelated to the exigencies of growth, and try to force it upon children, instead of finding out what these children need as they go along. “A man must indeed know many things which seem useless to a child. Must the child learn, can he learn, all that the man must know? Try to teach a child what is of use to him as a child, and you will find that it takes all his time. Why urge him to the studies of an age he may never reach, to the neglect of those studies which meet his present needs? But, you ask, will it not be too late to learn what are you ought to know when the time comes to use it? I cannot tell. But this I know; it is impossible to teach it sooner, for our real teachers are experience and emotion, and adult man will never learn what befits him except under his own conditions. A child knows he must become a man; all the ideas he may have as to man’s estate are so many opportunities for his instruction, but he should remain in complete ignorance of those ideas that are beyond his grasp. My whole book is one continued argument in support of this fundamental principle of education.”
Probably the greatest and commonest mistake that we all make it to forget that learning is a necessary incident of dealing with real situations. We even go so far as to assume that the mind is naturally averse to learning–which is like assuming that the digestive organs are averse to food and have either to be coaxed or bullied into having anything to do with it. Existing methods of instruction give plenty of evidence in support of a belief that minds are opposed to learning–to their own exercise. We fail to see that such aversion is in reality a condemnation of our methods: a sign that we are presenting material for which the mind in its existing state of growth has no need, or else presenting it in such ways as to cover up the real need. Let us go further. We say only an adult can really learn the things needed by the adult. Surely the adult is much more likely to learn the things befitting him when his hunger for learning has been kept alive continuously than after a premature diet of adult nutriment has deadened desire to know. We are of little faith and slow to believe. We are continually uneasy about the things we adults know, and are afraid the child will never learn them unless they are drilled into him by instruction before he has any intellectual or practical use for them. If we could really believe that attending to the needs of present growth would keep the child and teacher alike busy, and would also provide the best possible guarantee of the learning needed in the future, transformation of educational ideas might soon be accomplished, and other desirable changes would largely take care of themselves.