Liveblog – CALRG reading group on John Dewey’s ‘My Pedagogic Creed’

This week’s CALRG reading group discussed an old classic: John Dewey’s ‘My Pedagogic Creed.‘ Below is a liveblog summary of our discussion. Each bullet represents one point made in the discussion (which does not necessarily represent my own views). As always, please excuse any typos or errors as it was written on the fly.

  • Why this paper was chosen: I was looking back at founding thinkers that everyone assumes you’ve read. There’s a tendency to throw names around like Vygotsky or Dewey, and you sometimes haven’t actually read the sources materials. Dewey is one of those sources that has always had something to say on any subject, even when thinking about TEL. His work is influential on our field even if we’ve never taken the time to look at it. It’s also quite readable and exciting ideas, especially from a piece from 1897.
  • A creed is something spoken at churches, used as a summary of beliefs. It’s a weird thing in the context of research because we are evidence-based, and this is about faith and belief. It comes from the perspective of philosophy to ponder the real role of education in democracy. Why do we want education in the first place?
  • There’s quite a lot of right-wing critique of Dewey, and he tends to be blamed for problems in education (examples: literacy rates, loss of values, etc). There is a political perspective to our work that we don’t often pick up. Regardless if we ignore it, there is a political underpinning to our understanding of education.
  • The context of this piece is important. 1897 = Melting pot America, lots of immigration, and Dewey has a notion that education can bring these diverse groups of people into a shared democracy.
  • If you are new to reading Dewey, a good resource is Boisvert. Dewey is covered more often because he is more accessible than other historical reads. His work is also out of copyright and you can get free PDFs of his work. Experience and Education a good start.
  • When I first read this, I thought it was quite radical. I didn’t realise the date, so was quite shocked when I saw 1897.
  • He does seem like a forward thinker. I like that he balances internal education with the more social aspects of it. He seems to foreshadow works like Vygotsky at a much earlier time.
  • In our PhD student discussion, we talked about what a ‘social interaction’ really is. There’s a lot of reference to social education, but it wasn’t clearly defined in the piece. For instance — why are social conditions necessary, if perhaps a “child’s powers” are introversion? There are a lot of things in learning that are not as bound to social as he describes in this piece.
  • Indian perspective: In India, schooling is separate from home. There is a consideration that homes may be deficient, for example in the case of poverty. In Dewey’s reading, it makes sense that what happens at home should be linked to school, but is he talking about children or schooling throughout life? Children should see expression in school that is meaningful or connected to home, but as they grow older and they learn to think abstractly, then that changes. Also, is Dewey talking about teaching children to question social aspects or just simply taking on what they are experiencing it society? If just taking it on, it is problematic that what children are experiencing in society may not be acceptable (examples: gender disparity, castes, etc). Where do we bracket civilization?
  • In the UK at that point, compulsory education was only to age 12, so I would think he would probably have in mind people under that age.
  • In our PhD student discussion, we debated that second question [about questioning society or simply taking it on]. Dewey brings up a point that school is the most primary instrument of reform (page 7). It sounds like he feels there is an important part for reform in schooling, that it is a catalyst of social progress. Perhaps he feels that it’s not about shifting the direction of society, but maybe getting society to understand the importance of the school.
  • But this could be problematic if the school is part of a society which needs to change.
  • A lot of what he says has implications for learning, but because he’s focusing on children and younger learners, he’s able to make some of these points. In Education and Experience, he highlights it’s easier to have such teaching situations in schools because adults know what the put in children’s heads. If you say that perhaps it needs to be more than that, what implications does that have for adult learners?
  • When he says education is a process of living and not preparing to live, that implies a process of lifelong learning.
  • He doesn’t distinguish between children and adult learners in this piece, but he is specifically focused on the school (i.e. children) and what is happening there. People often use educational philosophy like this or Vygotsky and apply it to the learning of adults  when they were talking about learning. We should challenge why we feel these works can also apply to adult education and make that clear in our writing.
  • Well, there are differences between adult and child learners, but there are also a lot of similarities.
