Philosophy and Education: Thoughts on Teaching Learning

If and when I have a child, I don’t know if I could send that child to a school. Not because I’d want to give my child a religious education, or stunt their social skills. Rather, I think most schools do terrible things to us. And in an age of teaching to standardized tests, this is increasingly so. The downside of home-schooling a child, in addition to how much work it is, is that the has fewer opportunities to socialize. But my sense is that learning to develop friendships and interact with peers can happen in less troubling environments than a school. But what’s so bad about contemporary education, what might be better, and what could be done?

The Problem: What Would Dewey Say About Today’s Schools?

If you read pioneering educational theorists like Lev Vygotsky or John Dewey, or more contemporary theorists like Paulo Freire and bell hooks, you realize pretty quickly that what we do in our schools is quite different from what these theorists argue we should be doing. Many education programs don’t teach these theorists works, rather, they have students read texts that summarize these works, and as a result, make them memorizable. This, of course, is precisely the problem in miniature. We reduce education to rote learning, memorizing pre-digested bits, which is precisely what all these thinkers criticize.

The interesting thing is that most educators know that what’s being done in schools is a problem. But legislators often see standardized tests as a way to force improvements and controls on schools from without. And since business plays a huge role in politics today, the lobbying done by the companies that produce these tests often creates the desire for more of these tests. As a result, education is reduced to test-taking.

Another problem is that most of what’s tested is irrelevant to the realities students will face upon graduation. We all know that most students will never need to know Shakespeare at work, or quadratic equations. And those few that do can be taught these in their majors in college. Does this mean we should simply then follow a vocational model, and phase out ‘general education’ which aims at producing ‘well rounded individuals’? There is the European model, which tracks students, often in their early teens, into either a ‘vocational’ or ‘academic’ path. Those who go the academic path get a more general education, then go to college and specialize there, without the general education requirements of most American colleges. Those who choose the vocational path don’t necessarily become manual laborers, they could in fact learn a high-tech skill like computers, but they specialize starting from what we call high school, and as a result, are employable right after. Nevertheless, America is the place where creative thinkers tend to come from these days. And the American higher educational system, despite it’s flaws, is still the envy of the world.

Honestly, American college education worries me a lot less than what comes before it. I don’t want my child spending hours learning how to do long division, when that skill is now obsolete. Nor do I want my child reading Shakespeare or Jane Austen, and knowing nothing about, say, Junot Diaz or Zadie Smith. These later authors, in their complex discussions of race, sexuality, and colonialism, have more to say to our contemporary world than Jane Austen or Shakespeare. While there are definitely reasons to study these older authors, the fetishization of things British and old turns literature into something students easily hate. Likewise, the reduction of math to technique makes it even more easy to hate than literature.

Banking Versus Modeling

This is what Friere called the ‘banking’ model of education. Students learn skills, and these skills are like money in the bank that can later be exchanged for goods and services. The problem is, this isn’t really what education is supposed to do. Which of course raises the question, what exactly IS education supposed to do? For Dewey, it’s supposed to prepare students for later life, and help prepare them to be fulfilled people and good citizens. How the heck, though, could we really do that? It’s much easier to teach and test rote knowledge out of a book, and Dewey knew this. But he argued that most learning happens by modeling, not by teaching. We see a teacher whose way of thinking, whose approach to the world inspires us. We identify with some aspect of that. And it doesn’t need to necessarily be a teacher, it could be any adult we learn from. Teachers, however, should be specialists in modeling.

But modeling what? For Dewey, few things are more important to model than the learning process itself. But how could schools do this? Certainly in the age of teaching to state mandated tests, it’s hard to do this. But when teachers are liberated to teach outside the box, magical things can happen. Dewey builds his notions on one of the first educational theorists, Plato. Plato argues that it’s impossible to teach. You can’t just take things from your head, and deposit them in someone else’s. Not even facts or rote learning. You can present things, and someone else has to want them to come into them. This applies to facts, but also what is much more important than facts, which are ways of looking at the world, and ways of acting in the world. Learning how to think for oneself, how to love, and mourn, and grow, these are life-skills that can’t be taught.

