Wednesday, July 20, 2011


What Would John Dewey Do?

Beth Taylor (shout out!) recently sent me an article (click to read) about Charlotte, NC principals engaging in the cultural institutions of the city. What was interesting was they were having a blast getting educated about the resources in their backyard. And why not? Education should be fun.

As I sat in the subway today, this was my thought process: right now in education, we're so focused on testing that we've forgotten about the many, many resources in our city. Oh hey. We live in NYC and have an amazing number of institutions to connect learning in the classroom to the outside world. And we don't use them enough. Don't believe me? Case in point is my current school. The only time we can go on a field trip is the day before Thanksgiving, Winter Break, and then after the state exams in May. The trips we take aren't reinforcing the education happening in the classroom, then end up coming too late in the game when kids are checking out. Don't get me wrong, I understand my principal's motivation - these tests are all consuming to her because her job is on the line if the kids don't make certain marks. So, during the year, kids are working to pass these two tests.

Wait. What's wrong with the above statements? Oh. I know. One, my principal (and many in the city) is motivated by fear instead of education. To be fair, if I were in her shoes, I'd probably do the same. Second, we're teaching to two tests, not engaging in practical and rigorous education.  

Which got me thinking about old man Dewey (a personal favorite for when I can't sleep at night - his droll writing style conks me out in no time). See, he was a firm believer in the field trip. He wanted kids to see the whole process when they learned something - if they were learning about bread and bakeries, they would not only go try breads and talk with a baker, but visit a farm to see the wheat and see how it gets turned into flour. That type of experience really brought home the education. It made it practical. Teaching to these tests and not grounding the education in the real is like working out on a few weight machines in the gym and getting huge, but then when you need to use that muscle in the "outside world," you'll not be nearly as effective as if you gained the muscle doing practical work.

Dewey was interested in what I'm going to call vertical education. He or someone smart may have coined this already and written about it, but this is what I was thinking about in the subway today. I got to thinking about the time Dewey was living - it was the height of the vertical monopolies (controlling a product from raw material to consumer) like Rockefeller, duPont, and Vanderbilt. He experienced the power of vertical monopolies and how that control can make a powerful shift in the market. Dewey brought that idea to education by trying to get kids out and seeing the whole process. I'm guessing he would want that verticality in all subjects, so all kids can experience the learning just as much as they are assessed on it.

Now, the other type of monopoly is one that is horizontal (as in owning an overwhelming number of a niche stores no one can compete with), which is sort of what these tests represent. Nothing can compete with them. Don't get me wrong, I don't have testing and assessment - in fact, I think it's a really important component to education... it's just the level of obsessive behavior regarding these tests does the child an injustice. And the educator. Here's a great example of this behavior in action - this is one of the darker places it leads to.

Moving forward, we probably need a better blend of the two - smaller stakes in the assessments and better meshing of the real world into the classroom. Because honestly, both completely horizontal and vertical systems don't work. 

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