Do not go stupid into that pumping blood

A couple weeks ago I was contacted by a reader of my Education Is Upside-Down who, having just finished it, was checking in to log some reactions and questions. At one point of our exchange my reader-friend shared how interested he was to learn, when reading the book’s chapter three, about the distance John Dewey put between himself and the practices idealized by the progressive education movement in the late 1920s.  (For a bit more context, here are a few paragraphs from the section in question, pp. 36-37.)

…one of the movement’s greatest champions, John Dewey himself, publicly objected to the practices being designed and promoted in the name of his ideas.

For one, Dewey declined membership in the Progressive Education Association from its outset. (He did accept an honorary presidency after the death of Charles Eliot, but this appears to have been little more than a courtesy to his late colleague.)

More telling, however, are the public commentaries Dewey made at the height of the Progressives’ momentum. In a 1926 article titled “Individuality and Experience,” he slammed the lack of adult guidance he observed in child-centered schools that were supposedly following his guidelines. “Such a method is really stupid,” Dewey wrote, “for it attempts the impossible, which is always stupid; and it misconceives the conditions of independent thinking.” Also, in 1928,…Dewey addressed the Progressive Education Association…[and] warned the gathered Progressives against forsaking students’ systematic exposure to and processing of certain subject matter in that it risks limiting students’ ultimate individuality and, quite harshly, failing one’s obligation as an educator.

This smackdown of the Progressives is usually left out of the Dewey Narrative we educators are dipped and bathed in, likely because it so counters the Deweyan educational vision that ‘[gets] the blood pumping’ and that has put ‘Dewey’s picture…on the wall in so many ed school offices for so many years’ (per Stanford’s David Labaree in his The Trouble with Ed Schools). To give you a better idea of how unlikely we educators are to ever learn this, consider my reader-friend in question’s occupation: ed school professor.

Still, the Dewey-Progressives tale is a powerful illustration of one of our enterprise’s troubling tendencies: we get a little overcome — and have our sense removed, basically — by various rushes of ‘pumping blood’. Excited by the promise and/or profundity of certain new outcome-improving concepts, our desires to run them into our classrooms, professional development plans, etc., often overwhelm our fullest understandings of the concepts themselves and/or fullest considerations of how they should best be applied.

When we’re lucky, key figures behind the inspirational concepts jump back into the conversation, a la Dewey in the late 1920s, to clarify or to re-direct when they observe misapplications or bald misreadings of their work. See, for example, how ‘mindset’ guru Carol Dweck and ‘grit’ pioneer Angela Duckworth recently waded into all the pumping blood with clarifying reminders and warnings. [NOTE: Though I appreciate their courage and consideration (for really, we’re running out of room for worthless things around here), our enterprise’s track record doesn’t fill me with much hope — for once that blood’s pumping, we tend to take the parts we like and just keep running with them. To wit, see how Dewey’s admonishments of the Progressives’ interpretations got fairly buried by Progressives once they began running all of teacher training.]

Plainly, though, we’re not always so lucky. Indeed, as we have many of our rushes of pumping blood initiated by organizations whose first interest is themselves, not student outcomes, they’re usually not the types to correct us when we’ve gone wrong (and they’ve profited/stand to profit further). Think, for example, of all the ed tech products that have crashed into classrooms before having had their effectiveness first tested or verified, or their instructional purposes even really determined. (For a good long-view history, see Tyack and Cuban’s Tinkering Toward Utopia; see also Mark Bauerlein’s The Dumbest Generation for many more recent examples.) The questioning of such products’ actual value to teachers and students didn’t really seem to start until after the truckloads of iPads were delivered, all classrooms were outfitted with interactive whiteboards, and all the rest. Though I’d love to count on a Dewey, Dweck, or Duckworth to pull us back on such things, well,…their analogs in this case — the futurists, tech vendors, etc. — are likely too busy counting the money we paid them and drafting marketing plans to take the time.

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