But they can be modelled. This is why Plato, citing Socrates, argues that teachers can only ever be ‘midwives’ to the birth of knowledge in another. We help people to give birth to learning with themselves. And if we just push facts or techniques at them, they’ll never learn to think, or learn, or grow on their own.

Teaching Learning

But how can we teach learning? There is perhaps no more important skill than teaching our students how to teach themselves. As someone who has taught just about every subject imaginable, from math to science to music to english to film to gender studies, and to students of age ranges 5 through 75, I’ve learned that the biggest impediment to student learning is the feeling that they can’t do a particular type of thing. I can’t do math, I’m not good at chemistry, I don’t like reading. Most of my job as a private tutor was really to show students they could do these things, ultimately, a psychological coaching of sorts.

That’s why I think that, particularly in the younger grades, students should be taught in a much more open-ended fashion. A certain amount of time each week should be about directed research. And some schools are actually trying this. That is, the teacher asks students what they want to learn, and then helps them do precisely this. Teachers are experts on learning as a process, and they help students learn how to teach themselves, and then teach others. This can be done at the level of the individual and as a group.

For example, the teacher might say to a third grade class that during the fall, the class will divide up into groups, and research future professions. Those who want to learn about particular professions group together. Then each group brainstorms about what they want to learn about these professions. The teacher helps each group, and then each group presents their work to the class. From here, groups formulates how they are going to learn about these professions. Perhaps interviews, books, internet, videos, etc. The teacher functions as a coach to the learning process, suggesting things that students might not have thought of, while keeping the process moving in organized stages. At the end of the semester, students then present what they learned to each other. Everyone learns about everyone’s learning, and learning is modelled by teacher, peers, and yet done, to one degree or another, by the individual as well.

Group research projects like this can be supplemented by individual research projects. A third grade class can have time set aside one afternoon a week in which students work on an individual research project of their choice, anything they want to learn about, and present to the class at some point later in the year. The teacher uses the quiet time in which students work on this on their own to meet with students individually to help them along. Students learn how to use the internet, books, and other sources to teach themselves. The teacher doesn’t need to know about all these things in advance, but merely how to direct the process. It’s likely the teacher will be taught a lot by their students!

And even if a child presents on the life of their favorite pop-star, the job of the teacher is to find a way to make this desire of theirs a teaching and learning experience. What hardships did this pop star face? How does one become a pop star? How has this changed over the years? The learning process starts with the desire and interest of the students, and then is broadened and ‘academicized’ by the teacher.

Curriculum: Project-Based Learning

A critic might respond that this doesn’t teach things like math, or great works of literature. And certainly, teaching certain specific skills and bodies of knowledge are essential to pre-college education. How might these be integrated into this approach? I think perhaps the most important question to ask first is why we want to teach particular things. For example, if teaching long division is teaching a skill that now can be done by computers, why do we make all youngsters still learn this arduous skill? Most educational theorists will say it teaches how to follow a set of complicated instructions, which teaches logical analysis. Once we get to algebra, we teach how to solve problems with multiple variables, that might have multiple answers.

That said, when we teach students these notions abstracted from context, and give them pages of long division or algebra to practice, these notions seem like hurdles. And in fact, that is what they are. Most of us will never use algebra, though we will need to solve complex problems with multiple variables, just not with x’s and y’s. So why not try to teach more specific things that students might encounter? The argument is that teaching algebra teaches general problem solving, and that this can be applied to any profession, while teaching the specific types of problem solving for each field would require massive specialization.

There are two problems with this approach. Firstly, there’s the assumption that math can’t be taught in relation to real world applications. For example, rather than teach students how to solve quadratic equations, and then how to do projectile problems in physics, I’d much rather have a competition. Students are going to design catapults, and build them based on their designs. Those who build the best ones win some prize. And along the way, the teacher will teach how to use physics and math to make this work. Students will have to present the equations they used to the class, and how this helped them design their catapults. This is math and physics as actual problem solving.

A curriculum of these sorts of ‘learning projects’ could be envisaged, at varying grades of difficulty. Each would introduce particular quantitative skills in relation to specific types of problem solving. I had a teacher in 4th grade who had us build a model stock market, and for a semester, we had time each week to ‘play stock market,’ and she awarded a small prize at the end of the semester to the folks who made the most play money. We learned more about math and economics in that ‘game’ than in any formal class. And it was fun, we barely realized we were in ‘school’, it felt like educational play. And that’s what all school should feel like!

