In these scary educational times: WWJDD ("What would John Dewey do?")

First, WWJDS (“What would John Dewey say“) about the way the adults are dealing with a bloody budgetary winter?  [Bloody budgetary winter? To summarize: in response to massive deficits, states are cutting public education, the heart of social health according to Mr. Dewey. Suddenly the means of social advance in a democratic republic has been stripped in a democratic republic. If he could see school boards’ response to this social crisis–slash the curriculum, lay-off hundreds of teachers–Mr. Dewey might call it “regressive.” And any outsider would be justified in appraising the current situation and concluding that, after all,  our society does not seem to care much about its children.

Even “wealthy” districts are winding up millions in the red this year, and the biggest part of local school district budgets (the “education fund” they call it) gets the brunt of the ax. Massive teacher cuts in 2010 will result in massive class size increases for the teachers who remain in 2011. Boom–like that, the “steady” work has exploded.  I see people walking around stunned. At a nearby high school district the budget cuts have led the board to release 700 teachers (roughly half its faculty). And the teachers left behind are looking at impossible challenges–40-student minimums in classrooms and a mandatory 6 period day. That means 240 students will demand the attention of each teacher each day.

After the shock wears off, comes the technological question:  how? How will quality instruction be possible under terms like those? There are plenty of schools that do not even have 240 students.  Assume that you have a highly proficient teacher. Are 240 meaningful educational relationships in one academic term even possible? John Dewey described the teacher’s important, but time-consuming work: the teacher, on the basis of his/her “larger experience and riper wisdom,” carefully orchestrates  for each child his/her best possible educational experience for that child‘s optimal growth. In his U of C Lab school model, it was possible. A teacher could reasonably get to know over time a child’s unique set of talents and predispositions, and customize the IEP. But the Lab Schools envisioned a 1:20 teacher:student ratio, not ten and one half times it! Thus, the human challenge seems insurmountable.

But what of the curricular challenge? Let us assume further–that in addition to the highly proficient teacher you have an engaging curriculum, one centered around problem- and inquiry-based learning that happens in groups of four-five students each. Is such an approach “scalable” to 100% its size? Could the same set of critical inquiry tasks be given to groups with the expectation that each would participate fully? How meaningfully can a teacher supervise the work of ten groups?  And what about other size-sensitive learning activities? The best practice of curriculum may be to evaluate speaking and listening skills in groups of no more than 12. One can break the classroom in half with 25 students and accomplish authentic discussion. But with 45 students?  Even the most engaging lessons and learning activities may be rendered impossible by the seismic change in scale that our budget response has brought about.

John Dewey says that the teacher should feel proud, and “realize the dignity” of the job. The teacher is no civil servant of low purpose, but entrusted with the highest social purpose–the society’s continued existence. The teacher is engaged, Dewey writes, “not simply in the training of individuals, but in the formation of the proper social life….[the teacher] is a social servant set apart for the maintenance of proper social order and the securing of the right social growth.” In other words, the teacher deserves a civic statue–s/he is a real social hero.

So when times are tight, and we go after our teachers, we are really going after our students, which is to say, ourselves. That is regressive indeed. So that’s WWJDS.


And WWJDD?  Perhaps something pragmatic like this:

  • If I were in a school with 1:240 ratio and wi-fi, and if I could find funding for the machines, I would design a curriculum focused around students equipped with netbooks or smartphones–a student’s learning could leverage web 2.0 resources online accessible with these machines so that each individual student could be working on independent and collaborative modules related to standards-based skill assessments. One could not replace a teacher with machine-based learning modules, but one could distribute the load of personal one-to-one interactions that learning entails with their help. For example, as a teacher, I may not be able to give the student the formative assessment feedback he needs to learn–but the web 2.0 app can, or the peer edit available through cloud-based can. And if each child had the means literally in his hands to do the knowledge work society is going to demand, would not they do so, and would not Mr. Instrumentalism,  John Dewey himself, approve?  I would see each student’s work at the summative stage, when it was ready for checking. With a web-based formative experience, students may be in better position to deliver.

I know, it’s sketchy and Mr. Dewey would warn me to keep social goals and pragmatism in check, but it just might make the best out of a bad situation.

2 responses to “In these scary educational times: WWJDD ("What would John Dewey do?")”

  1. Hello, Drew. I think your wiki proposals have some potential for spreading the work around, maybe lightening the load of remaining teachers. You did not mention pension reform, tenure reform, or increasing school choice as ways of saving money. I know you cannot talk about everything, and you probably have arguments against each of these things. In any event, the budget problem cannot be wished away, and at this point what is given to schools must be taken from prisons or mental health support. At some point (perhaps we have reached it?), the increased sacrifices being asked of taxpayers may reasonably be asked of educational service providers as well. With pension reform, tenure reform, and more school choice, we likely would have more working teachers and smaller class sizes than otherwise. I wonder whether John Dewey would agree that greater $$ to public schools as they are currently run should be equated with society's commitment to education, i.e., whether his vision of schools matches in important rrespects the current reality. Or, indeed, whether Dewey is an appropriate oracle in this regard. What has Dewey been shown to be right about? That is not offered for contention. I should like to know, actually, and am not in a position to know.

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  2. Thank you for your response, “grown-up.” I have not read deeply enough into Dewey or his contemporary apologists to give you specific instances where his social constructive-ist pedagogy has turned out to be correct, but most educational psychologists would aver that old Mr. Dewey had it right: the best learning takes place when the individual feels cognitive dissonance, poses authentic inquiry questions, and seeks his/her own answers thereto. The “best practices” of pedagogical curricula today are based on the “child-centered” approach of Dewey, et al 75-100 years ago.As a philosopher of democracy, I think Dewey had it right when he wrote of the dynamic nature of our constitutional form of governance. A democracy had to be created “anew in every generation, in every year and day, in the living relations of person to person in all social forms and institutions.” (Dewey, 1935). In the same piece, he reminds citizens of a democracy like us that our democratic republic is never a fait accompli–“every generation has to accomplish democracy over again for itself; that is very nature, its essence, is something that cannot be handed on from one person or one generation to another, but has to be worked out in terms of needs, problems and conditions of the social life of which, as the years go by, we are a part.” In regard to the way our democracy is dealing with its current crisis in public education, we can see Dewey's formulation–the negotiation of public needs, conditions, and problems–actually happening. Insofar as he would see the current blunt-cuts as resulting in lost learning opportunity for the individual student enrolled in the public school, I still think he might call what's happening now “regressive.” Like you, I think there will have to be cost-cutting moves to restructure current job security and compensation systems. But I think a more hopeful way out of the problem will be through building entirely new models for schooling–perhaps through ambitious experimental schools (see March 28 wikiness post) that leverage technology and what you refer to as “school choice.” No need to solve the budgetary problems at the expense of a child's natural educational needs, in my opinion.Thank you for your “grown-up” response! Please consider “following” this blog.

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