  • Dewey highlights that activities in school should be meaningful to the child, but what activity is meaningful can vary. For instance, a child in the UK may view the act of reading as meaningful because they see their parents doing it in the home, but a child who has not witnessed this may not apply a significance to the act. My hometown and the village in India where I was working are two very different societies where different activities might be valued in different ways.
  • Dewey argues that learning literature or language should not be introduced immediately to children. However, reading and writing are part of communicating, which is part of socialising. I’d say language and reading is one of the fundamental things to learn.
  • Being able to read and write might be an essential skill now, but it wasn’t at the time that Dewey wrote this.
  • It’s a life skill now, because you can’t get on in life any longer without reading or writing. He’s arguing that when you start school, you have to start with activities they know — connecting their life to their activity. These activities maybe weren’t a part of what children knew in that era.
  • One point of contention: he talks about simplifying activities in school for children (’embryonic form’) because children can’t handle the real world’s complications. That isn’t anywhere near how I perceive myself as a learner, I love the confusion and distraction elements of the process. That’s part of front loading engagement into the learning process.
  • But would you have wanted that as a five year old?
  • That’s true, I’m not sure I remember how I felt at five years old
  • Some complex skills are easier for children. For example, it’s easier to learn languages in younger years, and it gets harder as you get older
  • Linking to educational data mining — research saying that confusion is an important part of the learning process, which is against what Dewey is saying. Children being confused might also relate to learning.
  • But this was written in the 19th century, things have changed now. Dewey does have some ideas that are still relevant, though. For instance, the idea that we need to teach student skills,and we should stimulate a child’s powers in the social situation he finds himself. Dewey has in mind that we should not teach content, but rather the power or skills to do something. This is relevant to what we teach in education now.
  • I found quite a lot of it resonating with ideas at the moment. For example, the idea of it being impossible to foretell society’s advancement and that we must teach students skills to contribute to a future world — this same sentiment was put forth as an exciting idea 10 years ago, yet things have actually been changing rapidly for a long time now.
  • If you take that idea — that we don’t know what we are preparing learners for — it puts things like employability into context. That’s why employers are never happy with what skills graduates have — the skills have changed. There’s an assumed ‘skills agenda.’
  • He’s trying to situate the school within the social context of the community. He wants schools to be integrating skills from the home, as education is a living process which is connected to our social constructs. Education has to be relevant to the contemporary. If we get off track with today, how can we be prepared for the future?
  • Seeing education as a process is powerful. Right now there is a dominant metaphor for education as a commodity. It becomes hard to commodify education, though, if you view education as a process. It can’t be bought and sold on the market with that view.
  • There’s also an element of what he’s juxtaposing his ideas against. Reading between the lines, you can see what kind of schooling he had encountered in America at that point and what was wrong with it. It sounds like it was very much teacher-led, factual-based, and was preparing people for a particular role in society. This piece is a radical rethink about why we have school in the first place and what we need the for.
  • In Education and Experience, he talks about traditional education in terms of subject matter (transmitting facts) and school organisation (one teacher).
  • Is that the past or now? Things haven’t changed much.
  • There’s always a tendency to think we’re the first radical generation, but perhaps there are more ideas of relevance like this from the 19th century.
  • Dewey’s assumption is also that the home environment is a good, productive learning environment. For less privileged children, it perhaps isn’t. Having less of a connection with the home life might actually be beneficial in their case.
  • Even the richest homes can be deficient in some resources.
  • I suppose I mean in terms of parent interests than their finances. Parents are not always invested in their children’s learning.
  • In modern education, there’s an idea that the parent should do additional work by carrying on the learning at home (i.e. with homework or extracurricular activities). Some parents don’t have this ability — maybe they don’t possess the background knowledge or have the resources — even if they are positive about their children’s  education. There’s pressure on parents to do additional things, like after school classes and it can be quite competitive. The school being part of the community doesn’t have to look like this. What a child experiences at home can be part of their schoolwork without their schoolwork carrying on when they come back home.
  • It sort of seems like Dewey is entering into the role of education in creating an equitable society. But, it isn’t clear on whether the school has agency in affecting the home life. Is the idea that students’ lives exist at both school and home, leading to a connection? Or is that connection one of reciprocal influence? What direction is the connection going? He isn’t clear.
