I am pondering and researching education while remembering a waterfall.

Bird Droppings May 8, 2023
I am pondering and researching education while remembering a waterfall.

It has been eleven years since I stayed at the Sylvan Mills Bed and Breakfast in a room over a waterfall. I went up to North Georgia to recharge; perhaps another word might be to rekindle my passion for education and learning. I have participated in and attended Foxfire training programs for nearly fifteen years. I started writing before daybreak, listening to nature’s sounds. Today the Whippoorwill chorus was surrounding me. It was quite an experience staying in a room overlooking a waterfall. With my windows open wide at night, I took in the sounds that produced some of my best night’s sleep.

However, writing to the lulling sound of water running was difficult, and I would doze off. With the sun up, I would move my computer to the porch overlooking the falls, fully intent on pulling out my Bose earphones and listening to Crosby Still Nash and Young. The sounds and energy of the water mesmerized me, and I walked about the area just before dark, taking pictures. I have attempted to recreate my nights at Sylvan Mills several times, but they are always booked.

 I have pondered the John Dewey and Foxfire program and its implications in a teacher’s classroom. I am behind in my reading now, so I will try and get some additional reading and writing done this weekend. With the bulk of education in the early 1900s following the Industrial Revolution and mass production closely, a few great thinkers took the individual child in psychology and education in new directions regarding its relationship to children. How children were viewed became the basis for several educators to develop their theories and ideas. Child psychology and child-centered educational ideas flowed from these thinkers. John Dewey reminded us that the goal of education is more education. To be well educated is to have the desire and the means to ensure that learning never ends.

 Alfie Kohn, educator and author refers to Dewey and his idea of providing for a lifetime of learning. In his book, What Does it Mean to be well educated? Kohn points out, “Many classroom teachers asked to specify their long-term goals for students, instantly responded with the phrase life-long learners.” Dewey was not alone in his thinking which was in direct contrast to the traditional educational practices of his day. Dewey was frustrated with the rationale of educators when he wrote

“Why is it, in spite of the fact that teaching by pouring in, learning by a passive absorption, are universally condemned, that they are still so in trenched in practice? That education is not an affair of “telling” and being told, but an active and constructive process.” John Dewey

The traditional philosophy of education focused away from children and their interests and did not try to understand children, simply seeing them as miniature adults. Traditional education concerns efficiency and production, which were the Industrial Revolution’s carryovers. It was time for serious educators to get away from the assembly line processes of traditional education. One of these new educators, a thinker, author, scholar, and advocate for children throughout his writing, Alfie Kohn, illustrates this point.

“Looking at the long-term impact of traditional teaching and the push for Tougher Standards, then we are finally left with Dewey’s timeless and troubling question: “What avail is it to win ability to win prescribed amounts of information about geography and history, to win ability to read and write if in the process the individual loses his own soul.” Alfie Kohn

In a burst of educational energy just before the turn of the century, numerous educators and scholars were developing ideas that often parallel John Dewey as they sought to develop a better way to teach children. In his book The Unschooled Mind, Howard Garner discusses some of the basic history of progressivism.

“Progressivism is most frequently and most appropriately associated with the name of John Dewey. In fact, however, the practices of progressive education had already begun to be implemented in the period before 1896…Leaders like Francis Parker, first superintendent of the Quincy Massachusetts Public Schools, later principal of the Cook County Normal School in Chicago, and finally a founding member of the Chicago Institute, which ultimately gave rise to Dewey’s educational facility at the University of Chicago.” Howard Garner

While Dewey was establishing himself in educational history in the United States across the Atlantic Ocean in Europe, Dr. Jean Piaget was developing child-centered education, leading Dewey and Vygotsky to the concept of constructivism. Piaget believed each aspect of child development followed clearly defined stages, and this did not change from child to child but could occur at differing speeds. Dewey saw the past experiences of children so often not even being recognized, yet at that point, it is the basis for their ability to learn.
Similarly, a medical doctor working with mentally disabled children in a European residential setting looked at the child-centered aspect of education. She developed a methodology with a developmental learning process in mind. Dr. Maria Montessori describes her philosophy and understanding of educating children in her book The Advanced Montessori Method.

“Scientific observation has established that education is not what the teacher gives; education is a natural process spontaneously carried out by the human individual, and is acquired not by listening to words but by experiences upon the environment.” Dr. Maria Montessori

Another psychologist looking at children in a developmental approach was the Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky whose work was not discovered by Western educators till the latter part of the twentieth century. Vygotsky also saw the experience as a significant factor in children’s development. Retention of previous experiences facilitates adaptation to the world around them and can give rise to habits when those experiences are repeated. Vygotsky differed from Piaget in that he said learning could precede developmental stages. We can acquire a given tool to attain a particular stage of development. Vygotsky’s concept of the zone of proximal development is “the distance between actual development determined through independent problem solving and the level of potential development through problem-solving under adult guidance or in collaboration with more capable peers.”

There are some similarities between Dewey and Vygotsky; much like Dewey, he also felt that a significant element of group interaction was needed for education to be meaningful. The ideal school for Dewey was an “embryonic social community,” in which students were encouraged to cooperate and work together and learn from each other and their teachers.

