Tag Archives: John Dewey

Children’s Role in Human History: Implications for Schooling

On February 26, I (Clive) read Ivan Semeniuk’s interview in the Toronto Globe & Mail with anthropologist Niobe Thompson, producer of the CBC TV series The Great Human Odyssey. According to Thompson, human life has been quite tenuous over the millennia and only the ingenious have survived. “Our closest call came about 150,000 years ago when…there were fewer than 1,000 breeding adults left” due to “punishing volatility” in Africa’s climate (sounds like Canada today!).

Thompson goes on to talk about key pockets of humans that have survived through incredible ingenuity, involving their “inventing technology to solve the challenges of their world.” This has required creating a whole culture in which everyone participates, including the children. “Whenever I am living with traditional cultures I have the experience of being overwhelmed with the skills my hosts have for living in their environment.” Thompson goes on to talk about the key role of children’s learning in this:

A person cannot become a hunter or a free-diving gatherer or a reindeer nomad as an adult. This is an immense package of skills that one must begin mastering as a child.

This set me thinking. To what extent are children in schools today learning “inert ideas” and “remote matters” (John Dewey) rather than things fundamental to surviving and thriving in the real world? Dewey would agree that one cannot master (and reconstruct) the requisite “immense package of skills” as an adult. The process must occur in earnest from the first day of school (and prior to that in the home). Unfortunately, however, as Nel Noddings says in Education and Democracy in the 21st Century (2013), schooling today is going in the opposite direction.

I do not foresee dramatic changes in the basic structure of curriculum…. Indeed, if we continue in the direction we are now headed, the curriculum will become even more isolated from real life…. It is this tendency that we should resist. (p. 11)

Children do learn a lot of useful things in school: we and our societies are much better off than we would be without schooling. But at present we seem to be headed in the wrong direction. So resist we must. Even in the right direction, we have a very long way to go. Perhaps human survival is not a stake, but human well-being around the planet certainly is.

Happiness and Teaching – Insights from Dewey

In earlier postings, I (Clive) talked about the need to see teaching and teacher education in very broad terms; to see ourselves as ultimately helping students develop a satisfying, enjoyable or “happy” way of life. This week I came across some wonderful quotes from John Dewey along these lines.

The first is from Democracy and Education (Macmillan, 1916); it emphasizes that we can’t separate our philosophy or theory of education from our philosophy of life.

“[P]hilosophy is at once an explicit formulation of the various interests of life and a propounding of points of view and methods through which a better balance of interests may be effected. Since education is the process through which the needed transformation may be accomplished…philosophy is the theory of education as deliberately conducted in practice” (p. 387).

Two further quotes are from Theory of the Moral Life (Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1960, orig. 1908, revised 1932). They emphasize again the need for a comprehensive philosophy of life and education, and show the connection between this philosophy and human enjoyment, satisfaction, happiness.

“In isolation, one enjoyment cannot be said to be higher or lower than another…a satisfaction which is seen, by reflection based on large experience, to unify in a harmonious way [one’s] whole system of desires is higher in quality than a good which is such only in relation to a particular want in isolation [satisfactions of the former type together constitute “happiness”] (p. 44). … The office of reflection [is] the formation of a judgment of value in which particular satisfactions are placed as integral parts of conduct as a consistent harmonious whole” (p. 60).

Dewey notes, however, that our philosophy of life and education is never complete: it is always a work in progress.

“The business of reflection in determining the true good cannot be done once for all…. It needs to be done over and over and over again, in terms of the conditions and concrete situations as they arise” (p. 62).

I’m going to share these quotes with my students next week and see what they think – and learn from them. My philosophy of life and education is never complete!