When student desire is engaged, they teach themselves. When the teacher teaches ‘top down’, it will always feel forced. If you ask students what they want to learn, they will always have curiosities. And if there are specific things that need to be taught, like projectile motion or the economics, there are ways to develop ‘real world’ scenarios to teach these that are much more engaging for learners than ‘go home and read this, multiple choice quiz on monday.’

None of this is radically new, this is what good teachers have always been doing. But they have done it against the grain of the political pressure on how education should be done. We fear falling behind in abstract measures like math and science to China, and before that, the Russians. And yet, it is American creativity that has propelled this country forward in the new economy. Students need to learn flexibility, adaptability. They need to learn how to learn, and continually teach themselves new skills in a rapidly changing world. Rather than spend hours learning how to do long division by hand, it’s better to teach a student how to find a You-Tube video that can teach them if they ever need the skill. I didn’t know how to replace the hard-drive on my computer a few days ago, but I found a You-Tube video, it showed me how, and I did it. My mom would never have the confidence with You-Tube or computers to do this.

Education is largely about showing people how easy it can be to learn things you used to think you knew nothing about. If along the way students learn about specific skills, great. Or specific bodies of knowledge. And if we are thinking curriculum, we could say that teachers have to devise projects to teach certain skills or bodies of knowledge during particular grades, with suggested, age-appropriate examples. Some collective, some group. But always leave teachers the flexibility to change as much as possible. Encourage teachers to think outside the box, not teach to multiple-choice tests.

And that said, even tests could be made different. A problem could be presented to students, and they have to write an essay about how they’d address it. Of course, essays, whether about scientific problems or governmental ones, are much more difficult to grade than multiple-choice tests. But essay writing, even about science and math, is how the process of thinking about these fields can be shown. Mathematicians write papers, so do scientists, they don’t publish tests on which they did well. The thought process is the point, not the techniques, which are only a means to an end.

And by requiring students to write about their reasoning on how to solve specific types of complex problems (ie: how would you go about getting an internet startup business off the ground if you had these factors involved, or how would you design a machine to do ‘x’ task, etc.), you teach them writing skills, and not just about literature. You show them how to write about science, or economics, or math. Writing and reading are universal skills. And this is why we need to teach students to read and write about more than literature. Difficult passages about science or finance, all these are worth teaching and writing about.

Does this mean that students might never learn Shakespeare or Jane Austen? Perhaps. But as with other subjects, rather than focus on content, we need instead to focus on why we teach particular content. Teaching students about the past helps them see the present differently. Teaching them to see through the eyes of others different from them teaches how to imagine the perspective of others. All these ways of approaching the world can be taught in many ways, not just Shakespeare and Austen, or any particular set of authors. Just because we learned these skills this way doesn’t mean they have to. What’s more important is that they learn about the power of the past, and other points of view. If there are other skills they gained from reading Shakespeare, or Austin, or learning quadratic equations, great, let’s figure out what those are. And then figure out new ways to teach these skills. But let’s not fetishize content.

Because when we do, we kill the educational process, which should never be about content, and only secondarily about skills. It should be about learning to learn, learning how to learn about many types of things, and how to be able to teach others in turn. Because as every teacher knows, you don’t really know something in your bones until you have to teach it to someone else.

How could we teach teachers to teach like this? Beyond content? By having them student-teach with other teachers already doing this. You learn to facilitate students teaching themselves and each other. In the process, you learn the types of content needed for some of the great projects that students tend to like (ie: a stock market project, a catapult making project, a make your own musical instrument project, a build a model city project, etc.) And instead of knowledges being cut off from each other, they intertwine, like they do in the real world. If students design model cities, they intertwine economics, law, urban planning, architecture, sociology, math, all together, and often without realizing it. Students will naturally gravitate to particular roles in groups, becoming specialists in their sub-field in the project. Learning by doing. And after seeing a good teacher do a stock market project with their kids, you learn how to do it with your own, or come up with your own age-appropriate project.

