Friday Lesson: John Dewey, 7

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. 7. Experiential educators teach subject matter. Disseminating information (presenting facts and ideas in an orderly manner) is as much a task of experiential education as it is of traditional education.

Education is a combination of pedagogy and content. Experiential educators sometimes forget this, becoming so enamored with the methods of delivery that they lose sight of the subject matter. An example of this is when an educator returns from an experiential education conference with a new game or initiative, and adds it to the curriculum because it is new and exciting, not considering whether it fits the goals and the content of the program. There is a sense that so long as the experience is engaging, the learning will follow. According to Dewey, this is wrong. Experiential educators need to be as conscious of the subject matter within their programs as any traditional educator.

Sometimes experiential educators are disturbed with the way that traditional education uses lectures and textbooks to jam curriculum and subject matter down the throats of students. These experiential educators then overreact and make experiential education entirely self-discovery. However, the difference between traditional education and experiential education should not be that one provides subject matter and the other provides experiences. That’s a weak and misleading oversimplification. A better distinction is that traditional education views the dissemination of information as the goal, whereas experiential education views it as a means. Traditional education provides information through a variety of techniques, then stops as if its job is done—while experiential education provides information, often through the same techniques as traditional education, and then allows the students to apply that newfound knowledge to the experience at hand. The flaw in traditional education is not that it organizes and presents facts and ideas; it is thinking that the application of those facts and ideas are for the future and not the present. Dewey wrote, “We (experiential educators) may reject knowledge of the past as the end of education and thereby only emphasize its importance as the means. When we do that, we have a problem that is new in the story of education: How shall the young become acquainted with the past in such a way that the acquaintance is a potent agent in appreciation of the living present?”1

This way of looking at traditional and experiential education is revealing. Traditional education might be accused of focusing too heavily on subject matter, always delivering content in the most efficient way possible and, thereby relying too heavily on lecture and textbooks. Experiential education, on the other hand, can be accused of just the opposite when it focuses on process at the expense of content. Some experiential educators may actually feel that they do not teach subject matter at all, at least not in the way that math and history are considered subject matter. Extreme traditional education may care about the content and not how the students get it. Extreme experiential education may care about how a student learns and not so much with what is learned. Dewey pointed out that both approaches are so immersed in their own narrow educational world that they compromise their effectiveness. Educators, regardless of their philosophical bent, need to get rid of the prejudicial notion that there is some kind of gap between “experience and the various forms of subject-matter that make up the course of study.”2

To be continued…

    1 Experience and Education, p. 23.
    2 The Child and the Curriculum, p. 11.

©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.

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