John Dewey on The Psychology of Elementary Education.

This is the last chapter of The School and Society that I took such copious notes for. I transcribed 11 quotes, so I won’t bother with cutting that down to 10. Here they are with annotations:

“At present the tendency is to conceive individual mind as a function of social life – as not capable of operating or developing by itself, but as requiring continual stimulus from social agencies, and finding its nutrition in social supplies.” (p. 99)

This sounds like the genesis, or at least the essence, of the social constructivist movement. The following quote contributes to this feeling as well. I also appreciated the reference to the then much newer and more exciting theory of evolution.

“The idea of evolution has made familiar the notion that mind … is developed in an environment which is social as well as physical, and that social needs and aims have been most potent in shaping it.” (p. 99)

The next bit seems to address the distinction between the stimuli-focused behaviorists, and the constructivists that would follow Dewey.

“Nature must indeed furnish its physical stimuli of light, sound, heat, etc., but the significance attached to these, the interpretation made of them, depends upon the ways in which the society in which the child lives acts and reacts in reference to them.” (p. 99)

Here Dewey is talking about our still familiar subject areas.

“That these classified sets of facts were simply selections from the social life of the past was overlooked; equally so that they had been generated out of social situations and represented the answers found for social needs.” (p. 100)

Given what I’ve already read in Democracy and Education I know Dewey is interested in putting the subjects back into a social context. This is what we might call problem-based learning, particularly if the answer to the problem is actually important to somebody other than the student.

“The third point of contrast lies in the modern conception of the mind as essentially a process – a process of growth, not a fixed thing.” (p. 102)

I suppose this is an element of constructivist philosophy, too… schema building perhaps. It sits well with me, as a philosophy of life, but I am living a century after Dewey. I wonder how… revolutionary that was at the time, or whether that sort of philosophy has always been common place. For someone who minored in philosophy, I suppose I should know that. ;)

“Now we believe in the mind as a growing affair, and hence as essentially changing, presenting distinctive phases of capacity and interest at different periods.” (p. 102)

Ah! Now this begins to sound like a prelude to Piaget’s stages. I’ve already written elsewhere that the stage theory doesn’t resonate with me, and others have certainly critiqued it much more completely. Still, in terms of connecting this to my earlier research on Piaget and Papert… and thus computers and games… this is significant.

“To refuse to try, to stick blindly to tradition, because the search for the truth involves experimentation in the region of the unknown, is to refuse the only step which can introduce rational conviction into education.” (p. 104)

Hallelujia, brother! If one accepts the importance of risk taking, then the leap to this educational philosophy should be a natural one.

“Since the aim is not “covering the ground,” but knowledge of social processes used to secure social results, no attempt is made to go over the entire history, in chronological order, of America. Rather a series of types is taken up… the method involves presentation of a large amount of detail… so the child can reproduce the material as life, not as mere historic information.” (p. 108)

I’ve heard a lot of high school redesign folks talk like this lately. Dr. Dagget suggested throwing out 2/3 of the curriculum in order to do 1/3 well. If memory serves, Richard DuFour recommended something similar. (This guy has got to have a more up to date page… if anyone knows where it is, please let me know.)

“(1) The need that the child shall have in his own personal and vital experience a varied background of contact and acquaintance with realities, social and physical. (2) The need that the more ordinary, direct, and personal experience of the child shall furnish problems, motives, and interests that necessitate recourse to books for their solution, satisfaction, and pursuit. Otherwise, the child approaches the book without intellectual hunger, without alertness, without a questioning attitude, and the result is the one so deplorably common: such abject dependence upon books as weakens and cripples vigor of thought and inquiry, combined with reading for mere random stimulation of fancy, emotional indulgence, and flight from the wold of reality into a make believe land.” (p. 112)

This is such powerful stuff, and I agree up until the last point… where, as I do with Plato, I strongly disagree with Dewey. Though I have a deeper appreciation of this point after my readings in Democracy and Education, I still feel there is a very important place for fantasy in a healthy life. My friend Benton Melbourne once said he believed that our imagniary lives (in games particularly) are at least as important as our real lives… while I know that is certainly debatable, I think there is some wisdom in it, but I will leave the exploration of that for another time.

“The problem here is then (1) to furnish the child with a sufficiently large amount of personal activity in occupations, expression, conversation, construction, and experimentation, so that his individuality, moral and intellectual, shall not be swamped by a disproportionate amount of the experiences of others to which books introduce him; and (2) so to conduct this more direct experience as to make the child feel the need of resort to and command of the traditional social tools – furnish him with motives and make his recourse to them intelligent, an addition to his powers, instead of a servile dependency.” (p. 112-113)

Wow. Read that last bit again… “furnish him with motives…” this is the answer to why we are going to all the trouble to provide our students with authentic motives, and using educational technologies, including games, to do it.

“The common complaints that children’s progress in these traditional school studies is sacrificed to the newer subjects that have come into the curriculum… (1) the more direct modes of activity, constructive and occupation work, scientific observation, experimentation, etc., present plenty of opportunities and occasions for the necessary use of reading, writing (and spelling), and number work. These things may be introduced, then, not as isolated studies, but as organic outgrowths of the child’s experience. The problem is, in a systematic and progressive way, to take advantage of these occasions. (2) The additional vitality and meaning which these studies thus secure make possible a very considerable reducation of the time ordinarily devoted to them. (3) The final use of the symbols, whether in reading, calculation, or composition, is more intelligent, less mechanical; more active, less passively receptive; more an increase of power, less a mere mode of enjoyment.” (p. 113-114)

This is a powerful argument for constructivist education. Educational technology… and video games… can help. Especially with the systematic and progressive bit. Now I just need to explicitly argue for this connection in my paper. :)

I feel I’ve struck but one chord here tonight. Still I wanted to get something on Dewey up this weekend so I’d be rolling again. I have finished this book and am a good way through Democracy in Education, which I’ll follow by Experience and Education before moving on to Bandura and the others.

I welcome comments… especially from the Dewey experts out there.