At the College Level

I’ve seen all these methods work first hand, and with great success, and the pre-college level. But what about in college. One of the biggest difficulties I’ve seen when trying to change teaching methods in college is that by the time students get to college, they’re not used to learning ‘outside the box.’ When I ask them what they want to learn, they usually respond with confusion, because no-one’s ever asked them that before. As a result, they tend to turn the question back on me, and say it’s my job to tell them what’s out there, because they don’t know.

This is why I think the entire educational system needs to be overhauled. Were students prepared to direct the learning process at a young age, they would come in ready to brainstorm about why they chose to take a particular class. They would ask the teacher questions, and we could co-create a syllabus based on a teacher’s deeper knowledge base, and student desires.

But since students aren’t used to this sort of teaching, I see the role of a teacher in college as having several usual functions. In intro level courses, the teacher can map out a field, give a gut sense of the big picture issues, and provide students a roadmap so they could investigate things deeper on their own after the semester ends. But in every class, the goal should be to mess up the certainties that students often come to class with. They think the subject is a certain way, or that learning about it will be this way or that. It is difficult to continually frustrate the attempts to tame learning. And it is difficult, as a teacher, to keep oneself off balance like this. But it should, I think, be the task.

There’s only so much one can do in a semester, when the entire educational system works differently. But to the extent that one can model a different type of approach to learning is the extent to which your class might actually help work against the grain of education in this country, one which teaches students to be passive recipients of facts and skills, rather than active  teachers of themselves and others.


For anyone curious to know more about these sorts of approaches, one of the best places to start is bell hooks’ excellent book Teaching to Transgress. hooks (spelled all lowercase!) pulls many of her approaches from two theorists, namely, Paulo Friere, and John Dewey. Friere’s work Pedagogy of the Oppressed is a potentially life-changing text, one which can teach about both education and oppression. John Dewey’s Experience and Education is a classic text of radical pedagogy, and due to its being one of the first books to really discuss the relation of philosophy to education, still is often taught in education programs in the US. Highly recommended, despite the fact that it’s become institutionalized in this way! The work of Lev Vygotsky is also pretty great, it’s about how children learn, but it’s often watered down in summaries. Try to just get a good anthology of essays, one that has an introduction that can explain what might be difficult or odd about the essays. Then there’s an increasing body of writings on project and based and student-learning centered approaches to teaching, just go on amazon and search around!

~ by chris on June 9, 2012.

13 Responses to “Philosophy and Education: Thoughts on Teaching Learning”

  1. Chris,

    I would adamantly disagree with the statement that “most students will never need to know Shakespeare at work, or quadratic equations. And those few that do can be taught these in their majors in college.” Two points. First, these are very low-level skills, and if a person is first taught this in college then that person is not likely to go far. College must stop being remedial teaching. Second, you are forgetting the difference between teaching content and teaching ordered thinking. Much of the specific material taught in primary and secondary education is more valuable for its conduciveness to structured and well-informing thinking, and less to the specific facts covered. But this point generally agrees with your general point; the issue is more about how certain skills are taught and not whether they should be taught.

    But again, if your child does not learn long division, then your child does not understand division. Your insistence on this point is under-cutting your entire argument, because you run the risk of instrumentalizing education. You also begin to sound like a New Historicist, and we can broach that conversation if you don’t know why that’s bad. There’s a reason some novels are classics, and it’s not just because “they were cool then” (but not now). You seemingly take this back later in the piece, but it’s a potential tension.

    I would say that the general problem of the test-based curriculums is that they have skewed education to what is more easily measurable, which skews it to rote memorization. It reduces everything to facts. But research, critical thinking, and the personality/characteristics to use these skills well have nothing to do with this.

    I was briefly a product of something similar to what you describe in your “Teaching Learning” section. I think that there might be ways to do it, but in general the model is unworkable on the large scale. It only works well with very excellent teachers, whereas for the rest most primary teachers don’t have the skills to make the lessons challenging, or to put it a better way, to get the students to challenge themselves. But, that also depends on what level we’re talking about, because I’ve seen this advocated up to the 8th grade, whereas you mention the 3rd grade. At lower grade levels, I think the approach is a great idea, but at higher levels, it’s insanity.

    A final point. Dewey argues against both student and teacher-focused learning. He’s extremely insistent about that. It’s about setting up an environment first and foremost. Hence, I think the biggest challenge facing education is our own culture and the culture of education. There’s a reason that the rich schools do will, and its not just money.

