Happy Birthday, Dr. Dewey

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Dewey’s way of placing human activity at the center of his theorizing has always been inspirational to me. I assembled a list of quotes that I sometimes have students read when we visit his memorial at UVM. They continue to ring so true. Here they are, in honor of his birthday, October 20, 1859. Burlington, VT.

Quotes: John Dewey


Democracy and Education, 1925

Experience and Education, 1928

Schools of Tomorrow, 1915

*1. Social control of individuals rests upon the instinctive tendency of individuals to imitate or copy the actions of others. The latter serve as models. The imitative instinct is so strong that the young devote themselves to conforming to the patterns set by others and reproducing them in their own scheme of behavior. 40 d&e

*2. We do not have to draw out or educe positive activities from a child, as some educational doctrines would have it. Where there is life, there are already eager and impassioned activities. Growth is not something done to them; it is something they do. 50 d&e

*3. Emphasis upon the value of the early experiences of immature beings is most important, especially because of the tendency to regard them as of little account. But these experiences do not consist of externally presented material, but of interaction of native activities with the environment which progressively modifies both the activities and the environment. 93 d&e

*4. In order to have a large number of values in common, all the members of the group must have an equitable opportunity to receive and to take from others. There must be a large variety of shared undertakings and experiences. Otherwise, the influences which educate some into masters, educate others into slaves. And the experience of each party loses in meaning when the free interchange of varying modes of life experience is arrested. A separation into a privileged and a subject class prevents social interchange. 98 d&e

5. The evils thereby affecting the superior class are less material and less perceptible, but equally real. Their culture tends to be sterile, to be turned back to feed on itself; their art becomes a showy display and artificial; their wealth luxurious; their knowledge overspecialized; their manners fastidious rather than humane. 98 d&e

*6. Upon the educational side, we note first that the realization of a form of social life in which interests are mutually interpenetrating, and where progress, or readjustment, is an important consideration, makes a democratic community more interested than other communities have cause to be in deliberate and systematic education. …Since a democratic society repudiates the principle of external authority, it must find a substitute in voluntary disposition and interest; these can be created only by education. 101 d&e

7. It also follows that all thinking involves a risk. Certainty cannot be guaranteed in advance. The invasion of the unknown is of the nature of an adventure; we cannot be sure in advance. The conclusions of thinking, till confirmed by the event, are, accordingly, more or less tentative or hypothetical. Their dogmatic assertion as final is unwarranted, short of the issue, in fact. 174 d&e

*8. Study of mental life has made evident the fundamental worth of native tendencies to explore, to manipulate tools and materials, to construct, to give expression to joyous emotion, and so on. When exercises which are prompted by these instincts are a part of the regular school program, the whole pupil is engaged, the artificial gap between life in school and out is reduced, motives are afforded for attention to a large variety of materials and processes distinctly educative in effect, and cooperative associations which give information a social setting are provided. 228 d&e

9. Regarding freedom, the important thing to bear in mind is that it designates a mental attitude rather than external unconstraint of movements, but that this quality of mind cannot develop without a fair leeway of movements in exploration, experimentation, application, and so on. 357 d&e

*10. A primary responsibility of educators is that they not only be aware of the general principle of the shaping of actual experience by environing conditions, but that they also recognize in the concrete what surroundings are conducive to having experiences that lead to growth. Above all, they should know how to utilize the surroundings, physical and social, that exist so as to extract from them all that they have to contribute to building up experiences that are worthwhile. Traditional education did not have to face this problem; it could systematically dodge this responsibility. 40 e&e

11. I am not romantic enough about the young to suppose that every pupil will respond or that any child of normally strong impulses will respond on every occasion. There are likely to be some who, when they come to school, are already victims of injurious conditions outside of the school and who have become so passive and unduly docile that they fail to contribute. There will be others who, because of previous experiences, are bumptious and unruly and perhaps downright rebellious. But it is certain that the general principle of social control cannot be predicated upon such cases. It is also true that no general rule can be laid down for dealing with such cases. The teacher will have to deal with them individually. 56 e&e

*12. It is not enough to insist upon the necessity of experience, nor even of activity in experience. Everything depends upon the quality of the experience which is had. …Hence, the central problem of education based upon experience is to select the kind of present experiences that live fruitfully and creatively in subsequent experiences. 28 e&e

13. Education which ignores this viral impulse furnished by the child, is apt to be “academic,” “abstract,” in the bad sense of such words. If textbooks are used as the sole material, the work is much harder for the teacher, for besides teaching everything herself she must constantly repress and cut off the impulses of the child toward action. 73 sot

14. No book or map is a substitute for personal experience; they cannot take the place of the actual journey. The mathematical formula for a falling body does not take the place of throwing stones or shaking apples from a tree. 74 sot

15. In another building all the pupils above the fourth grade have organized into civic clubs. They divided the school district into smaller districts and one club took charge of each district, making surveys and maps of their own territory, counting lamp posts, alleys, and garbage cans, and the number of policemen, or going intensively into the one thing which interested them most. They each club decided what they wanted to do for their own district and set out to accomplish it, whether it was the cleaning up of a bad alley or the better lighting of a street. 82 sot

