Friday Lesson: John Dewey, 8

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. 8. To bring together subject matter and the current interests of students, experiential educators must develop a knowledge base at least as strong as their traditional counterparts.

“Experiences, in order to be educative, must lead out into an expanding world of subject-matter, a subject-matter of facts or information or ideas.”1 If an experiential educator believes that his or her responsibility includes teaching subject matter, then it follows that he/she needs to know the subject matter and know it well.

Dewey did not give experiential educators a break. His image of experiential education was not that traditional educators possessed one skill set and experiential educators another. It was that experiential educators were competent at all of the things traditional educators were, and then needed to know a bit more. One of the skills associated with traditional education that needed to be carried over to experiential education was an understanding of the subject matter.

“Do not be contemptuous of the organization of facts and ideas,” Dewey wrote. “No experience is educative that does not tend both to knowledge of more facts… and to a better, a more orderly, arrangement of them.”2 If anything, experiential educators may need to master subject matter, ideas, information more thoroughly than their traditional counterparts. This is because the lecture format of traditional education allows a person to teach at the edge of his or her knowledge base. At its very best, this means an expert on a subject might bravely bring an audience along with him as he publicly struggles with his latest thoughts and ideas. Unfortunately it also means that a tired or ill-prepared teacher can fill a class period by relying on outdated or straight-out-of-the-textbook notes. Nineteenth century philosopher Herbert Spencer was speaking about the latter example when he wrote “The need for perpetual telling results from our stupidity not from the child’s.”3

Experiential educators, for the most part, cannot work at the edge of their abilities and knowledge. They must continually advance their knowledge and skills, but then back off whenever they teach. This means that their knowledge base must exceed, not just equal, the experience at hand. For example, a canoe trip leader may take on Class III whitewater when on her own, but only paddle in Class I or II when teaching others. Unlike the lecturers (both good and not so good), she cannot be putting her own skills to the test when guiding the experience of her students.

This is not to ignore the attractive image of students and teacher exploring and learning together. For example, a well-intentioned teacher who knows very little about freshwater invertebrates gathers up a few jars, magnifying glasses, and a pond life field guide, then takes a group of children on a marsh study. With sufficient enthusiasm, the teacher leads an enjoyable and educative outing. Even better, however, would be those students and teacher exploring together alongside a trained naturalist—a person familiar with marshland plants and animals, skilled in teaching the use of dichotomous keys, and more than able to shift the focus of the day when the vitality of the marsh reveals something unexpected. The quality of the experience is enhanced, because the naturalist’s knowledge base is broader than the task at hand and allows her to guide the experience in a range of worthwhile directions.

For me, the epitome of a strong knowledge base elevating the quality of an experience is when I birdwatch alongside a skilled birder. I’m not a slouch when it comes to birds. I know good places to go, and I probably can name a hundred and fifty birds on sight. But I am not a birder. I don’t know bird calls, and I can’t identify a bird by its flight pattern, by its silhouette, or by the way it is behaving. I can’t always see the birds that are right in front of me, at least not in the way that a skilled birder looks at the mottled colors of the forest understory and zeroes in on a camouflaged northern water thrush or ovenbird. When I am with a real birder I not only notice and identify twice as many birds as I would otherwise; I learn a little bit more about birding and a little bit more about the birds that I am looking at. Actually pick any skill—fishing, rock climbing, stamp collecting, garage sale bargain shopping—unless a knowledgeable person is more interested in showing off his expertise and his gadgetry than in sharing his hobby, the experience is wonderful.

As important as a solid knowledge base is, experiential educators should not be intimidated about learning the necessary subject matter. Acquiring information is one of the easy parts of experiential education training. I have met several students intrigued by environmental education, but uneasy because they had not studied much natural science. So I tell them to study some. I also tell them that an ecological knowledge base is not the major obstacle to a person becoming a good interpretative naturalist. When a well-intentioned educator, armed only with enthusiasm, is compared to an expert on aquatic ecosystems, it is not obvious who’d make the better nature educator. Good nature center directors who are hiring staff usually look for a passion for teaching and a genuine affection for children first and second, a strong knowledge base third. A passionate, but uninformed educator can always learn the content. A knowledgeable person who has never taught might never develop the knack for teaching.

To be continued…

    1 Experience and Education, p. 87.
    2 Experience and Education, p. 82.
    3 Spencer, H. 1928. Essays on Education, etc. Introduction by Charles W. Eliot. Reprint, London: Dent, p. 63. Kieran Egan claims that many of Dewey’s ideas originated with Herbert Spencer. Egan, K. 2002. Getting It Wrong from the Beginning: Our Progressivist Inheritance from Herbert Spencer, John Dewey, and Jean Piaget. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, p. 19. Interestingly he also thinks that Spencer and Dewey both got it wrong.

©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.

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