Thursday, July 8, 2010

EDUC 504: Dewey: Not just for decimal systems (Reflections on readings for July 9)

This week's readings include

  • John Dewey's, "My Pedagogic Creed" from 1897
  • A 2006 article by Peter Rich and Thomas Reeves relating Dewey's writings to Educational Technology
  • A 2004 discussion of the implications of Google and Wikipedia for librarians by Jeffrey Knapp

I find it fascinating that of the three readings, the one that's easily available online is the one from the 19th century. The 21st century ones are still paper-bound.

In some ways, Dewey's reflections on pedagogy are also still as relevent as the other two articles. That's some longevity! I agree with his central idea that education involves an organic interplay between the core abilities and interests of the individual student and the social construction of reality the student lives in (language, scientific concepts, etc.). I think this interplay is the reason I stumble when friends tell me that they're going to home school their children. It definitely optimizes the content and speed of learning to the individual child, but it seems to deprive them of (and also, my friends would point out, protect them from) much of the richness (and pain) offered by interaction with multiple teachers and peers in a more social schooling environment. I guess that can be compensated by extensive interaction with the community outside the "home" while home-schooling, but then it starts to seem like re-inventing the "school" wheel.

I also think Dewey's statement that, "it is impossible to foretell definitely just what civilization will be twenty years from now. Hence it is impossible to prepare the child for any precise set of conditions." has been proved out multiple times since he wrote it. Which has some strong implications for what we should be teaching -- enduring fundamental skills (arithmetic and reading) and critical thinking, learning, and innovating skills (to enable adaptation to new conditions), but maybe less emphasis on the particular content of a subject matter at the moment, as the "canonical" ideas and content may evolve beyond recognition over the lives of our students.

I think it is a little more problematic to consider Dewey's statement that, "It is the business of the school to deepen and extend [the student's] sense of the values bound up in his home life.", as this seems to assume a much more homogenous community with much higher assumptions of shared values than I think is appropriate for most modern American classrooms. When the children of Baptists, Episcopalians, Conservative Jews, Sunnis, atheists, college professors, yoga teachers, business managers, computer geeks, and manufacturing workers all go to school together, whose home values should the school be deepening and extending? What would define the common core that could be embraced? My first thought would be separation of church and state and free speech. But what about when the free speech makes fun of Mohammed or features a bare breast? Or the separation of church and state conflicts with strong beliefs about evolution? Are there common values in a multicultural society, beyond respect for each other's humanity and tolerance for each other's differences?

Finally, with regards to the subjects I'm preparing to teach, Dewey says, "science is of value because it gives the ability to interpret and control the experience already had." Which aligns quite well with my experience that it's very difficult to teach students in Ghana the following concept: "Ice is less dense than water. This is important because in winter, ice floats to the top of rivers and lakes and insulates them and keeps them from freezing solid, allowing the fish underneath to survive the winter." My students were comfortable with "fish live in bodies of water". They had experienced that. But none of them had any experience with temperatures below 60 degrees Farenheit or chunks of ice bigger than a fist. What might have come naturally to rural students in the northern U.S. was very very abstract for my students, and therefore very very hard to communicate. (Absurd, really.) Which points to the importance of ensuring that the curriculum I teach is tied to the experiences my students bring to the classroom, and the new experiences I can provide them through field trips, projects, and in-class activities. It will be interesting to play with ideas about how technology can be used to create more of those experiences in an authentic way that doesn't come off as too artificial or confined or simplified.

I was hoping the Rich and Reeves article would address this, but it seems more concentrated on showing how much modern theories of learning still depend on Dewey, rather than talking about specific uses of technology.

While Dewey uses quaint language with relatively fresh ideas, the Knapp article about Google and Wikipedia has a faint "old person" whiff to the whole concept of "are [these ubiquitous tools] friend or foe?". The answer seems so obviously to be "friend (to be used as tools in appropriate circumstances with an appreciation of what they are and where they come from)" to anyone under a certain age (30? 40?). On the other hand, I'm old enough that I remember the internet before google. (Ah, Altavista and Excite -- where did you go? Oh yes, I remember now -- you were less efficient and effective than google. We ditched you.) I think this is hilarious, and true: "Early Web searchers were educated in the seeming relationship of every word in the English language to some sort of sexual practice." It reminds me of this.

Who is "Gen M"? I've heard of Gen X and Gen Y... is this a special construct just for this book? Is it too recursive if I google it and then read about it on wikipedia?

I'm not sure whether my favorite part of the "miserable failure" original google bomb is that it existed, or that "Google initially did not consider it a problem to be fixed, since its system was technically working as it was designed." If enough people think the president is not doing a good job, Google will not try to censor that consensus!

I think consensus is actually the key word here. "Old people" grew up thinking that authority came from text that had enough value that someone was willing to pay to print it on paper, preserving those ideas in a static state using expensive capital investments in printing presses and binding machines. That authority may have been valid in the humanities, but in peer reviewed science, authority has always come from a shifting, dynamic consensus around key ideas (hopefully, but not always) due to the current preponderance of data supporting them. And now, in this brave new internet world, authority is still derived from a dynamic, shifting consensus, it just happens in the blink of an eye, as google's computers crunch on what most (internet savvy) people think is the best match for "miserable failure" and wikipedia notifies all interested parties of any changes made to their pet articles. To sum up what I think the article is saying on p.164 -- we're all wrong different ways, and if you average us out, you come closer to the truth (as long as there's a sufficient diversity of opinion, enough attention paid to the topic in question, and we all get feedback from each other).

In the section on why Gen M likes google, wikipedia, and the internet in general, Knapp says, "Some clarification ... about the "shelf life" of knowledge -- that, for example, a survey about the Internet habits of teenagers has a longer useful life than, say, the score of last night's ball game -- might be in order." But really the relevant question is, "is the shelf life of the knowledge longer than the cycle for revising and printing new editions and getting them onto library shelves", and for many topics, including the internet habits of teenagers, the answer might well be "no." (This shift in focus from myspace to facebook to twitter to whatever's coming next has been quite fast in terms of publishing timescales.)

I suppose one connection between the readings is that Google and Wikipedia and "the wisdom of the crowds" represent the kind of socially constructed and interactive knowledge that Dewey talking about 113 years ago. Although I have a hard time believing Dewey would have pictured this outcome, even with his self-proclaimed "prophesy" and his intuition that the world is changing fast.


  1. I was wondering about Generation M as well...hadn't heard of that one before either...

  2. I asked Klapperstuck and Kearns (who also wrote in that book and whose "Wired Life" you'll read later) about Generation M. Can be Me, Mobile, Millennial ... but not Malaria or Malarkey. :)

    Like your other posts, this has a lot of strong ideas in it. Focusing in on your Ghana experience for a moment, it is an excellent example of why building/awakening prior knowledge is so important. If we just teach concepts out of context, it won't "stick" for our students.