24 July, 2007

Reflection on Dewey

Earlier this summer I took a course in educational philosophy in which we read "A Teacher and His World," an essay by John Dewey first published in 1935 in the journal The Social Frontier.

Apart from the sexism in the title, I found resonance in Dewey's argument. I regret that I cannot locate an open-source version of the essay to link to in this post. Sigh.

Here is a quote:
The sum of the matter is that the times are out of joint, and that teachers cannot escape even if they would, some responsibility for a share in putting them right. They may regard it, like Hamlet, as a cursed spite, or as an opportunity. But they cannot avoid the responsibility. Drifting is merely a cowardly mode of choice. . . . The first need is to become aware of the kind of world in which we live; to survey its forces; to see the opposition in forces that are contending for mastery; to make up one's mind which of these forces come from a past that the world in its potential powers has outlived and which are indicative of a better and happier future.

While the social forces are different, the times remain as disjointed today as they were when Dewey first wrote his essay.

We live in an age of global connectivity and social isolation, of community building and niche marketing. Vast amounts of data and information flow freely across virtual borders, while the security of geographic borders is hotly contested. Ours is a society hobbled by provincial, close-minded attitudes even as it pays lip service to concepts like “the human network” and “the global village.”

These social and political divides are caused in large part by the advance of the digital era, and, if I heed Dewey's call, I share some responsibility in “putting them right.” As a teacher and student in instructional technology, I see Dewey's call to action as an opportunity and not “a cursed spite.”

Because of technology's impact on our culture, I interpret Dewey's recommendation as an imperative for keeping pace with the changes in technology. It is simply no longer acceptable for teachers to say, “It's too complicated – we need more training,” or “I don't have time to teach computer skills, that's the business teacher's job!”

In truth, today's technology is cheap, ubiquitous, and easy to learn and use. Young people already know this; they are utilizing technology daily to collaborate, create, and communicate with others in new and exciting ways – outside school hours. During school hours, it is another story. All they hear is a litany of “no cell phones,” “no downloading,” “no blogs,” and so on. We deny them access to the tools they use for meaning-making and then scratch our heads in bewilderment as levels of student disengagement continually soar!

Dewey's advice means not only understanding how technology works and how to employ it but also being keenly aware of its impact on society. This means teaching about and through technology.

What exactly does this practice look like and how is it done?

Another implication stemming from Dewey's imperative is that I cannot be afraid to delve into new technologies as they become available. There is no need to wait for specialized training; many of the newest tools are free, open source, and user-friendly. When necessary, defer to the experts – the students!

As an educator, I bring my own expertise to the table: the ability to facilitate a dialog about the merit and worth of technology. By modeling how to be a critical consumer of technology, I can help my students develop the affective skills they will need for a lifetime of responsible and ethical engagement with technology. This seems to be in step with Dewey's directive that we make conscious decisions about which societal forces will lead to “a better and happier future.”

Again, what exactly does this practice look like and how is it done?


Durff said...

Most heartily disagree. We do live in an age of global connectivity and because of we no longer suffer social isolation. Because communities are built through fiber optic cable there is no longer any marketing in specific niches. Because information flows freely in all directions, geographical borders are indefensible. Ours is a society on the precipice... of burgeoning networks and broken-down walls where no human can hide. We are vehemently not just paying lip service but actively engaging learners.
Dewey wrote well about the industrial age classroom. Papert, Siemens, Gee are the writers for the digital age and beyond. We must discard the traditional, which does not serve, and update our evangelists. There may be several parallels for both ages.

Jennifer K. Lubke said...

Wow. Thanks for pointing me to those scholars. I am vaguely familiar with the work of James Paul Gee, but not the others. I am much chagrined to begin my third semester in an IT master's program having not heard of Papert or Siemens, but I will know a little more about them after tonight.

I am blessed with state-of-the-art tools for that kind of self-directed learning: a broadband cable connection, wireless router, my trusty MacBook.

