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Is our present educational system ripe to be disrupted by Deweyan thought from a century ago? Are we robbing students of tomorrow?

While it might seem like John Dewey is back in fashion, and on the side of those who argue that schools need to be ‘future proofed’ to keep pace with the changing economy, Dewey never actually said the above. As Tryggvi Thayer points out, “it doesn’t sound like something that Dewey would say in his writings; neither the sentiment nor diction.”

As an example of the ‘future proofing’ trend, Charles Kivunja presses Dewy into a narrative about how America’s “obsolete” schools need to do a better job of “training the work force”, making the argument that the current agenda is “really not new.” Thus, Bill Gates and Thomas Friedman are just the Dewey’s of today, worried that we are robbing children (and the American GDP) of tomorrow. In reaction to the restrictive nature of standardized testing, project-based learning and student-centered approaches have emerged as the favored pedagogy to help prepare students for the workplace of tomorrow.

Ironically, Dewey criticized both the main future proofer of his day, David Snedden, and the leading proponent of the ‘child-centered’ project-method, James Heard Kilpatrick. Rather than a resurgence of people reading Dewey, we are witnessing the rise of Sneddedism and Kilpatrickianism passed off as the thoughts of everyone’s progressive hero.

 

David Snedden – Future Proofing and Social Efficiency

I imagine that a Dewey redivivus would be sadden but not surprised to see that Snedden’s ‘social efficiency’ won out over the brand of progressive thought that Dewey argued for. Snedden was a member of what David Tyack and Larry Cuban (1997, p.17) have termed the ‘administrative progressives:

These white men – few women and almost no people of color were admitted to the inner circle of movers and shakers – carved out lifelong careers in education as city superintendents, education professors, state or federal officers, leaders in professional organizations such as the National Education Association (NEA), and foundation officials. They shared a common faith in “educational science” and in lifting education “above politics” so that experts could make the crucial decisions.

The administrative progressives didn’t lack any vision:

They thought that schooling should be both more differentiated and more standardized: differentiated in curriculum to fit the backgrounds and future destinies of students; and standardized with respect to buildings and equipment, professional qualifications of staff, administrative procedures, social and health services and regulations, and other educational practices.

“The terms have changed over the years, but not the impulse to emulate business and impress business elites,” (112), and so the current future proofing agenda is really just Snedden’s ‘social efficiency’ wrapped in the buzzwords of the so-called Knowledge Economy. For Will Richardson, PBW justifies PBL: “If you want a justification for Problem/Project Based Learning, there probably isn’t any better than this: increasingly our students are going to be doing problem/project based work in their professional lives.”

Dewey opposed the administrative progressives’ attempt to construe education so narrowly as training. David F. Labaree recounts the history in How Dewey Lost, which is well worth the read. In The New Republic (1915, republished in Curriculum Inquiry in 1977), Dewey put his criticism this way:

“Apart from light on such specific questions, I am regretfully forced to the conclusion that the difference between us is not so much narrowly educational as it is profoundly political and social. The kind of vocational education in which I am interested is not one which will ‘adapt’ workers to the existing industrial regime; I am not sufficiently in love with the regime for that. It seems to me that the business of all who would not be educational time-servers is to resist every move in this direction, and to strive for a kind of vocational education which will first alter the existing industrial regime, and ultimately transform it.” (38-9)

Labaree pulls many lessons from his study of history. Snedden emerged at the right time to argue that schools needed to be reformed to keep up with the changing economy. Among the other points Labaree makes, I find these three particularly compelling and relevant:

The ideas sounded authoritative and gave the impression that they were building into arguments, but they were largely a collection of numbered lists and bullet points. He was a man who would have warmly embraced PowerPoint. In his work, portentousness abounded; it was all about riding the wave of the future and avoiding the undertow of the past.

However, Snedden’s ideas lacked substance:

He was a self-styled scientist who never did anything that remotely resembled scientific study, an educational sociologist who drew on the cliches of the field – social Darwinism and social control – without ever making an original contribution. In his written work, he never used data, and he never cited sources, which made sense, since he rarely drew on sources anyway. His books and journal articles took the form of proclamations, scientific pronouncements without the science; they all read like speeches, and that was likely the source of most of them.