  2. Hi Jason-

    Yes, you’re right, putting it as ‘student centered’ is a corrective, there needs to be a balance, though right now it’s tilted in the wrong direction.

    I agree that teaching critical thinking skills, whatever those loaded words mean, is essential. I think pages of long division, which I remember clearly as mind-numbing rule-following from my own education, fails at this.

    I’m not sure I follow your argument about novels. I think teaching some novels because they were classics is misguided. Teaching them in relation to social and cultural institutions that may have had something to do with that, now that’s interesting. But separating literature off from other branches of knowledge reifies it. Learning always in multi-determined contexts, to whatever extent possible. Honestly, I think one of the primary values of novels is they can be defamiliarizing to the socio-historical assumptions to which students are acculturated.

    As for me, I say ditch the quadratic equations or Shakespeare unless you can find a way to integrate them into something broader. I think Shakespeare can be integrated into all sorts of things. Teaching students about the traditions that shaped the culture they live in is important, and Shakespeare is part of that. It’s the reification and fetishization of content that bothers me most.

    This is why, I think, we need to change teacher training. If teaching were framed as messing up preconceived notions and teaching learning, our schools would be very different.

    As for remedial teaching, it all depends on what you value. I think being able to write out a well thought through position on some aspect of the world, with and without numbers, and being able to understand and respond to others, is the key skill that opens all others. I could care less if folks know trig, or Voltaire.

    But there are certain things they should know. Like current events, recent global history, how to participate in political institutions, how to use computers and the internet, some ways in which cultures, disciplines, and time periods differ in fundamental ways in regard to how they look at the world. But process over content most of the time.


    • Chris,

      I’m going to give you a hard time again. Dewey is rejecting the idea of “balance” as well. Yes, we should include both, but both should be elements of a whole situation. This is another instance of his use of the conceptual mechanic found in the reflex arc concept article. Do you know to what I refer?

      Critical thinking skills are a lot like habitual heuristics. You habitually run through a number of heuristics in a situation that an untrained person might never think of, and a knowledgeable person must recall and use effort to perform. They include not engaging in fallacious reasoning (I could start listing), knowing what an argument is and how to make one, knowing the difference kinds of inference and their limits, and so on.

      Correct, mathematics is better are training abstract reasoning rather than critical thinking. TO be concrete, abstract reasoning is the ability to think a concept that is well divorced both from sensory experience and the normal habits of the person. It is crucial for understanding concepts in philosophy and science.

      As far as integration of studies, you’re singing to the choir … what shall be our next hymn?

      Concerning teacher training, yes. But I would honestly tell you that I don’t think that much of America cares about education. That is, they think of it too much in the abstract or as instrumental, and our culture no longer appreciates education. Perhaps one of the reasons is because we now know, as the secret is out, that upward socio-economic mobility has become more and more a myth, and that’s what education was supposed to give us.

  3. Hi Jason-

    Def read the reflex arc essay a while back, but it’s not something that stays that fresh in my mind. What in particular are you getting at? My sense is that you’re trying to say teacher and student should be part of a whole, remaining in tension without being subsumed by the whole. Yes? I mean, Dewey deconstructs the reification of parts in that essay, right? It’s been a while.

    I like your idea of habitual heuristics, particularly how they are linked to the idea of ‘chunking’ and the way motor skills (and who knows what else!) gets stored as routines in the cerebellum. But when you speak of ‘critical thinking skills’, this hits me as a much abused and nebulous term that comes to mean whatever the user wants it to mean. Fallacious reasoning? My guess is that we’re gonna disagree on this. But as a pragmatist, perhaps not. Isn’t non-fallacious reasoning, from a certain perspective, reasoning which works? Of course, what it means to ‘work’ here is the million dollar question, but that’s a huge discussion for another day. Perhaps the more essential point is that the notion of reasoning I use isn’t one which is based on reified definitions.

    As for teacher training, yes, most of America sees it as a path to economic mobility, little more, and this is increasingly not even the case. This is why I think education has to be more concrete and less practical, all at the same time. More concrete, in that rather than focus on disciplines abstracted from contexts, all learning should be, as much as possible, in concrete situations. But less practical in that the purpose of all this shouldn’t be simple preparation for economic life. Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s terrible we force students how to write using Shakespeare. But I don’t think getting rid of Shakespeare for ‘business writing’ is better. I’d much rather, for example, comparing several scientific essays that disagree, and trying to get a sense of the stakes, and having the writer take a position.

