One of the striking things about reading John Dewey is how he is able to effectively maintain the balance between two perspectives – a practice writers often admit to doing, but rarely seem to put into practice. Commonly, it comes in the form of a mandatory sentence near the start or end of an essay that acknowledges the presence of the other view…but ends up mostly serving as a licence to ignore the weight of valid counter-arguments. This style serves a persuasive or promotional purpose, but in terms of exploring a topic, it’s lazy thought.
Dewey, as a writer, makes strong arguments for both sides of an issue (experience vs nature; structure vs freedom) constantly and consistently. It’s a tough skill committing to such a balance, but the results are worthwhile. Writers and readers can better understand which factors contribute to the tension of an issue, and thus which educational methods are useful to explore. I suspect that the social masses don’t really want that, though. Dewey would have very few readers, followers, likes or ‘friends’ were he around today.
It’s all the more reason to read him now, even if just for style.
Of course, he’s more than just a nice example of pragmatism – his ideas are propelling. Reading him has added greatly to how I understand the distinct realms of learning and education. The set-up chapters in How We Think clarified two ideas for me about humans and learning. These are two ideas that are important to dwell on nowadays, decades after Dewey wrote, as surface learning and speed of information hold great allure.
Thought as Reflection
I don’t think he ever comes out and states it directly, but to Dewey the highest order of four types of thinking is Reflection. As he explains it, this type of thinking (which he simply refers to as Thought) goes beyond observation and belief. It includes sequential ideas that are examined, and aimed at discovery.
It’s a powerful idea, Thought as Reflection. It made me realize that thinking takes time, but at the same time Reflection isn’t always some big ordeal that you have to clear your desk and turn out the lights, or go to a cabin in the woods, or even to set aside 5 minutes to achieve. Reflection happens all the time.
It reminds me of the times I’ve taught kids with support teachers who have their entire educational training based on experience in the Japanese educational system. Their main goal was to make sure that all activity in the classroom glided smoothly. This disposition often ended up undermining what I tried to do as a teacher in the class, and it prevented reflective thinking from taking place. There was never any chance for children to feel uncomfortable, to not know, to feel that perplexity essential for deeper learning.
Perplexity is a type of suspended conclusion – and it has been built into us by evolution. I remember once noticing we had these random, oversized ants here and there around our front yard. Something about them seemed different. I eventually decided to examine one closely one day and saw that it was actually a baby praying mantis. I had never seen one before, it was cool, but here’s the thing, it was exactly the same as an adult mantis except it was small and black, not green. Look at lizards, they’re the same – babies are just miniature versions of adults. Or, as Dewey brings up, a chick just out of the shell will peck and find food just as well then as at any other time in their life.
Humans are not as such. We develop after we’re born, we have a high level of brain plasticity through our first decade of life, we go through physical puberty in our teens, and some of us mature much later, and certainly in different ways, than others. Our whole being involves suspended conclusion that enables us to adapt greatly to the environment we’re born into. This has given us the ability to act on the basis of the absent and the future. Which in turn, affords us a certain amount of control over our own adaption.
Learning is a gift of nature – Reflective Thinking, Education, is not. It’s ours. Education construes Learning. It takes that of our environment (including what we were born with) and uses it for our own intentions.
Why these two ideas resonate with me is because both require patience and depth. Each day, I observe how many of us now conduct ourselves – friends, strangers, people I teach, people who try to teach me, myself – and the patience and depth qualities of lifestyle are being traded in for the high frequency and slight familiarity of awareness. It didn’t start with the internet or mobile phone, but, maybe the balance is swinging too far because of initial adoption of such technologies.
This lifestyle change is less productive for forming connections, the connections that come together inside the human node, the creative ones that we’re built for, that cannot be artificially designed. (Interesting review about connections inside humans and Stephen Jay Gould)
Do we want to be Amplifies or Composers? Well, this isn’t the choice, we have to be both. Only inside of us can we answer the pressing question: Where do you want that balance to lie?