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What’s Old is New Again

April 21, 2013

This is a version of a blog post I wrote over a year ago. In my infinite wisdom I deleted the posting. At the urging of my wife, I am in the process of rewriting the posts that were on the blog. This is the first one.

What does it mean to be educated? John Dewey (1938) suggested there must be two key components to a truly educative experience. There must be a primary experience where students do something. In a modern context the something could be working in a group on a problem, working on a service learning project, or learning to rock climb. Dewey suggested that this was only the first step. He said students must also have time to process the experience and build connections between their primary experience and their life. They must have time to reflect upon the primary experience. The role of the teacher in this process is to guide them through both the primary and secondary experience. The teacher acts in a supportive, mentoring role.

There are two things about Dewey’s ideas which resonate with me. First, Dewey wrote about reflective education 75 years ago, yet, it would seem that these concepts have been largely ignored. Dewey hypothesized a radical change to the industrialized model of education yet that model persists on a large-scale today. This begs the question why (more on this momentarily)?

The second reason Dewey’s ideas resonate with me is due to the fact that following Dewey’s model means that “schooling” does not have to take place in a “bricks and mortar” school. The process of primary and secondary experiences does not necessitate four walls, desks, chairs, pens, and paper. Of course, it can take place within this environment but it does not have to.

So, why has this model been largely ignored? I would argue this is the case for two reasons. First, Dewey’s model removes the teacher as expert. In Dewey’s model, teachers are not repositories of correct answers and facts. This can be a very frightening prospect for some teachers. I am making a sweeping generalization but I do believe the primary reason for a lack of change is fear of loosing control.

The second reason is the tools to effectively and efficiently make this happen did not exist – until now. Clayton Christensen, in Disrupting Class (2008), suggests that change to education will happen because of the presence of disruptive technologies. Given the ubiquitous nature of WIFI, smart phones, laptops, tablets, and other technologies, the disruption hypothesized by Christensen is upon us. Students can work on problems in a group around the world using Skype. Their work can be asynchronous and take place when it meets their needs. Their reflection on the process can be done through blogs, vlogs, web design, and freely distributed original music, just to name a few methods.

Schools should not be asking if disruption will happen. Schools should be asking how they will transform in order to become a part of the disruption. For some, this prospect continues to evoke fear. For others, the disruption in education is the beginning of a new and amazing chapter. Teachers who have an interest in being on the leading edge of the disruption also have access to resources like never before. Through social networking sites like Twitter, we have the capacity to build professional learning networks which enable us to connect with like-minded professionals around the world. One only has to read blogs and tweets from people like George Couros (@gcouros), Stephen Anderson (@web20classroom), David Truss (@datruss), Tom Whitby (@tomwhitby), to see that change is taking place.

The writing is clearly upon the wall. Disruptive change is taking place in education. I guess 75 years late is better than never at all.

All the best,

Sean Beaton



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  1. Sean, I would also argue that one of the reasons why teachers are reluctant to change is the fact that we were raised in the industrial model. In no other profession do people watch, learn and participate in the model for 12 years plus their post secondary time before becoming a professional in that world. Teachers have the longest apprenticeship. How do we as teachers work to create a model that is different and better than the one we have lived?

    “Don’t limit a child to your own learning he was born in another time.” – Tagore

  2. Picking up on Laurel’s point, teachers are also usaully very successful as students in the system as currently constructed, and so are more prone to re-enforcing norms, I think.

  3. I would agree with both of you. Teachers are generally successful students – I don’t quite fit that mold, but that’s a different story:)

    So, if we suggest that teachers observe and participate in the system for 12 years prior to becoming a professional in the system, how does change take place? Christensen would suggest that change will take place from outside the system. There is evidence of this given the rise of distance/online education and the development of MOOCs. But, is that real transformation? Seems to me, it perpetuates the model. Online learning may be asynchronous but still involves many elements of traditional schooling.

    I think it is going to take groups of teachers who recognize that the industrial model of education is not meeting the needs of students in the digital age, to transform the system. I have a friend who is currently writing his Master’s thesis. He suggests that true leadership in any system (he focuses on health) requires creativity. We talk about thinking outside the box but how often is it encouraged? I mean truly encouraged and listened to?

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