    The linkage between teaching writing and literature, and teaching quantitative literacy and ‘math’ is false and damaging. But that doesn’t mean the solution should be simply preprofessional or based in new content. It’s gotta be process.


    • Yes, Chris, you are showing your mad skillz: “student and teacher should be part of a whole, remaining in tension without being subsumed by the whole.” The situation is the whole in this case. I point this out before the Dewey and education scholars call you out on it.

      Dewey deconstructs the reification of parts, fixed functions, stimulus and response, etc. But he also show the conceptual mechanic by which he thinks these things. Take any two elements of a dyad, and show how they are always already part of a higher unity. This is part of his Hegelian legacy that he synthesized with Darwin, Peirce, and James. Following James, the unity is first from which we discriminate. In Peirce, we say that the unity is first (firstness) from which comes the dyad (secondness) to which we realize the higher unity from which they came, though transformed by this process of inquiry (thirdness). You can guess the Hegelian version; Dewey loved productive negativity.

      I completely understand your complain about “critical thinking skills,” and that is exactly why I was very definite. I could even name the inferences that people should know and why … but hey … I also teach this regularly. By the way, I also have the “meta conversation” with the students very early. “Here’s what you’re really being taught and why you need to know.” A lot of my examples include court rooms, being in front of medical review boards (nursing students), and wacky science.

      Fallacious reasoning is believing something based on poor reasons, which are reason that can never by themselves secure their conclusion. We actually go through the list, e.g., appeal to authority, etc. I do not thing it is coherent or sensical to negate the term and produce “non-fallacious reasoning,” because we should respond to actual problems and not imagined solutions, which is what “non-fallacious reasoning” supposes. Perhaps I need to clarify why I call it that. We think when we have a problem, or in pure inquiry, when we want to think about problems we might be habitually ignoring or missing.

      • ah, I see what you mean by ‘fallacious reasoning.’ I don’t generally like speaking of anything as fallacious except for in very circumscribed ways, but unsusprisingly, you’ve got a pragmatic underpinning to this, so I’m much less perturbed!

        So does Dewey specifically use terms like firstness, secondness, thirdness? I know that’s all in there, and yeah, British Hegelianism, such an odd development, but I forget if he gets that explicit in his writings.

        I think also the diff is that I don’t teach philosophy classes in a philosophy dept. My dept name is ‘humanities and media studies,’ and technically, despite the fact that I teach philosophy all the time, this discipline is housed in the department next door, called ‘Social Science and Culture Studies.’ So when I do a course on Deleuze’s Cinema Books, it’s technically a course in humanities. Go figure.

        But I think this disciplinary frame does impact both the teaching and the learning. I did my undergrad in philosophy, but grad in complit. For me this was in many ways a means to do the continental stuff I wanted, but also allowed me to branch out. But it really does impact the way you read texts, and how you teach them. I never talk about things like truth claims, and I regularly contextualize philosophers in relation to their cultural situation beyond the history of philosophy. Those trained in philosophy departments rarely do things like this, and instead, they talk about fallacies and misreadings.

        More than anything else, it’s a different style, I guess, but it impacts what aspects of texts you find interesting, and the sorts of writing you expect from your students. Then again, at an art school, the point of teaching these texts is different than teaching them to philosophy majors, which is I’m guessing the situation you’re normally in.

      • Chris,

        “fallacious reasoning” refers to a argumentation that is a case of one of the well-known fallacies; it sounds like you spend too much time around those who fling words about. There’s a reason I hate all the -isms and -ists.

        Dewey does not usually use ther Peircean terms. He prefers his own terms, and it depends upon which period of his work. Most of his educational writings are in the middle period.

        Yes, you note it was British Hegelianism. Shook has convincingly argued that Dewey gained many of seemingly Hegel+Darwin concepts from physiological psychology. It was a time when “mechanism” fought “organicism,” and we are not as far away from the 19th century as we think.

