John Dewey on Waste in Education

Today – well, yesterday – I got nice new copies of Experience & Education and Democracy and Education in the mail, and I can’t wait to write all over them as I annotate them. Meanwhile I am slowly working my way through the UCI Library copy of The School and Society. After a long work day and a healthy dose of “and Life” I stayed up and read Chapter three just now, once again jotting quotes down in text edit. This chapter was either less quotable than the last one, or else I was just more tired, but here are the top eight quotes, in the order they appeared:

“This is not a question of the waste of money or the waste of things. These matters count; but the primary waste is that of human life, the life of the children while they are at school, and afterward because of inadequate and perverted preparation” (p. 64).

Sounds like this could be said in frustration in any boardroom or department meeting in any school. It is also a great place to start a blog post about educational technology.

“… the fundamental organization is that of the school itself as a community of individuals, in its relations to other forms of social life. All waste is due to isolation. Organization is nothing but getting things into connection with one another, so that they work easily, flexibly, and fully.” (p. 64)

Can this possible be written a hundred years before the read/write web? And how well does this concept express the need for Will Richardson’s concept of connective writing? (See his later posts, too.)

“I wish to suggest that really the only way to unite the parts of the system is to unite each to life.” (p. 72)

Dewey says this in response to the splintering of academic subjects and the isolation that occurs throughout the school system: between subjects, classrooms, and grade levels, but also between elementary, middle, high schools, and universities… not to mention district offices. This again touches on the philosophy of the modern senior project. I also think it encapsulates Dewey’s message in a phrase.

“From the standpoint of the child, the great waste in school comes from his inability to utilize the experiences he gets outside the school in any complete and free way within the school itself; while, on the other hand, he is unable to apply in daily life what he is learning in school.” (p. 75)

This sounds like Prensky’s talk about Digital Natives and Digital Immigrants, and like so many other educational technologists and games in education enthusiasts, including James Paul Gee, who declare both that students need to power down when they come into the classroom, and that they acquire better life skills playing games than in school.

“The child should study commercial arithmetic and geography, not as isolated things by themselves, but in their reference to his social environment. The youth needs to become acquainted with the bank as a factor in modern life, with what it does, and how it does it.” (p. 78)

Only a five years ago or so, when establishing her life skills class at the middle school where she works, my mom used a very similar – and still very necessary – argument. This was written a hundred years ago folks!

“The pupil must learn what has meaning, what enlarges his horizon, instead of mere trivialities. He must become acquainted with truths, instead of things that were regarded as such fifty years ago or that are taken as interesting by the misunderstanding of a partially educated teacher.” (p. 78-79)

I thought this quote seemed familiar… even trivial, though I agreed with it… until I got to the end and realized it was a reflection of just how radical Dewey was. Can you imagine saying that in a high school redesign committee meeting in 2005!?

“There are two great things in breaking down isolation, in getting connection – to have the child come to school with all the experience he has got outside of school, and to leave it with something to be immediately used in his everyday life. The child comes to the traditional school with a healthy body and a more or less unwilling mind, though, in fact, he does not bring both his body and mind with him; he has to leave his mind behind because there is no way to use it in the school.” (p.80)

Dewey was harsh, but if it was true in his day, it is doubly true today… especially if the students are online out of school and offline or severely limited in school. Also, I guess the situation is worse now, since there is now no way to use your body in school either. :(

“When the child lives in varied but concrete and active relationship to this common world, his studies are naturally unified. It will no longer be a problem to correlate studies. The teacher will not have to resort to all sorts of devices to weave a little arithmetic into the history lesson, and the like. Relate the school to life, and all studies are of necessity correlated.” (p. 91)

Is this evidence of some sort of early math-across-the-curriculum movement? I am once again shocked that this was written a century ago… and once again find that this excerpt articulates Dewey’s philosophy well… relate learning to life.

He ended his chapter with something that bears importance for me… his vision for how an experimental school and a university ought to work together for the benefit of both. This is something I can see in my future. :)