Posts Tagged ‘school’

Chapter 3: Education as Direction

September 12, 2007

Writing about a book chapter for chapter is a constant reminder that you don’t know all that you’re writing about. Sure I’ve mentioned this before, but like I’m saying, the reminder is constant. Not that a critique of the entire book would encircle a knowledge of it all, it’s just that this partial critique and my partial experience are amplifying. That said, I’m going to spend a lot of time with chapter three.

Dewey got it wrong. Getting it wrong is a problem for any advancement of a theory of change. What I mean is it’s hard enough to change one person’s mind, even when the change is to the complete and obvious advantage of everyone involved. Changing the many minds involved in the protection and perpetuation of institutionalized education, is an overwhelming task. I’m not saying it’s impossible, but the combination of perfect theory and a multiplicity of small scale advances, is a possibility of hope and desire, that at this point can only motivate the work of perfecting theory. The idea of a perfect theory, might be objectionable, I’d probably object to the idea if someone else was putting it forward, but as a motivational idea Perfect Theory works. The problem with using a small scale mind change as an example, say one person changing the mind of one other, is the difficulty even on that small scale of reaching an understanding and course of action that both minds now agree to be in their best interest. At the institutional level, there are many interests, and contradictory interests. In a situation where interests contradict, the perfect theory would harmonize the contradiction. No matter how well intentioned a theory is, with an error it can only go so far. Dewey attempts to connect growth of democracy with the development of the experimental scientific method and evolutionary ideas, but limits the application of the method and ideas in his theory of education to the point where he completely contradicts the concepts behind the method and ideas.

I have a few friends in education who I am in conversation with, and one of the things I usually come around to is the problem of thinking about education while teaching in a classroom. It’s like the classroom structure and organization are binding and make any free thinking impossible. I mention this because Dewey is limited by pragmatism. Sure eventually teachers should think about how to do the work of teaching, but a philosophy of education, or a theory of education needs complete freedom to conceptualize education.

Evolution theory and the Experimental Scientific Method are fertile grounds for education, but how do we follow? I’m not quoting any sources, so if there are any readers who feel like correcting the Folk Theory and Method I’m about to use I’d appreciate it. The theory as I understand it is based on a concept of infinite variation. It’s through infinite variation that survival and diversification are possible. And the Method is a form of documenting a process so that results can be repeated or tested. But in the experimental stage the result can not be known, it’s a process of discovery.

But if, as Dewey suggests in Chapter 3, the general function of education is direction, control or guidance or assisting through cooperation the natural capacities of individuals. then where is the discovery? Dewey falls into the same trap he sets for students by insisting on direction as opposed to aimlessness.

Of course a proposal of aimlessness in education isn’t pragmatic. And there are ends, like reading that need direction. Specific skills and tools, like decoding, encoding and codes themselves are acts and knowledge teachers can aim to teach students. Education as a concept is different than training. Training has a direction, an end, and as such is a more accurate description for what takes place in schools.

Dewey says that when an immature human being is subject to some stimuli, “There is always a great deal of superfluous energy aroused. This energy may be wasted, going aside from the point; it may go against the successful performance of an act. “(p.24) To call this extra energy a waste, to see diversion as “going against” is to completely ignore or misunderstand evolutionary theory. Life tends toward variation, infinite variation, and it is precisely through this open attempt that organisms learn and change.

Is Dewey connecting his philosophy with accepted theories and methods of his contemporary society, as a means of gaining acceptance? He is well aware of social pressure and control. He writes of control, “Still more effective is the fact that unless an individual acts in the way current in his group, he is literally out of it.” (p.34) Is Dewey expressing his desire through current ideas?

Scientific discovery and evolution are nondirectable, uncontrollable processes. The method is a system of reproducing and testing discoveries. Discovery cannot be systematized, what happens next is always unknown. The system is the application of what is known, conservative, anti-evolutionary, closed and controlling. “Control, in truth, means only an emphatic form of direction of powers, and covers the regulation gained by an individual through his own efforts quite as much as that brought about when others take the lead. “(P.23) In Dewey’s definition control is the regulation of power or what is known. But if education is a system of control, how does the result deal with real discovery. Dewey is proposing controlled discovery as an educational method. The educator knows and directs that discovery, the point of any act. But what about the pointlessness of real discovery? How are children educated in the known, in the system, the controlled constructed environment of schools prepared to be free creative beings in an ever changing world?