16. A truly scientific education can never develop so long as children are treated in the lump, merely as a class. Each child has a strong individuality, and any science must take stock of all the facts in its material. Every pupil must have a chance to be who he truly is, so that the teacher can find out what he needs to make him a complete human being. 137 sot

17. But if every pupil has an opportunity to express himself, to show what are his particular qualities, the teacher will have material on which to base her plans of instruction. Since a child lives in a social world, where even the simplest act or word is bound up with the words and acts of his neighbors, there is no danger that this liberty will sacrifice the interests of others to caprice. Liberty does not mean the removal of the checks which nature and man impose on the life of every individual in the community. 138 sot

*18. We send children to school supposedly to learn in a systematic way the occupations which constitute living, but to a very large extent, the schools overlook, in the methods and subject-matter of their teaching, the social basis of living. Instead of centering the work in the concrete, the human side of things, they put the emphasis on the abstract, hence the work is made academic – unsocial. 165 sot

*19. There are three things about the old-fashioned school which must be changed if schools are to reflect modern society: first, the subject-matter, second, the way the teacher handles it, and third, the way the pupils handle it. 170 sot

20. Our world has been so tremendously enlarged and complicated, our horizons so widened and our sympathies so stimulated, by the changes in our surroundings and habits brought about by machinery, that a school curriculum which does not show this same growth can be only very partially successful. The subject-matter of the schoolroom must be enlarged to take in the new elements and needs of society. 171 sot

*21. Hence, the daily experiences of the child, his life from day to day, and the subject matter of the schoolroom, are parts of the same thing; they are the first and last steps in the life of a people. To oppose one to the other is to oppose the infancy and maturity of the same growing life; it is to set the moving tendency and the final result of the same power over against each other; it is to hold that the nature and the destiny of the child war with each other. 71 sot

*22. It is fatal for a democracy to permit the formation of fixed classes. Differences of wealth, the existence of large masses of unskilled laborers, contempt for work with the hands, inability to secure the training which enables one to forge ahead in life, all operate to produce classes, and to widen the gulf between them. …The only fundamental agency for good is the public school system. Every American is proud of what has been accomplished in the past in fostering among very diverse elements of population a spirit of unity so that the sense of common interests and aims has prevailed over the strong forces working to divide our people into classes. 314 sot

Podcasting for Learning

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Students Thinking

I felt crummy about the sharing I’d done at the faculty workshop. Asked to present my work with Podcasting, I told my interested colleagues that I was a “sometimes user” of the technology. Why sometimes? Well, I needed to be convinced that the work that went into creating a podcast was worth the effort. And for me, an education professor of an embarassingly long number of years, “worth” means high quality learning – personal understanding and depth, not just acquisition of someone else’s knowledge. I needed to be convinced that aside from having a good time with a new technology – I love the challenge of just getting the stuff to work while 35 pairs of eyes hold you accountable – my students were actually learning more and better than they would in a more conventional task.

This little essay is about my next steps and how I’ve come to understand and see that different, and yes, better learning is happening. I’ve figured some things out.

My class is a first year required 8am in the morning two days a week introduction to learning theory for maybe-teachers-to-be. It is my personal wish that the students who walked through the door on day one wanting to be a teacher emerge from my class more psyched than ever, and more real in terms of their perceptions about what their future classrooms of children will call upon them to do. It is my personal wish that the students who walked through the door on day one not so sure they wanted to be a teacher at least emerge from my cocoon clearer in their vision of who they might be and more informed of what the profession will call upon them to do. For all my students I wish they realize they are not the center of this universe and that they must appreciate the similarities and differences in the people who populate the world around them. I want them to know that being a teacher in the 21st century will call upon them to more skillful than any generation of teachers coming before them. Finally, I want all my collegiates to be able to articulate how all students “learn in the same way” as a way of developing an informed perspective on that potential cop-out phrase, “Well, all students learn differently.”

It’s a form and content issue for me. I do believe we all learn differently when it comes to the content of our lives, lives that have populated our conceptual structures. I also think that those conceptual structures of prior knowledge get built in pretty much the same way for all of us, biologically speaking. Our learning process is a whole lot more similar than it is different. At least that’s the mantra I want to discomfort their lives with two days a week at 8 in the morning. Did I mention that already?

So, where does Podcasting and learning enter this picture? As my bridge to understanding the similarities of learning of all human beings, we dig into James Zull’s The Art of Changing The Brain right off the bat. And for purposes of this little essay, I want to immediately narrow to my point. After spending some time describing how the brain works, and how that working can be described quite nicely through the descriptive learning cycle research of Kolb, Zull begins to deepen the reader’s understanding of how the rear integrative cortex and the frontal integrative cortex work to structure active thought and action from prior knowledge. Of the writers use of image and text, he notes the “unskilled use of language by the learner is one of the greatest challenges for the teacher.” Delving into the work of Robert Leamnson, he goes on to say he was “intrigued” by the idea that “insisting that students speak to him about the academic content of subject matter using complete, grammatically correct sentences.” He admonishes us that planning done by the executive functions of the prefrontal cortex (metacognitively speaking, of course) “requires learners to carefully assemble their plan for speaking. This plan must have specific content, and that content must be arranged in a way that accurately conveys the image that is in their brain. No clear image, no plan!” Here, Zull is talking about the importance of students being asked to write informational text, non-fiction text that is written to explain an idea or demonstrate understanding of a concept or set of rules or to establish connections between events or whatever. It is, as my literacy colleagues note, writing for a purpose.

