John Dewey has had a profound influence on American education. The present reforms in science education are almost pure Deweyan. Those earlier reforms instituted in his name were not as successful as hoped but with research and creativity, the integrity of his ideas have been practically realized. However the fundamentals of his philosophy of education have far-reaching implications that this unit seeks to include.
The first significant relevance is Dewey’s own all encompassing metaphor that he carried to all his ideas about education i.e. the metaphor of life itself. Life is self renewing, self-adaptive, systemic and social; hence education must have these characteristics to be effective.
“The most notable distinction between living things and inanimate things is that the former maintain themselves by renewal.”(5)
Education is such a process of renewal and transmission of resources that also includes ideas, skills and so forth for the purpose of continuing life in the environment. Education communicates habits (skills) in doing, thinking and feeling from generation to generation. The whole range of life’s experience is passed on to individuals that enlarges their private experience. The individual ‘goes out’ of the self to find points of contact with that wider experience, the life of the species. (6)
Education manipulates meanings that have been called for the by the need to interact and solve problems, those problems given by history, the present and the challenge of the future. The ability to respond is natural to us—not an extrinsic capacity to be forced on the unwilling. It is not an act of conditioning but a learning to see how ideas come together in a dynamic interplay to achieve some goal. The example Dewey gives to make his point is a baseball game. The game cannot be taught by memorizing rules or sequences of events. These may be used in the process of learning the game, but nothing is learned until the idea of the game is learned. Each of the parts have to come together so that it all makes sense. The test is whether the information works for the individual and they can be creatively used. When this is achieved the individual can demonstrate it and see how all the parts of the game are systemically interconnected to achieve the goal of winning and so forth. In this unit, problems will be thought through in such a ‘feed back’ loop.(6)
At the heart of education is the idea of growth and this is equally characteristic of life as it moves from inception to death. Dewey’s key ideas in this respect are ‘reorganizing, reconstructing and transformation’.
Education by contrast is not static and not extrinsic. It is about taking the past into the future with thought, inventiveness and initiative.(7) Gaia problem solving challenges us all to break out of the static ‘business as usual’ ways of thinking.
The relevance to Gaian thought is that education must be taken out of its abstract and past orientation so as to apply past knowledge to the present and future. We need to move out of the Newtonian universe and move into the contemporary world of nonlinear physics, holistic math, creative chaos and global cultural dialogue. Education must transcend meeting the interests of the status quo, class (business) privilege, or nationalist self interest, for the purposes of all life, all of humanity, and for responding creatively to the environment. (8)
As Gaia is sacred and has its own ends and meanings, so also education provides its own interests, its own intrinsic ends. What is intrinsic, however, is open ended, flexible, responsive, a shared activity, personal and problem solving. It is intelligent and springs from the students own natural intelligence. It is its own discipline.
Dewey does not equate education with mere biological life but with reflective thought within the biological process of living in the environment. The essence of education is thinking within experience. Intelligence is not limited to humans. Humans are more adapted to finding a reflective solution to an environmental problem. Reflective experience or intelligent thought may be summarized as follows and is clearly a generalized scientific way of thinking that can be applied to any kind of experience of any kind.
1. perplexity, doubt, confusion in a situation (a problem/question)
2. a tentative interpretation (hypothesis, projected answer)
3. a careful detailed survey or examination of the experience (observations to clarify the problem)
4. hypothesis (rational explanation) stated with independent variables (causes) and dependent variables (effects)
5. test the explanation by effecting a cause to produce an effect or in other words, live the thought within an experience to see if it gives integrity or coherence to the event. (9)
Methodology in teaching is then no more nor less than the method of intelligent thinking. Students cannot learn this unless they participate in an event that requires active reflection. It cannot be isolated from the world but part and parcel of an action that becomes part of a growing world of experience. Books bring that accumulation of global experience to the student but it has to become a direct experience to become meaningful. The task of the teacher is to help mediate ‘universal’ and private experience.
In Dewey’s major opus ‘Democracy and Education’, he elaborates the above in terms of the various disciplines—geography, history, humanities, science and so forth (10). He also apples it to the social spirit, the essence of morality. In the following teaching unit, we will focus more of the implication of his educational theory to ethics and problem solving, particularly as they relate to environmental crises of Gaian proportions. The relevance of Dewey’s pedagogy above will be highlighted too.