Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Reflecting on the beliefs of John Dewey

Let's reflect on and analyze a couple of excerpts from an article about John Dewey's beliefs.

"Dewey took an early stance against the 'sage on the stage' approach, proclaiming that didactic teaching is not the most beneficial approach for students" (Rich & Reeves, 54).

John Dewey was one of the most influential images in educational reform. It is made quite apparent in many publications about him that he was not an avid promoter of didactic or objective teaching. In other words, he was not a fan of traditional teaching where the teacher stands in front of the class and lectures, which is probably the most commonly practiced teaching method in the United States and perhaps even the world. Even with Dewey's influence, and other great minds who shared his vision, why is this still the most prevalent teaching method?

I'm sure many of our parents and grandparents also experienced this didactic teaching on more than one occasion during their schooling, but their generation accomplished many great things. They reached the moon, developed nuclear devices, developed cars, airplanes, etc. Don't get me wrong, I agree with Dewey that the traditional method of teaching that we're quite familiar with is outdated and not very effective. Maybe I'm the only one who doesn't know the reason for it, but it's interesting that an outdated and ineffective method is still in wide use today.

It makes me wonder about all of the great minds throughout history. Albert Einstein, Isaac Newton,  Leonardo Da Vinci, Thomas Edison, William Shakespeare, and many others, what set them apart from "average" people in the world? Was it their intelligence? Was it how they were raised or their experiences throughout life? Was it their education? Did they sit in classrooms with a teacher standing in the front of the classroom lecturing? Maybe studying about how these great minds were educated and what practices were used could help us understand methods of effective teaching.

In a previous course I attended during my undergraduate studies, I learned about some of the greatest scientific minds that contributed to the history of astronomy. For one of the essay tests, there was a question about Einstein's view on the process of thinking. One of the key things I remembered from his view was that he believed that there must be free play in thinking so that common sense has no effect on the thought. Why is this relevant? My professor told the class that if we could understand and learn the process of thinking of people with brilliant minds, we could too train our minds and think like them. In that sense, maybe learning about how these people were educated is the key to learning the most effective method of teaching.

"Perhaps the most important of Dewey's ideas that have influenced educational technologists was his pragmatic notion that experience is central to learning" (Rich & Reeves, 55).

I agree completely with Dewey on this point. Experience is at the core of learning. When instruction is combined with experience, that is when learning occurs. For example, we're learning about all the theories and proper practices to become effective teachers. However, we will never become effective teachers without gaining experience and practicing what we learn. We see this not only in education, but in other professions and everything else that requires learning. Without experience to accompany instruction, there are many problems that may arise. Take the military for example. When learning basic marksmanship, an instructor will teach the basic functions of a weapon. Imagine sending a soldier who learned how to fire a weapon from a powerpoint presentation into a combat zone. It's obvious that this is not an ideal situation for the soldier. This is why soldiers will spend countless hours practicing (gaining experience) to become proficient at firing a weapon before they are sent into combat. There are many instances and situations when experience can be more valuable than instruction.

"Thus, even though John Dewey was a stalwart believer in independent thinking, he recognized early on that a purely discovery approach was insufficient, even foolish. The teacher's role is rather to provide guidance throughout the process of learning, to 'suggest an end or plan to students'" (Rich & Reeves, 55)

Dewey advocated the importance of students developing as independent thinkers, but he also knew that leaving students to discover things solely by themselves wasn't a superb idea either. Going back to the military example. Imagine an instructor handing a weapon and ammunition to a soldier and leave him alone to figure out how to fire the weapon. Again, not an ideal situation for the soldier. It is important for the soldier to be able to think independently, but the soldier requires guidance and instruction towards that independence.

1 comment:

  1. Jonathan, I find the question of how, within schools, we cultivate independence and independent thinkers, to be a fascinatingly complex one. I am especially glad, given your background in the military, that you chose to address this as, for many people (like me) who might think that they know more than they do, the military seems to be all about the *absence* of independent thinking. Of course, the situation is MUCH more complex than that, and I realize that I don't even know the half of it. I wonder if you see any lessons from your experience in the military, and the way that the subtleties of group cohesion and respecting the chain of command are balanced with cultivating independence of thought that could be useful to you in your teaching?