Plans mean a good deal to Zull, for it is in the plan of action, the sequence of steps that helps transform prior knowledge to newer understandings through action, that understanding and comprehension get constructed. What I figured out and am about to explain, is that the Podcast requirement created a context for my students to have to plan a way to verbally explain a consolidation of big ideas and details from the chapters they were reading. Read on.

Reading Zull, especially these latter chapters, is a bit of a challenge. He writes iteratively. Having established his big ideas in the first part of his book, he goes back in the latter chapters and deepens his analysis of the relationship between what teachers and learners do and how the workings of the brain might inform the teaching / learning relationships so both teacher and learner might at the end of the day, feel they had spent good time together. I wanted my students to “get deeper” along with Zull. I’d had them meet in chapter groups, process and unpack the chapters, and take responsibility for connecting the high points by means of a webct based discussion. In short, I wanted them to achieve a deeper synthesis between the big ideas and the details.

I get the fact that students have to actively work on the ideas of our class learning and I get the fact that doing it together in class pays special benefits. It is way too important work to assume they are going to do more than just passively read their work and answer whatever assignment I put before them. If I want them to process our work, I want them to do it where I can see it and hear it and comment on it. Podcasting, on the heals of collaborative classroom discussion, extends the benefits of active learning by providing a reason for putting things together while at the same time, after the amygdala calms down, can create a little fun and laughter as well.

What I got on the webct discussion board were big ideas and details but not much synthesis. Some of why that happened might have been the way I structured the discussion, some of it might have been due to the nature of webct threaded discussions. Nevertheless, my joy in realizing my astuteness in noticing that I’d arrived at little synthesis was dulled by what I in fact noticed. My students’ prior knowledge hadn’t really been deepened by establishing more connections between the details of the chapter and the bigger ideas introduced in the first part of the book. Most of them had merely stated the big ideas, and merely stated attendant details. It was underwhelming, or in some cases, to quote the late Howard Cosell, merely whelming work.


Here’s where the podcast came into play. We spent our last class period back in those same groups. This time the classwork assignment to each group was to create one 45 second to two minute podcast that “pulled together” the information in their chapter. What I’d realized on an early morning dogwalk (1) was that unlike an individual writing assignment, the group podcast might force the synthesis they’d been unable to achieve in the group based discussion board offering. I gave them twenty minutes to review their discussion entries (which I graciously provided), plan their podcast content and presentation and then come find me. I, with my trusty iPod, iTalk microphone, and later, Garageband software, would record what they had to say, make a podcast, and place it on UVM’s iTunesU site.

uvm iTunesU

The first group was ready to go in twenty minutes. They passed the iPod around and created a 1 minute 30 second synthesis of their chapter, effectively tying together detail and big idea unlike their first attempt. Each of the other four groups followed, each employing a slightly different style but each having achieved a degree of synthesis that gained a smile from their teacher. These reports ranged from whelming to overwhelming, again to quote Cosell. This was synthesis and this was deepened thought. Tenderly attached, no doubt, but Zull would have us believe, this was concrete, physical brain change.

The pressure of the Podcast forced the synthesis. In that way, the Podcast was not only a jazzy new tool, it was a tool employed as an agent of active learning, a form of learning that has had a long and occasionally controversial place in higher education (TP Msg. #818 Quick-thinks: The Interactive Lecture). Important active learning, I might add. I do understand that some students just because they have to speak into an device will be rehearsing new material in a more meaningful way than if the were to sit in a chair and “think about it” or even draw a webbed diagram. But the idea that the social conversation in the groups was directed at forcing a synthesis across the different student’s individual offerings is a powerful impetus to me to do more work with p-casting now that I have a way of understanding how it is indeed more “worthwhile” as a learning tool. I realized, “just talk” can be something quite powerfully rendered with the right directions and the right tool Granted, their work on webct might have been a really effective way of structuring a rehearsal for the final pod casting performance. Whatever. What I left feeling good about was that I’d figured out another way to scaffold my student’s understanding of content I feel deeply about. I want them to reconsider their thoughts about children’s learning capabilities, particularly those children who can so easily be stereotyped as at-risk and incapable of learning anything that’s worth very much simply because they are “different.” As new “maybe-teachers,” I want them to see all children as capable learners; this information about the biological basis of learning helps support that assertion. Many learning problems are teaching and schooling errors. But that’s a conversation for another time. Maybe the next Podcasting presentation.

Thanks for listening.