Friday Lesson: John Dewey, 4

A Summary of John Dewey’s Experience and Education from Steven Simpson’s Genuine Learning, Genuine Freedom: An Educator’s Reflections on the Philosophy of John Dewey, in 11 parts.

©2010, Steven Simpson & Wood ‘N’ Barnes Publishing

Point No. 4. Not all experiences are educative. Some close doors to future experiences.

For Dewey, aimless activity such as play is educationally neutral. It does not teach much, but it does not do any damage either. There are experiences, however, that actually do harm. If good education promotes lifelong learning, then it follows that poor attempts at education are anything that retards lifelong learning. Dewey called this mis-education and defined it as any experience “that has the effect of arresting or distorting the growth of future experiences.”1 Mis-education is not so much teaching inappropriate content (i.e., racism, intolerance, cheating) as it is facilitating experiences that diminish learning in the future.

Teenagers drop out of high school. Some stay in school, but keep away from organized sports. Others shy away from math or music or art or foreign language even though opportunities are made available to them. Of course, there are a myriad of reasons for not participating in certain learning opportunities—and no one can study everything—but how much of this avoidance of new experience is a result of a negative experience in the past? How much of it is a teacher, coach, or parent failing to help a student open (or keep open) the door to new experiences?2

In my outdoor recreation course at the university, I give the example of a dozen people signing up to take an introductory backpacking course. These people enjoy nature and have car camped or stayed in a mom and pop lakeside resort, but have always been curious about more adventurous forms of outdoor recreation. So they go on a week-long supervised backpacking trip. Unfortunately the leaders were not specific enough about the personal gear to bring, and a third of the people brought pajama party-type sleeping bags and were cold. They also brought discount raingear, which split along the back during its first or second use, so they got wet. The leaders misjudged the physical fitness of the group and chose a route that was a little too demanding. Then to cap things off, the leaders miscalculated on the food, so on the last three days the group rationed food to get through the week. Individually each of the leadership errors was minor; combined they led to mis-education. Originally the novice backpackers had the door to backpacking open a crack, but a bad experience now slammed that door shut. These people learned (or mis-learned) that they don’t like backpacking.

To be continued…

    1 Experience and Education, p. 25
    2 One kind of mis-education is when students are told through poor mentorship that they are too dumb, too uncoordinated, or too untalented to fully participate.

©2010, Steven Simpson & Wood ‘N’ Barnes Publishing from the work in progress, Genuine Learning, Genuine Freedom: An Educator’s Reflections on the Philosophy of John Dewey.

This lesson is compliments of Steven Simpson, PhD, the author of Leader Who Is Hardly Known and coauthor with Dan Miller and Buzz Bocher of The Processing Pinnacle.

Thanks for joining us for Friday Lessons.

2 Responses to “Friday Lesson: John Dewey, 4”

  1. The example you gave of the trip leaders making small mis-judgments I will them micro-decisions equaling a large macro-of mis-education.
    This is the same concern that I often have with teambuilding vs. recreational experiences. For organizations that, as you wrote, create a bad experience and one that is wasted that turns entire orgs. and people off to the value of experiential training.
    Taking a thoughtful process and being purposeful so this does not lead to closing doors to future experience.
    What advice do you have to avoid this? Many people commit mis-education with the greatest intent. What should one know and be thoughtful of to avoid this happening?

  2. Steve Simpson says:

    Michael,
    Not sure whether you were writing specifically to me or tossing out a question to start a general discussion, but I have a couple of thoughts about avoiding mis-education. 1) Avoiding miseducation is one reason why experiential education requires small groups. The groups should be small enough for the facilitator to treat each person as an individual. The faciliator understands each person’s goals & abilities and brings each participant to an individually determined level of success. 2) Dewey himself wrote that experiential educators need to be experts in their field. They need to have the skills, the knowledge base, and the judgment to avoid too many of the kinds of errors that lead to miseducation. Some experiential educators think that it is OK for facilitators to go with students into unexplored territory and learn information right along with the students. All of the Dewey that I have read says the opposite. In fact, Dewey wrote that one of the great challenges of experiential education is to let students take responsibility for their own education, yet keep the learning experiences within the expertise of the facilitator. In other words, how do educators give students some freedom to explore without having them wander beyond where the educator can offer guidance?

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