Dewey Quotes on Mind, Language and Intentional Education

“When children go to school, they already have “minds” — they have knowledge and dispositions of judgment which may be appealed to through the use of language. But these “minds” are the organized habits of intelligent response which they have previously required by putting things to use in connection with the way other persons use things. The control is inescapable; it saturates disposition.” p.32

“Mind as a concrete thing is precisely the power to understand things in terms of the use made of them; a socialized mind is the power to understand them in terms of the use to which they are turned in joint or shared situations. And mind in this sense is the method of social control.” p.32

“Interaction with things may form habits of external adjustment. But it leads to activity having meaning and conscious intent only when things are used to produce results. And the only way one person can modify the mind of another is by using physical conditions, crude or artificial, so as to evoke some answering activity from him. Such are our two main conclusions.” p.33

“Intentional education signifies, as we have already seen, a specially selected environment, the selection being made on the basis of materials and method specifically promoting growth in the desired direction.” p.37

“Schools require for their full efficiency more opportunity for conjoint activities in which those instructed take part, so that they may acquire a social sense of their powers and of the materials and appliances used.” p.39

Chapter 2: Education as a Social Function

August 13, 2007

Given the impossibility of direct contagion or literal inculcation, our problem is to discover the method by which the young assimilate the point of view of the old, or the older bring the young into likemindedness with themselves.

another enquiry concerning human understanding

What interests me is a series of questions about the body of knowledge in which our education is situated. I need to first define education, or at least differentiate between chance socialization and formal schooling. Writing the distinctions can in no way separate these learning environments. Dewey says as much when he writes, “The main texture of disposition is formed independently of schooling by [the demands set up by current social occupations.]” (p.17) He goes on to say:

What conscious, deliberate teaching can do is at most to free the capacities thus formed for fuller exercise, to purge them of their grossness, and to furnish objects which make their activity more productive of meaning.


For Dewey, school is a social organ which simplifies and purifies an educational environment in an attempt to make for a better future society. And yet, by Dewey’s own understanding, the environment is forever contaminated. The immature disposition is already independently formed and school becomes a form of exercise in modification.

It might help to view social environments as one views eco-zones, social geography mapping the vast differences in social climates. This way common understanding becomes a goal and the form of exercise varies with zones of social disposition. Dewey writes “Whether we permit chance environments to do the work, or whether we design environments for the purpose makes a great difference.” The great difference in the chance environments goes unwritten.

Two Things:

Thing One: I will be returning to this chapter. The concepts of the social as educative, the social function of education and education as a social function will ground any study of literacy.

Thing Two: Should a literacy based pedagogy be concerned with the metaphysical problem of a “better future society” or with reading society as it is in its full complexity?

Preface to Democracy and Education

July 10, 2007

The Preface is incredibly brief and straightforward, but the problems in it can only grow throughout the book. I question Dewey’s “endeavour to detect and state the ideas implied in a democratic society and to apply these ideas to the problems and enterprises of education.” What ideas does a democratic society imply? Would those implications have changes since 1915? (Not that this matters.) The idea that an actual democratic society has ideas implicit in it and that one can go about detecting and stating those ideas is not an idea at all but misconception based on an idealization of democratic society. This misconception can only lead to a polemical argument. What ideas are actually in play in our specific democratic society? To be of any practical use to the problems and enterprises of education any ideas applied should not be implied but in play.

Dewey clearly explains that “the philosophy stated in this book connects the growth of democracy with the development of the experimental method in the sciences, evolutionary ideas in the biological sciences, and the industrial reorganization, and is concerned to point out the changes in subject matter and method of education indicated by these developments.” I wonder if his philosophy and purposes are a problem? I am not an expert on Dewey, but wouldn’t be stretching it to say he launched the progressive education movement in the States. The progressive movement is today stalled. Could it be that the simplistic philosophical foundation of the movement is it’s problem? Dewey confuses possibility with progression. He sees implicit in growth, development, evolution and reorganization a progressive improvement. We now know (and Dewey could have known then) that the possibility of improvement will not necessarily actualize. What does this mean for the philosophy stated in this book?

