Thursday, June 08, 2006

Philosophy of Education

(A Morning Devotion Presented during the 2005-2006 School Year)

I'd like to challenge you today to think about your underlying educational world view. We often think about classroom management, or best practice or curriculum development but we don't think about the philosophy that undergirds what we do. I'd like to raise this issue today. I'd like to challenge you to think about educational philosophy at a very basic level and to consider doing some reading on the subject

I'm going to do this in a strange way. I'm going to quote someone who in some very important areas I disagree with and then hopefully tie what he has to say into some Biblical principles. That person is John Dewey.

Dewey was an apostate, who disavowed his Christianity after reading the works of Darwin. I don't buy nearly all of what Dewey says. However, the fact that I disagree with John Dewey on so many issues makes it even more striking to me when he says something that hits the nail on the head. I believe that while we need to be careful with John Dewey he still has, on the whole, something to teach us.

C.S. Lewis wrote in his book Letters to Malcolm that the best devotions are those " that you do while reading a pagan philosopher with a pen in your hand and a pipe in your teeth" Well I don't smoke but I understand the sentiment. Some of my best and deepest devotional thoughts over the past three or four years have come reading Kierkegaard the existentialist, Heiddeger the NAZI, Bergson, Popper and Husserl who were Jewish, and John Dewey who was a lapsed Protestant.

In the past several months it has been Dewey who has 52 years after his death stirred my soul and turned my heart and mind to ponder just exactly what is God's concept of education and what is my role as a librarian who is also an educator.

As we talk and sit and hopefully learn in teacher workdays and late start days this coming year I think it might be a good idea to revisit John Dewey who is, after all, without doubt, the most important philosopher of education in the last 150 years and see if he has anything to say us in a Christian school.

For those who are unfamiliar with John Dewey let me quickly give you an overview. Dewey believed that the best education was education that comes from experience. He was struggling against an educational system that believed that knowledge and wisdom were external things that could be inserted into the minds of children through repetition and drill. Education in his time was strict and taught that there must be a strict adherence to to facts and a preset curriculum.

Dewey was not the first but was the most influential thinker to say that education should be child centered not curriculum or teacher centered. He invented the lab school. He advocated cooperative learning and was an early and vocal advocate for better special education as well as planting the seeds that would become the inclusive education movement. He pioneered smaller class size. He advocated such now standard ideas as group learning and relating lessons to everyday experience.

In many respects his criticism of the educational establishment of his day was well founded and accurate. The problem was that the educational system of late 19th century America had grown out of the Sunday-school movement, catechism schools and the efforts of Protestants to improve literacy so that people could read the Bible.

When the established educational system of Dewey's time opposed his reforms it was, in part because they saw those reforms, I believe, incorrectly as an attack upon Christianity. I must stress that while Dewey abandoned his Christian roots he consistently refused make overt attacks upon the church or Christianity as he saw the great good that Christian social missions had provided to the poor of the industrial revolution and exhibited great respect for his Christian colleagues throughout his life.

I believe that the schools of Dewey's times missed an opportunity to reform the idea of education and to retrieve a wandering and back-sliding man. For as the schools opposed Dewey his position against them hardened and he was forced to ally himself with the secular and socialist elements in society and it is these groups who have become the champions of a better education in the world not the church. Education has been poorer every since.

Thus, without further explanation; I've re-printed some excerpts from John Dewey's book Experience and Education. As you have time today or tomorrow, I'd like for you look at these quotes and see if you can put them in a Christian perspective. Think about how you can refine, clarify or improve your philosophy of education and discover how that philosophy is based or grounded in your faith.

Mankind likes to think in terms of extreme opposites. It is given to formulating its beliefs in terms of Either-Ors , between which it recognizes no intermediate possibilities. When forced to recognize that the extremes cannot be acted upon, it is still inclined to hold that they are all right in theory but that when it comes to practical matters circumstances compel us to compromise. Educational philosophy is no exception. The history of educational theory is marked by opposition between the idea that education is development from within and that it is formation from without; that it is based upon natural endowments and that education is a process of overcoming natural inclination and substituting in its place habits acquired under external pressure. (Experience and Education p.1)

Now, all principles by themselves are abstract. They become concrete only in the consequences which result from their application. (Experience and Education p.20)

When external control is rejected, the problem becomes that of finding the factors of control that are inherent within experience. When external authority is rejected, it does not follow that all authority should be rejected, but rather that there is need to search for a more effective source of authority. (Experience and Education p.21)

This last quote is one of my favorites. It can be paraphrased as change does not equal progress.

We shall operate blindly and in confusion until we recognize this fact; until we thoroughly appreciate that departure from the old solves no problems. (Experience and Education p.25)

Lastly, read Hebrews 5:14

Shouldn't one of our objectives as a Christian school be to help our students find the Truth? I think John Dewey had a lot to teach us about finding the Truth.

The complete text for Experience and Education can be found HERE

Until Next Time
Fai Mao
The Educational Philosopher

1 comment:

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