It’s fine to write all sorts of wonderful statements about theory and design and we can achieve a lot in thinking about such things. But, let’s be honest, we face massive challenges in the 21st Century and improved thinking and practice in education is one of the most important contributions we can make to future generations. Thus, if we want to change the world based upon our thinking, then all of our discussions have no use if we can’t develop something that’s going to achieve our goals. Dewey’s work provide an experimental, even instrumental, approach to the American philosophical school of pragmatism. To briefly explain this term in the specific meaning, I turn to William James, American psychologist and philosopher.
Pragmatism asks its usual question. “Grant an idea or belief to be true,” it says, “what concrete difference will its being true make in anyone’s actual life? How will the truth be realized? What experiences will be different from those which would obtain if the belief were false? What, in short, is the truth’s cash-value in experiential terms?”
William James, Pragmatism (1907)
(James is far too complex to summarise with one paragraph and I am using only one of his ideas to illustrate my point. Even James’ scholars disagree on how to interpret many of his writings. It’s worth reading him and Hegel at the same time as they square off across the ring quite well.)
What will be different? How will we recognise or measure it? What do we gain by knowing if we are right or wrong? This is why all good education researchers depend so heavily on testing their hypotheses in the space where they will make an impact and there is usually an obligation to look at how things are working before and after any intervention. This places further obligation upon us to evaluate what has occurred and then, if our goals haven’t been achieved, change our approach further. It’s a simple breakdown of roles but I often think as educational work in three heavily overlapping areas: practice, scholarship and research. Practice should be applying techniques that achieve our goals, scholarship involves the investigation, dissemination and comparison of these techniques, and research builds on scholarship to evaluate practice in ways that will validate and develop new techniques – or invalidate formerly accepted ones as knowledge improves. This leads me to my point: evaluating your own efforts to work out how to do better next time.
There are designers, architects, makers and engineers who are committed to the practice of impact design, where (and this is one definition):
“Impact design is rooted in the core belief that design can be used to create positive social, environmental and economic change, and focuses on actively measuring impact to inform and direct the design process.” Impact Design Hub, About.
Thus, evaluation of what works is essential for these practitioners. The same website recently shared some designers talking about things that went wrong and what they learned from the process.
If you read that link, you’ll see all sorts of lessons: don’t hand innovative control to someone who’s scared of risk, don’t ignore your community, don’t apply your cultural values to others unless you really know what you’re doing, and don’t forget the importance of communication.
Writing some pretty words every day is not going to achieve my goal and I need to be reminded of the risks that I face in trying to achieve something large – one of which is not actually working towards my own goals in a useful manner! One of the biggest risks is confusing writing a blog with actual work, unless I use this medium to do something. Over the coming weeks, I hope to show you what I am doing as I move towards my very ambitious goal of “beautiful education”. I hope you find the linked article as useful as I did.
As I’ve noted, the space I’m in is not new, although some of the places I hope to go with it are, and we have records of approaches to education that I think fit well into an aesthetic framing.
As a reminder, I’m moving beyond ‘sensually pleasing’ in the usual sense and extending this to the wider definition of aesthetics: characteristics that define an approach or movement. However, we can still see a Cubist working as both traditionally aesthetically pleasing and also beautiful because of its adherence to the Cubist aesthetic. To draw on this, where many art viewers find a large distance between them and an art work, it is often attributable to a conflict over how beauty is defined in this context. As Hegel noted, beauty is not objective, it is our perspective and our understanding of its effect upon us (after Kant) that contributes greatly to the experience.
Dewey’s Pedagogic Creed was published in 1897 and he sought to share his beliefs on what education was, what schools were, what he considered the essential subject-matter of education, the methods employed, and the essential role of the school in social progress. I use the word ‘beliefs’ deliberately as this is what Dewey published: line after line of “I believe…” (As a note, this is what a creed is, or should be, as a set of beliefs or aims to guide action. The word ‘creed’ comes to us from the Latin credo, which means “I believe”.) Dewey is not, for the most part, making a religious statement in his Creed although his personal faith is expressed in a single line at the end.
To my reading, and you know that I seek characteristics that I can use to form some sort of object to guide me in defining beautiful education, many of Dewey’s points easily transfer to characteristics of beauty. For example, here are three lines from the work:
- “I believe that education thus conceived marks the most perfect and intimate union of science and art conceivable in human experience.“
- “I believe that with the growth of psychological science, giving added insight into individual structure and laws of growth; and with growth of social science, adding to our knowledge of the right organization of individuals, all scientific resources can be utilized for the purposes of education.“
- “ I believe that under existing conditions far too much of the stimulus and control proceeds from the teacher, because of neglect of the idea of the school as a form of social life.“
Dewey was very open about what he thought the role of school was, he saw it as the “fundamental method of social progress and reform“. I believe that he saw education, when carried out correctly, as being a thing that was beautiful, good and true and his displeasure with what he encountered in the schools and colleges of the late 19th/early 20th Century is manifest in his writings. He writes in reaction to an ugly, unfair, industrialised and mechanistic system and he wants something that conforms to his aesthetics. From the three lines above, he seeks education that is grounded in the arts and science, he wants to use technology in a positive way and he wants schools to be a vibrant and social community.
And this is exactly what the evidence tells us works. The fact that Dewey arrived at this through a focus on equity, opportunity, his work in psychology and his own observations is a testament to his vision. Dewey was rebelling against the things he could see were making children hate education.
I believe that next to deadness and dullness, formalism and routine, our education is threatened with no greater evil than sentimentalism.
John Dewey, School Journal vol. 54 (January 1897), pp. 77-80
Here, sentimentalism is where we try to evoke emotions without associating them with an appropriate action: Dewey seeks authenticity and a genuine expression. But look at the rest of that list: dead, dull, formal and routine. Dewey would go on to talk about schools as if they were prisons and over a hundred years later, we continue to line students up into ranks and bore them.
I have a lot of work to do as I study Dewey and his writings again with my aesthetic lens in place but, while I do so, it might be worth reading the creed. Some things are dated. Some ideas have been improved upon with more research, including his own and we will return to these issues. But I find it hard to argue with this:
I believe that the community’s duty to education is, therefore, its paramount moral duty. By law and punishment, by social agitation and discussion, society can regulate and form itself in a more or less haphazard and chance way. But through education society can formulate its own purposes, can organize its own means and resources, and thus shape itself with definiteness and economy in the direction in which it wishes to move.