Nothing like a little mental break to help clear out the cobwebs and blow away the fog impeding clarity of thought. As is typical for me when I recognize the connectedness of initiatives that have been announced since my last post, I went back to my bookshelf for a little perspective. In this case it was to a short story Ayn Rand published in 1970 called “The Comprachicos,” where she wrote about the effects of the progressive education in the 60s grounded in John Dewey’s philosophies. This was education designed to cripple the mind and undermine its ability to accurately deal with reality. Sound familiar? Rand created a superb metaphor for what this type of Competency/Ideas first, instead of facts, education could do to the mind of a high school graduate by comparing it to the faculty of sight.
“Try to project what you would feel if your eyesight were damaged in such a way that you were left with nothing but peripheral vision. You would sense vague, unidentifiable shapes floating around you, which would vanish when you tried to focus on them, then would reappear on the periphery and swim and switch and multiply.”
Now that is a good example except this type of manipulation of Ideas, beliefs, values, and emotions starts in preschool now so there would be no memory of any other way to see. Peripheral vision would become each student’s idea of what it meant to “see”. Likewise, a mind taught to use ideas first to filter experiences is being trained “to use concepts, but he uses concepts by a child’s perceptual method. He uses them as concretes, as the immediately given.” [Italics in original]
It is a bit unnerving, isn’t it, to know that Rand was worried about where the behavioral sciences wanted to go with the mind even back in 1970? She even had a term for it–the student’s “psycho-epistemology.” So our student would be trained to use words and concepts like a parrot and believe they had ‘understanding’. To be willing to transfer those ideas and concepts to new situations where an expert would know their use was inappropriate–the Inapt Analogy we can call it. Without facts though, the student will not.
In the Trilogy I just finished I argued that it appears to me to be a consensus about what education should be in the future and that politicians and think tanks from the so-called Right and Left, admittedly Progressive or declaratively conservative or “for limited government and markets,” seem to be describing a common vision. That vision again takes us back to John Dewey as Steven Rockefeller described his vision of Democratic Humanism. It would act as a religious faith best implemented through the schools and other social institutions. So when someone pitches education grounded in Conceptual Understandings, Guiding Ideas, Cross-Cutting Themes and Concepts, or other ways to describe the same general instructional practice, remember why John Dewey wanted this technique to become the core of education. This is true even if the pitch person insists this technique is actually a form of classical education or intended to mold character in desirable ways.
Dewey “proposes that ideas are guides to action in concrete problemmatic situations, that is, ‘plans of operations to be performed or already performed.'” The antipathy we have found towards lectures and textbooks makes far more sense as we switch to education where “ideas are not correctly conceived as reproductions of what already exists, but as plans of something to be done and anticipations of some result to follow. They are tools, instrumentalities.” Fits with the Maker Movement and Project-Based Learning now, doesn’t it? Especially when we add on this quote: “The validity or truth of an idea can only be determined empirically by putting the idea to use and observing the consequences of the actions to which the idea leads.”
Remember all the current emphasis on relevance and real world problems? Evidence-based policy making using data? In Dewey’s vision for an education that can lead to a reconstruction of society, emphasizing moral issues plays a crucial role. Students are expected to regularly identify “the causes of moral and social problems in concrete situations and on framing ideals with reference to the available means for overcoming such problems.” So ideals need to be connected to real world action. Otherwise, “ideals that are framed apart from the study of problems and possibilities in concrete situations are dreams, wish-fantasies, and useless as instrumentalities in directing practical affairs.” Anyone unclear as to why the new federal Every Student Succeeds Act requires not tests per se, but that states use performance assessments that involve activities and tasks to see if the stipulated learning is occurring can simply reread those two sentences.
If it’s not action-oriented it may not guide or motivate future behavior. Likewise, if school is merely intellectual, the desired future behaviors may not occur. Social and emotional learning, whatever the given rationale, a Whole Child emphasis, Head, Heart, and Hand, as well as soft skills, are all consistent with what Dewey also recognized–the Role of the Heart in Moral Life. That way “prizing and appraising unite in the direction of action.” Dewey and every other progressive since culminating now in where Deeper Learning (pushed by the Hewlett Foundation as part of 21st Century Learning) is going recognizes that “Reason divorced from emotional involvement has no moving power.” Can you say student engagement as a necessary 21st century classroom practice to be an effective teacher?