Re: Let the objections finally cease

March 16, 2007

I wrote and sent this letter to the editor at the Globe and Mail:

As a Canadian who takes as fact the First Nations’ responsibility for their own lives and communities, I’d like to answer John Ibbitson’s question, “So what are you doing to help them reach that independence?”

First and finally, I’m not suggesting we take away their autonomy regarding self-education. Integration is not, as he writes, “the only solution.” The last time Ibbitson made this suggestion (Dec. 21/06) Phil Fontaine (national chief, Assembly of First Nations) replied, “our dedicated leaders and educational professionals have developed a plan that will more effectively meet our needs.”


It wasn’t printed.

Just as a note, I use “we” (italicized in the letter) very self consciously. Ibbitson draws his readers into this “we.” He writes:

Let’s say to each other: We will bring status and non-status Indian, Inuit and Métis high-school completion rates up to national average in this generation, and we will not let jurisdictional disputes, funding shortfalls or anything else keep us from reaching that goal. And we will hold our politicians, our native leadership and most important ourselves to account.


I am a part of this we, and bothered by the inclusion. I become an actor in a conspiracy, a conspiracy I want no part of, and must respond with “we.” And there is a conspiracy here. “Integrating native schools into the provincial school systems is the only solution,” A conspiracy against First Nations autonomy.

Another note, When Fontaine writes “our dedicated leadership” and Ibbitson writes “our native leadership” the same possessive pronoun refers to different groups.

And another note: Ibbitson writes:

Those close to the issue are shaking their heads. They know the federal government would never surrender jurisdiction, the provincial governments would never agree to assume it and native leaders would never give up control.

We’re shaking our heads in Ibbitson’s mind because of what we know? But he’s proposed the solution, what he goes on to call the only solution:

The solution would be for Ottawa and native leaders to let provincial governments — who actually know how to run an education system — assume full responsibility for native schools.

For the record I’m not shaking my head, but if I were it wouldn’t be for the reasons Ibbitson puts forth. First is the repeated proposal of integration that Ibbitson is making. There’s a question; What are his intentions? The last time he made the suggestion the native response was clear, they’ve got it under control. So this second proposal, essentially ignoring the First Nations response, has got to be questioned. I don’t have an answer, just a question; What are his intentions?

Next, the interjection, “who actually know how to run a school system,” might provide the answer to why Ibbitson ignores the First Nations response. The First Nations are obviously not “who” for Ibbitson. This is actually offensive. All the more so, when you consider the influence the provincial education systems have had in the north. The provincial education system doesn’t work for low income kids.

And third, why wouldn’t the federal government want to drop this hot potato? Why wouldn’t the provincial governments take the money? Most kids fly out for high school already, integration wouldn’t be much of a change. These two objections are fabrications to make it look like the First Nations aren’t the only ones who don’t want this.

The First Nations are in an excellent position to experiment within education and find different practices that work in their many different communities, languages and cultures. There can not be an “only solution” when it comes to education in the north.

I now know why the question “How Canadian are you?” bothers me.

Chapter 13: Issues of Language and Power

January 8, 2007

Victoria Purcell-Gates is the author of Chapter 13. Her research could be used to prove that schools as they function today don’t work. In a nutshell, children who learn to read at home read in schools and children who come from non-reading homes don’t learn to read at school. What does that say? Schools exercise preexisting concepts.

There are problems with making general statements about education. There is a situational looseness in which the system is expressed very differently simultaneously, sometimes within the same space. Not only are all schools different, all teachers are different, as are all students, so in one classroom two students could have near opposite affective experiences with the same teacher. To say that our schools are failing to educate, doesn’t resonate with people who’ve had positive educational experiences. Teachers are in a position where their failure can be transferred to students. Teachers do their job and students fail or succeed. Statements against our system of educating, are often refuted with tales of teachers or students. Everyone has been to school and your particular experience may be at odds with the general idea that the system isn’t working, but predicting which kids fail or succeed is easy work, and the factors are found outside the school.

Purcell-Gates, I’m just going to ignore her political-correctness for now, offers two suggestions for what teachers can do to actually live up to their name.

  1. believe students can learn
  2. teach in the students language

What I like about this article is Purcell-Gates point her finger in the right direction. If students aren’t learning teachers need to do something. She writes,

“This crucial beginning stance on the part of teachers will help ensure that any failure in the achievement of these children will lead to an examination of their instruction and not a shrugging off of their futures.”