Dewey meets Delpit: Bringing theory to life in teacher education

Last week I (Yiola) tried something in my teacher education course that was less safe. I brought together divergent theorists,  multiple contexts and eras and encouraged practicum connections in ways that are not typical.  I was unsure of the outcome: would the student teachers understand? connect? appreciate? Just as I encourage our students teachers to take risk, I took a risk in hope new understandings, connections and realizations about teaching and learning would occur.  At the end of class students applauded… when does that ever happen? The comments and reactions at the end of class indicate that students appreciated the class content and left class with much to think about.

I have recently re-read Dewey’s Education and Experience (1938) and was inspired to share the ideas with my class, namely what is miseducative practice? And how do traditional and progressive models of education play out in classrooms today? We discussed how both models are quite transparent in today’s classrooms. We also explored Dewey’s recommendation of a theory of education that is based on a philosophy of experience. Student teachers felt that the notion of experience is now more commonly understood and a desired practice in teaching. We discussed how finding a coherent theory of education based on a philosophy of experience would require transcending the notion of “either/or” traditional or progressive models and moving into integrative reasoning. So this is all quite typical… and then I introduced Delpit.

In Delpit’s work Other People’s Children  (1988) Delpit described herself as “a product of skills-oriented approach to writing and a teacher of process oriented approaches”.  Her amazing chapter, The Silenced Dialogue,  illustrates Dewey’s request to have educators think deeply about the either/or debate between models of education and the implications of our practice on student learning. Delpit explains the following about her chapter, “My charge here is not to determine the best instructional methodology… Rather, I suggest that the differing perspectives on the debate over “skills” versus “process” approaches can lead to an understanding of the alienation and miscommunication, and thereby to an understanding of the “silenced dialogue”… this is precisely what Dewey asked of us fifty years prior, that as educators we must go deeper than thinking across methods; we must use a philosophy of experience to deepen our understanding of the best ways to teach children. For Delpit, the experiences are those of Children of colour and children who experience poverty.

Exploring Dewey’s concepts through the lens of power and Delpit’s context of literacy was remarkable. The process of grounding Dewey’s theories in Delpit’s work provided grounding for both scholars in ways that I wasn’t yet unprepared. Students were excited to talk about a philosophy of experience by looking as social context as a foreground for understanding models of education; for understanding why certain methods may work well and not well and how to move our practice forward so all students are not only learning but are successfully learning in ways that are empowering them.

The final layer of discussion in class was to connect the ideas to their own placements. To tell stories of methodological challenge and to explore how to address those challenges thinking about what Dewey suggests and what Delpit illustrates. Again, students were speaking in detail on the gaps and the glories in their classrooms and schools.  The result of this class: discussion sophisticated and practices validated.

We finished the discussion by reading aloud the last paragraphs of Delpit’s chapter; as a reminder of the enormous but yet delightful task we have as teachers if we truly wish to create learning for all:

We must keep the perspective that people are experts in their own lives. There are certainly aspects of of the outs tide world of which they may not be aware, but they can be the only authentic chroniclers of their own experience. We must not be too quick to deny their interpretations or accuse them of “false consciousness”…And finally, we must be vulnerable enough to allow our world to turn upside down in order to allow the realities of others to edge themselves into our consciousness…  

By doing what Delpit suggests and with keeping Dewey’s foundational perspectives in mind we as teachers can begin to understand how models work in classrooms.
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