In an earlier column, I mentioned talking to my sister, a professor of education at Smith College, about the progressive educator John Dewey. My sister reveres Dewey’s educational philosophy of experiential learning (or “learning by doing”), while I am more reserved in my support. She and I have also discussed, in related conversations, the ways in which seemingly new educational methods repeat ideas that have already been tried and discarded. As experienced teachers, we have seen educational reform move through predictable cycles, from traditional to progressive and back again. Although we are equally skeptical about sweeping reform policies, we sometimes differ over fundamental principles. Here, she describes how she thinks learning should take place, following Dewey’s progressive experiential method:
Instead of moving sequentially through a set curriculum, the class begins its work around a question—say, why are so many of our parents getting cancer? The question needs to be something the class really cares about, and something they have the capacity to explore. That big, thematic question opens the way to lots of other questions—scientific, theoretical, and practical: Is it true that cancer levels are rising? What environmental factors cause a rise in cancer? What kinds of people are most at risk? Then the effort begins to gather information to answer those questions. That might involve working in the local archives and local library, developing interview questions and then canvassing local families and family physicians, testing the water in the reservoir, and measuring other contaminates in the environment. All of this work is hands-on, interdisciplinary, collaborative. The walls between the school and the community become porous. Students know why they are doing the work they are doing, and are deeply engaged in finding an answer to the question. Once they come up with a hypothesis (say, they find high levels of mercury in the water), that opens the way to a new question (how do we fix this?), a new goal (fixing it) and a new series of experiences (holding community forums, writing the governor, studying water purification, etc.) There have long been progressive schools that build their curriculum around these kinds of themes.
My sister’s description of progressive education makes me anxious. I don’t think I could lead a class along these lines. I am a more individualized, more focused teacher, and though I like open-ended discussion, I am more oriented toward product than process. In the progressive model my sister describes, too much would be going on; I would get confused and, being confused, would likely confuse my students.
Drawing from my own experience, then, I have to conclude that teaching—and learning—can proceed through any number of methods, provided that the teacher is engaged, knows something about the subject, and cares about the students. While my sister, a progressive to the core, believes that educational reform is a waste of time since the right method was discovered back in the 1930s by John Dewey, I think it is a waste of time because I don’t believe in any method other than my own.
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