I will evangelize right alongside you, sister. It's just my enthusiasm is somewhat tempered by the fact that problems of social isolation and disengagement do persist. (Interestingly, just this morning I caught up with Andy Carvin's July 25 blog entry in which he wrote on this very issue. The embedded Washington Post video of Charleston residents who lack Internet access is sobering indeed and flies in the face of any assertion of “broken down walls.”)

My “lip service” remark was intended more as a commentary on the capitalist/consumerist culture in which we live. Go ahead and celebrate the unprecedented speed and connectivity of fiber optics – it is awesome. Just remember: the telecommunications giants who own those cables regularly lobby Congress for the right to profit off of and de-democratize the Internet.

And as for Dewey: one of my great joys as an English/language arts teacher is helping young people identify the relevant and timeless themes in literature as a means for examining and reaffirming their own lives. That's all I was trying to do with the Dewey essay.

Dewey's lifetime and writings may have coincided with the Industrial age classroom, but he was no more of that era than Shakespeare was of the Elizabethan Era. Dewey had a vision for classrooms of the future and an affinity for lifelong knowledge building. In that regard he is much akin to Gee.

Discard Dewey? No way.

Ron said...

I'm not nearly as well-read and smart as you guys, but the comment of "there is no longer any marketing in specific niches" flies against what is happening in the world today.

As we do get greater access to technology, we are becoming more isolated, and in business we must market to those specific niches.

It's all about the long-tail theory now of marketing/delivering content, in my case, to those niches. Technology makes it much easier and cheaper to do that as well.

If you stitch hundreds of niches together, you will have something big. It's no longer about the next "big idea." It's about a bushel of little ideas adding up to a big payoff.

Actually, it is easier for a human to hide now than 75 years ago. If you don't think SIMs games and Second Life are ways to hide yourself, then you are mistaken.

We are creating a society of isolation with our new technologies. You don't have to leave the house or communicate with a real human-being to survive any more.

Technology has brought us many great things, but it's one big drawback is it has made us more isolated. Big deal if we can read a newspaper from China everyday, but we never leave the safety and isolation of our own home.

Durff said...

Now this is what I call entering the conversation! The global conversation. Too often one only gets validation or cursory comments. Your comment however reveals actual thought - thank you!
Each of the gentlemen from the past that you mention were indeed great. They were forward thinkers - for their time. Each one of us is limited by the era in which we live. There are artificial walls (for lack of a better metaphor) that encase and limit us. Karl Fisch refers to this conflict in education in his famous video. Papert was a student of Piaget's. I should is, as he lives yet, although Piaget does not. It is sad that education students are not told of these men (Gee, Papert, etc) in undergraduate programs. I wasn't told even in graduate school. This is a symptom of the state of US education. We need to fix it!
I invite you to join the fun on edtechtalk http://edtechtalk.com/
Check it out - there are loads of deep thinkers like yourself there interacting with one another via live webcasts.

Jennifer K. Lubke said...

Ron, it's precisely that tension between isolation/anonymity and increased connectivity that I find fascinating and scary. It's a quality of life question, and, like everything, the answer is "balance." But how to achieve it?

Durff, thanks for the tip about EdTechTalk. I scooted right over and registered an account.

Rob said...

Re: "It is simply no longer acceptable for teachers to say, “It's too complicated – we need more training,” or “I don't have time to teach computer skills, that's the business teacher's job!”"

Yes! I had a ed tech prof last year who once said, "Can you imagine a nurse or doctor saying, 'Learning to use new medical technology...that's just not my thing.?'" Certainly not, and it's shameful that our profession tolerates it.

This is a nice blog, by the way. I really just surfed in b/c of the Curriki post, but I'm happy to see that you're making connections between collaborative web technologies and some bigger sociopolitical issues. Even among the edubloggers, that's not always the case. I'm also a grad student in educational technology, a Dewey devotee, and a strong advocate of free and open source software and culture.