        Many of the Deweyans don’t teach in a philosophy department, so it’s no big. Disciplinary differences. Americanists care much less about these than the other traditions. But yes, it radically impacts how one thinks, discusses, and teaches texts. Actually, I think part of the OOO partisanship is in part due to the fact that many of its playes are talking across disciplines, and thus are clashing along disciplinary differences as well.

        Contextualize philosophers culturally? No surprise here; I am a historically-minded philosopher, but I understand as I do concur that philosophers tend not to do this.

      • yeah, I must say, it’s odd whenever I present work at a philosophy conference how different I am from those in philosophy depts, and how similar I am to my colleagues in my media studies dept, all of which came from fields other than philosophy. then again, I’ve made sure to fill in my philosophy background, but my mode of reading is still differently inflected.

        yeah, physiology and psychology were pretty strange back then. especially cause in germany they took over philosophy depts for a while till they got their own depts! but if memory serves, didn’t something similar happen in the US?

      • Yes, and it happened in Dewey’s case. There weren’t philosophy departments until when Dewey was going to grad school.

  4. Chris,
    I used to teach preschool before I became an academic. Very quickly I learned there that whatever I did as a teacher – kids learn. I called it my educational principle No. 1, in that it’s the first thing teachers need to recognize in order to build an effective teaching method. So, kid’s learn, but the question then becomes what is it that kid’s are learning in any given situation? Very often, I think it’s a kind of meta-learning (Bateson’s deutero-learning) where it’s not so much about the information we teach them, but the process of learning and being taught that gets transmitted. In our current education system, students learn to sit in desks, read what the teacher tells them, listen to the teacher’s lectures, do the required assignments, and regurgitate information in papers and on exams. Either that or they learn any number of techniques for bucking the system – acting out, skipping school, droping out, etc. I myself learned to get by with only the barest minimum of work – barely passing some of my classes – and making an issue of my intelligence such that people would think I was just “under-stimulated” or something like that. Maybe it was true, but in any case it was an effective strategy, and I learned it well. Fortunately, I’ve not used that approach as an academic, primarily because I’m passionate about the things that I do now, whereas I was decidedly not passionate about school back then.
    So, as you point out in your post, I think it’s this kind of meta-learning that we need to be most attentive to. It’s not so much about what we’re teaching the kids – Shakespeare, Austin, or Stan Lee – but the way we organize the environment so that students can learn to learn and be healthy, whole human beings (whatever that means!).
    With this in mind, I’m wholeheartedly opposed to a completely self-directed teaching program because I think part of learning to learn and becoming a whole human being is being forced out of your comfort zones (which you point out as well). Students who are completely responsible for their own learning might very easily get stuck in a particular way of thinking or learning, and the teacher’s job should be to knock them out of it every now and then.
    Finally, I don’t mean to imply that content isn’t important at all – it is. All I mean to say is that too much attention is paid to content (thus standardized testing) and not enough to form or process. We need to fix the process before we start worrying about content.
    Great post!

    • I couldn’t agree more with everything you’re saying here. In fact, when I started writing this post, I was planning on talking about what you’re getting at here, though I got sidetracked into content issues a bit more. I never thought to call it ‘meta-learning’ though, which is a great concept. Is there a theorist who calls it that, or is that your formulation?

      But yeah, most of what they learn, regardless of content, is ‘the system’, things like sit still, please the teacher, do these repetitive tasks, get a gold star, learn how to throw spitballs when no-one is looking, how much they can get away with within the rules, basically, form, not content.

      • And all of that is extremely Deweyan.

        As a philosophy professor, the biggest problem I face are students who just go through the routine, especially because its trained them to memorize and regurgitate if they are “good” students. And then they get upset when they do poorly on exams, because they do not comprehend the difference between memorizing and understanding. Proper philosophic expression is too nuanced for memorization to work without understanding.

      • “Is there a theorist who calls it that, or is that your formulation?”

        I think I would point to Bateson on that one. Sometimes it’s hard to tell what’s my own and what I’ve gotten elsewhere. This is definitely stuff I was thinking about before I read Bateson – but I think I was primed for this kind of thinking by reading others of his era and kind (Alan Watts, Aldous Huxley, etc.). I can’t remember now if Bateson uses the term ‘meta-learning’, his preferred term is deutero-learning – as in “second order learning.” It’s more or less the same thing.

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