The originators of constructivism, Montessori, Piaget, Vygotsky, and Dewey, all started with psychology. The child is unique as they develop their interpretations and understandings of learning and education. Even today, the child is not the focus of education. One needs only to leaf through the tables of contents in recent educational journals to discern that the individual child is not the focus of educational reform. Each of these great educators believed in doing as a way to learn, and as Ted Sizer points out, there is context. “What I have learned is context is everything…… The memorable learning was that you have to be very respectful and sensitive to the values, attitudes that youngsters bring into class, that their parents have, which the community has”. Montessori and Piaget leaned toward the developmental stages of child development. While accepting developmentally sound stages as accurate, Dewey and Vygotsky felt the community, peer group, and teachers elevated learning past developmental points of reference. Maybe it is time to look back to Dewey.

“Curriculum has held our attention for generations because those who think seriously about education understand its inherent possibility. Maxine Greene’s call for a return to the search for John Dewey’s great community, her call to rise to the challenge of coming together without losing each person’s unique way of being in the world challenges our educational imagination.” Mary Aswell Doll

For Dewey, an educational experience had to be connected to students’ prior personal experience and a widening or deepening of future experiences. Through reflection, Dewey saw the ability to go beyond where you are now. John Dewey reminded us that the value of what students do “resides in its connection with the stimulation of greater thoughtfulness, not in the greater strain it imposes.” The act of reflection is taking a given reference and moving ahead to a new possibility, and the teacher often provides the window for reflection to occur.

“Good teachers possess a capacity for connectedness. They are able to weave a complex web of connectedness among themselves, their subjects, and their students so that students can learn to weave a world for themselves.” Parker Palmer

Dewey’s reflective, imaginative undertaking provided ideas and thoughts that led Elliot Eisner to Art Education. In his writings, Eisner looks to the arts as a basis for education, and his ideas and thoughts offer a new stream from Dewey. John Dewey once commented that the aesthetic stamp needed to be on any intellectual idea for that idea to be complete. It feels imaginative and sensible that the so-called academic studies would foster if modeled after the arts. Dewey identified making things as one of four fundamental interests of children. Unhappily, because schools put so little value on making things, most of us grow up with contempt for work done with our hands. Eisner often drew from Dewey’s idea of needing context and relevance for learning to be genuine and lasting. Eisner places experience at the center of learning.

“It is through the content of our experiences that we can perform two very important cognitive operations: we are able to remember and we are able to imagine…. Imagination …works with the qualities we have experienced. What was not first in the hand cannot later be in the head.” Elliot Eisner

“One of the potential virtues of situated learning is that it increases the probability that students will be able to apply what they have learned. When the conditions of learning are remote from the situations or tasks in which what is learned can be applied, the likely hood of application or, some would say, transfer is diminished.” Elliot Eisner

The idea of imagination needing to have a basis in reality, in the context, is of significance. Imagination brings meaning, purpose, and application to what is learned.

“Imagination for Dewey explores alternative possibilities for action within a selected context of ongoing activity. Imagination enables the search for ideas that can reconstruct the situation. It takes the context and its data, including emotional, sympathetic data, as intuited and determined by selective interests and transforms them into a plan of action, an idea that if acted upon might allow the agent to achieve the desired ideal in reality.” Jim Garrison

Elliot Eisner believes in diversity, which is the key to education and learning and provides richness for our culture. Continuing in that same line of thought, Maxine Greene, educator, philosopher, and pioneer, sees reality, after all, as interpreted experience. Limiting learners to a single dominant mode of interpreting their experience may frustrate their pursuits of meaning and their desire to come to know and learn.

Much of her work is based on the concept of caring. Nel Nodding defines education “as a constellation of planned and unplanned encounters that promote growth through the acquisition of knowledge, skills, understanding, and appreciation.” Eisner and Barone understand that the aesthetics of experiences build those in our minds and provide the means to imagine and be creative. Aesthetic Learning and Education are one of understanding, perception, and creativity. Eisner looks at teaching as artistry, the ability to craft a performance and provide the students with the mediums and means to perceive and understand their world.

For John Dewey, aesthetic experiences are not confined to high art but arise from human organisms’ interaction with their surroundings. Thomas Barone points to Dewey as the primary thinker who envisioned art and aesthetics as central to education and learning. Like many other progressive educators with the linear format of traditional education, Thomas Barone is concerned with the linear format.

“If students are not given access to metaphoric learning activities, if the shape of their learning is always linear and closed, how will their capacity for creativity and invention be developed?” Thomas Barone

Perhaps in my research and reading, I am getting a bit overboard with Dewey and education, but I see tie-ins to daily living, how we respond to others, and what the future holds for our grandchildren and us. If each of us took a bit more time to try and understand why so much of what is happening in society is happening, maybe we could finally realize much of this does not need to be happening. So again, after nearly thirteen years of daily writing, I ask, as I do every morning, please keep all in harm’s way on your mind and your hearts and always give thanks namaste.

My family and friends, I do not say this lightly,

Mitakuye Oyasin

(We are all related)


One response to “I am pondering and researching education while remembering a waterfall.”

  1. Wonderfully written. You weave a number of my favourite writers and thinkers e.g., Dewey, Kohn, Montessori, Palmer, etc. in education together to offset the neo-liberal jargon so prevalent in schools today. Thank you for sharing

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