  • Also does Dewey ever address class in his work?  I don’t think he does.
  • He did his work in Chicago, so that has to be present and pushing his work, even if it isn’t stated
  • The way it is written, it seems like a class-less analysis and that’s potentially a weakness. At the same time, class tends to disappear from our conversations about education in modern times as well.
  • As well as class, there is a focus on education happening either at home or at school and there isn’t anything really that looked at the complexities of social life in other areas.Although informal opportunities were not so much the norm then as they are now, I would still think there was a certain amount of informal learning in social activities. There’s nothing about the richness or diversity in your life that isn’t home or school.
  • Maybe not here, but in Dewey’s other writings he talks a lot about things like art, so maybe that’s an unfair representation. You can see it a little bit in this piece, as there’s an explicit link between things like cooking and sewing with school.
  • Maybe there just wasn’t as much leisure time back then?
  • It’s interesting to think about what Dewey would think about the home life now. For example, students are now watching YouTube or playing video games at home, does this mean we should be bringing that into the school? Perhaps home activities back then were more skill-oriented from a societal viewpoint. Would he look at today’s home activities and still think they have a benefit or connection to society?
  • Link to Paulo Freire – he writes about learning across life and adult learning, as well as ideas of power and inequality. Dewey’s not really getting into that in the same way Friere does.
  • Perhaps it’s the link between skill and knowledge that Dewey’s talking about? I think it’s more about what they are already doing at home, not a distinction between skill and non-skill. Every skill has knowledge attached to it.
  • He’s positing these as social events, and interpersonal interactions.
  • Also the tasks he mentioned [sewing, cooking, etc] are things students back then were going to need to do in later life. It’s maybe is about relating school life to what you’re going to go on to do in your future life. Many of the things we do at home now are based around entertainment, now that things like doing the washing don’t take all day. It’s not that you need to take things like video games into school, because you don’t need those skills later.
  • Is there a class implication by bringing these practical things in to education? At that time, those who were not well-off needed those practical skills to survive, but the better-off were more privileged and could take the time to learn to read and write.
  • This all goes back to the idea of whether we think school feeds into social progress, or whether it’s more the notion that you sew now and you will always be a sewer, so keep on sewing.
  • There’s a connection here to Gandhi’s ideas of basic education [side note — anyone know a good source for this?]. Manual work should have a place in school because children should learn to respect manual work. It’s not about the act of doing the manual work, it’s more about respecting people who do it.
  • The feedback of education into society is not to maintain the current society but to create one that is going to work better in the future. In Dewey’s time, it was about how to cope with massive numbers of new immigrants and the movement of people across the content to the west. Dewey wanted to know, ‘What are we creating in 19th century America?’ and felt that perhaps the school could be a powerful agent in this. School was a key institution in the way that Americans thought of themselves. The school helped to bring many backgrounds together to create a coherent society.
  • An alternative viewpoint is post-independence India. At this time, parents did not want such ideas of education, where it was an extension of the home life. This is because they wanted upward mobility and for children to be taught what they can do, not what they are currently doing. Why do at school what you are already doing at home? Use these skills instead to teach the content.
  • Right, Dewey talks about teaching things like science to meet society’s needs.
  • But you have to think of an alternative curriculum and no one has been able to do it then. There’s a limitation.
  • The limitation is the tension with education’s relevance to society. Dewey believed that education is life now, not life later. After all, if you can’t situate learning in a way that’s relevant now, then what’s the point of education at all?
  • One of my favorite quotes is from his address after the WW2 bomb on Japan [side note: I *think* it’s this one], talking about economic means to take on a job while you were simultaneously making a world worth living in.
  • But do students need skills or content to achieve that?
  • One good resource on that question America when first black colleges were opened, there were debates about what helps people who were oppressed and what they needed from a college education: skills training or a degree equivalent to what other college were doing? Between them, they did both and there are lots of writings on the successes and fails (examples: Fisk and Tuskegee Universities). [side note: does anyone have a relevant source for this?]
  • Things brings about the assumption that poor people need a certain type of education, which throws away upward mobility.
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