Dewey’s conception of education and learning fits perfectly with what ESSA now requires and Competency education generally. It fits with the kind of effectiveness that will get a school charter renewed and allow a CMO (Charter Management Company) to expand. It fits with what will make online learning an example of Best Practices for Student Growth. In none of these instances though is the Learning about the transmission of knowledge in a traditional sense. No, it’s about what kind of person the classroom activities are helping to create. “Growth means reinforcing those habits that contribute to human well-being and reconstructing those habits that do not.” Since none of us can even get an honest answer from most of the advocates for the Common Core as well as against it as to what they really envision for 21st century education, do not expect to be the arbiter of what constitutes your own or your child’s well-being.
For Dewey then and for any school or other education provider wanting access to taxpayer money now (federal, state, or local), “learning means an increased perception of the meaning of things that leads to a modification of character (i.e., of basic dispositions and attitudes). In short, growing and learning involve the reconstruction and transformation of the self leading to an improved capacity of the self to adjust to its environment and to control and direct subsequent experience.
The concept of habit is the fundamental idea in Dewey’s psychology of the development of the self or character. Dewey insists that the self is essentially identical with its active interests, purposes, and choices. There is no self apart from these activities. The core of the self is formed and defined by the concrete things about which it cares and by the choices it makes in pursuit of these things.”
Guess what? If, like me, you are an expert on the actual implementation it is easy to read that biography of Dewey and recognize the actual current significance. For those of you with more of a life than I have managed since I started researching and writing on all this, first of all I congratulate you. Secondly, let me call everyone’s attention to two examples in just the past week quietly putting Dewey’s vision into widespread effect without even using his name.
First, many of the elite institutions of higher education have joined together to redefine what they intend to look for in an admitted student. The initiative is called Making Caring Common and it looks for non-minority students for whom acting on behalf of others and for the common good and to transform existing institutions and local environments has been shown to be a way of life. http://www.gse.harvard.edu/news/16/01/turning-tide-inspiring-concern-others-and-common-good-through-college-admissions
How’s that for an effective means to change the behaviors and practices at every high school with aspirations of of Ivy League admissions? Anyone reading that report can recognize it will result in a change in emphasis to what Dewey wanted for the schools. The creation of a “free person who is able to form his or her purposes intelligently, evaluating desires and goals by the consequences which will result from acting on them, and one who is able to select and order the means necessary to realize chosen ends.”
A similar end result comes from this paper http://asiasociety.org/files/A_Rosetta_Stone_for_Noncognitive_Skills.pdf except it admits it wants to restructure the emphasis in primary and secondary schools. The omnipresent rationale, as usual, is that this personality and psychological emphasis is necessary for future success in college, career, and life. The real reason, as is true of anything emanating from a Rockefeller-funded philanthropy like the Asia Society, is to advance the vision of the future Dewey called Democratic Humanism and others call Marxist Humanism. As Dewey, Ayn Rand, and Uncle Karl all knew and we need to recognize to protect ourselves and our children, collectivists need to target the emotions and personality to realize their plans for us.
Why? Dewey insisted that “unrest, impatience, irritation, and hurry that are so marked in life are inevitable accompaniments of a situation in which individuals do not find support and contentment in the fact that they are sustaining and sustained members of a social whole.” That’s what education that targets the personality and forces regular practices of altruism and actions grounded in provided ideas can all be manipulated to do. That’s why we have such a coordinated push now.
We have a sustained push from the Left and the Right, from the religious and atheists, from the global bureaucrat or ex-politician to the local mayor or city council member. All pushing practices that, whatever their personal beliefs and expectations in advocating for them, were nevertheless developed to “generate the sense of shared values and organic interconnection needed to harmonize society and to integrate and set free the personalities of contemporary men and women.”
If terms like Marxist Humanism seem off-putting, let’s just translate it as Dewey and his biographer Steven Rockefeller did and ask “Can a material, industrial civilization be converted into a distinctive agency for liberating the minds and refining the emotions of all who take part in it?” If a politician claims to want Quality Education for All Students, you might want to inform him or her as to what that actually entails.
When I get upset about the 2014 Bipartisan and Bicameral piece of federal legislation known as WIOA that all the candidates running for President who are US Senators voted for, it is because it fits perfectly with Dewey’s insistence that a planned economy would be needed for democratic socialism to be achieved and it was best implemented at the local level. After all, what is WIOA but legislation with the effect of controlling the ends of education as well as allowing for “social control of industry and the use of government agencies for constructive social ends” just as Dewey sought.
Let me close by pointing out that those of us not employed by the public sector or businesses getting taxpayer dollars are unlikely to find any of these desired ends particularly constructive.