And lacked subtlety:

But one of the lessons of social change in general and educational reform in particular is that every doctrine needs its doctrinaire. Nuance is dysfunctional for the cause of educational reform, especially early in the process, when the main task is to clear the field of the accumulated institutional underbrush and make the case for a radical new order. Every reformer needs to slash and burn the remnants of the old way of doing things, portraying the past as all weeds and decay, and clearing space tor the new institutions to take root. This is something that a literal minded, hyperkinetic, and monomaniacal figure like Snedden could do superbly. As Diane Ravitch {2000) noted, “Snedden’s caricature of the traditional school became a staple of progressive attacks tor years to come: it was ‘repressive,’ ‘monarchical,’ ‘barren and repellent,’ founded entirely on classics and completely out of touch with American democracy” (p. 82).

I’ll let you do your own compare and contrast with current educational thought leaders.

William Heard Kilpatrick – The Child-Centered Project-Method

David Snedden’s social efficiency agenda does not entail any particular pedagogy. Maybe schools need to have rigorous standards and teachers need to impose upon students a disposition to defer to authority to prepare them for factory and corporate jobs.

We are witnessing a swing away from this pedagogy, and a return to child-centered classrooms (which constructivists have argued for since the 1980s). William Heard Kilpatrck’s ‘project method’, popular during the progressive era, is now re-born as Project-Based Learning, which casts teachers as ‘facilitators’ (again, much like constructivism). Gert Biesta has noted that ‘teaching’ and ‘education’ have virtually disappeared from our discourse that now raises ‘learning’ and ‘student-centered’ approaches above all else. The learnification of educational discourse makes it increasingly difficult to raise questions about the purpose of education, which has largely been settled in favor of preparing students for work.

Our present obsession with being ‘student-centered’ owes its heritage not to John Dewey, but to William Heard Kilpatrick, the popularizer of ‘the project method’ Michael Knoll writes:

In his concept, there was no proper place for traditional educational features such as teacher, curriculum, and instruction. Project learning, Kilpatrick wrote, was always individual and situative, and could neither be planned nor fixed. “If the purpose dies and the teacher still requires the completion of what was begun, then it becomes a task” – merely wearisome and laborious (Kilpatrick 1925, 348). “Freedom for practice” and “practice with satisfaction” were the slogans with which he effectively staged his “revolt” against drill, discpline, and compulsion (ibd., 348, 311, 56ff.).

Kilpatrick’s emphasis on the interests of the students can easily slide into an embrace of one side of the curriculum / student dichotomy. After all, we don’t need kids completing more meaningless tasks, but embracing their passions. Will Richardson argues we should “let kids bring their kale to school,” in reference to his daughter’s passion, “and make that the focus of developing them as learners.” (15:00)

Dewey abhorred the dichotomies that plague contemporary educational discourse. In The Child and the Curriculum (Chicago, 1902), Dewey writes:

“Just as, upon the whole, it was the weakness of the ‘old education’ that it made invidious comparisons between the immaturity of the child and the maturity of the adult, regarding the former as something to be got away from as soon as possible and as much as possible; so it is the danger of the ‘new education’ that it regard the child’s present powers and interests as something finally significant in themselves.”

It’s not that we should not nurture the interests of children, but to elevate the child and their present interests over the knowledge that adults have accumulated makes little sense. In his Experience and Education, Dewey argued for experiences as a “moving force”, and teachers are a wealth of such experience which they ought to use to structure, judge, and direct the experience of youth. As teachers, we need to put the right books in the hands of our students that will help them grow rather than work to satisfy their current urges and interests. We need to know how to structure the environment that children act in so that they encounter knowledge worth its name. As Biesta says, teachers matter because “at the end of the day judgements about what is educationally desirable can only be made in response to the concrete and always unique situations that emerge from the encounter between teachers and their students.”

Education ought to be transformative.

In “A Marriage on the Rocks”: An Unknown Letter by William H. Kilpatrick about his Project Method, Michael Knoll situates Kilpatrick’s work historically and in terms of Kilpatrick’s ambitions to have “power and influence” and be an “original thinker”. Kilpatrick’s obsession with being child-centered made his take on the ‘project-method’ stand out as a new pedagogy and, more importantly, brand.

Again, I let you make your own comparisons with today’s thought leaders.

I imagine Dewey perplexed by Most Likely to Succeed, which opens with a mis-attributed quotation, and ends with a student placing his gear in the empty slot left in the mechanism his class has constructed, just moments after Ken Robinson has told us we need to move beyond the ‘industrial metaphor’ for education.

Dewey would be shocked at our narrow discourse and dichotomies, but most of all by our complete historical amnesia, and how little things change.

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I footnotes