The Morning Dew(ey) is a multi-part series investigating and modernizing the claims of John Dewey as represented in Democracy and Education. The series’ intention is not to summarize the author (for that, please read the book); rather, I use the words of this critical pedagogue to focus my attention on specific concepts and reflect on many challenging details regarding school, learning, and society. It is my hope that each 500(ish)-word article will leave you reflecting on your pedagogy with a mind towards action you can take in your classrooms right now.
My last article was rather critical towards the many behaviorist tendencies used in education. Imitation, rather than meaningful actions, are frequently the result of poorly designed educative environments, which includes assignments. In this article, however, we turn towards solutions to this harmful learning paradigm.
A lasting educative experience connects the behaviors of the students to the meaning of those actions. To accomplish this, Dewey suggests that rather than directing the behavioral habits of our students, we should focus on their “habits of understanding” (33). Behavioral habits are comprised of purely formal relations and lack deep, cultural significance. Habits of understanding, on the other hand, are largely social and cooperative, as they are “set up in using objects in correspondence with others” (33). They are habits that create meaning, both socially and culturally.
As an example, Dewey investigates language acquisition in the early stages of life. A young child is inspired to learn a language because of his or her immersion in the culture enmeshed in the common usage of the language. This is a striking contrast to the language learning we often see in classrooms where an undue focus on the form and structure of the new language slows acquisition. The connections between the behaviors of the new language and its meaning are severed and thus it lacks a certain educative quality.
Still, immersion remains the best way to acquire a new language. Dewey suggests this is true because “it takes place upon a background of coarser and more tangible use of physical means to accomplish results” (32). The child’s learning of the language is not an isolated affair. Literally everywhere the young child goes, the acquisition of language is reinforced by the goings on of society. A call suggesting that supper is ready, is in fact rewarded by supper being ready (hopefully!) and to a foodie like me, that is a meaningful connection. It is met not only with recognition, but also a cultural behavior — joining the family for supper, for example — that supports this understanding. The challenge, then, is to apply similarly powerful social connections in all areas of study, especially in academic environments that are often criticized as not being a part of “the real world.”
Establishing meaningful connections is a matter of personal interest. The stimulus cannot be the grade or even the satisfaction of completing an objective. Insead, the stimulus of a culturally educative situation is the pleasure of the exchange itself. So, in changing the stimulus of the learning environment to establish connections, the motivation becomes intrinsic; the educator shifts the attention away from a task-oriented behavioralism to a socially-oriented participatory culture. In a class where the exchange of knowledge is interesting, the participants tend to further the educative situation for its own sake. In short, they want to keep learning.
This is no easy task. Today’s school arrangements are rather isolated from experience. Language, which is at the foundation of all higher learning, is itself an abstract art, providing convenient symbols with which to exchange knowledge. However, to code this knowledge into a language risks losing some of its essential quality. Sadly, the cultural importance of such knowledge is often the first to go. As the knowledge exchange solidifies over time, its cultural significance fades and another habit of behavior emerges.
Resist the academic tradition of being a disinterested observer. It leads nowhere. Immerse yourself within the reality of the subject, whatever it is, and invite your students to join in that experience. Share your passions and nurture those of your students. Matters of the heart are impossible to imitate and so if promise to teach with passion, there is sure to be learning with spirit.