"A genuine purpose always starts with an impulse,"
wrote John Dewey in 1938 (Experience and Education).
Throughout our lives we feel impulses, and some of
these are converted to what Dewey called an "end-view."
Neither impulse nor desire is itself a purpose. A
purpose....involves foresight of the consequences
which will result from acting upon impulse....[which]
involves the operation of intelligence....For impulse
and desire produce consequences not by themselves
alone but through their interaction or cooperation
with surrounding conditions. (Dewey, 1938)
This concept of educational purpose is in accord with
that expressed by W.E.B. DuBois (1903), who suggested
that schooling should enable students to participate
freely and fully in a democratic society. But Dewey's
notion of nurturing a learner's impulse runs counter
to Booker T. Washington's formulation (1896), in which
the purpose of school was primarily to equip students
for material success.
Washington's model seems focused on social efficiency
and social mobility as two key aims of school-based
training, while the vision of DuBois included social
mobility, but especially pointed towards good citizenship
and participatory democracy as higher-level goals.
Another voice in the discussion of the purpose of
education is bell hooks (1994), whose concept focuses
on ways in which the present educational system ignores
the impulses of students who are not members of the
dominant class, race, and gender in America; a system
that discourages reflection, resistance, and change.
Her perspective sees social reproduction and social control
as the overwhelming purposes of current educational practices,
and she calls for a radically different approach which
would empower students to overturn the current system.
I believe Dewey would agree with hooks on principle.
For Dewey, again, the purpose of education begins with--but is
not limited to--a learner's impulse in a particular direction,
and his or her acting on that impulse. This concept of
purpose leads logically to implications relevant to a
further question: what is the teacher's role in the
If there cannot be a purpose without an impulse, then the
primary role of a teacher must be to perceive and respond in
a certain way to these learning impulses, or at the very
least to establish a learning environment that is sensitive
and responsive to them. Dewey has specific suggestions
regarding how a teacher can make sure he or she is pre-disposed
to notice the learning impulses of each student. He says
that it is key to be familiar with the background of
experience that the student brings with him or her to
school and, further, that this is simpler and easier to
do with younger children because among older children
teachers will find a greater diversity of intervening
Those who deal with the pre-school child...do not
have much difficulty in determining the range of past
experience or in finding activities that connect in
vital ways with it....It is harder to find out the
background of the experience of individuals and harder
to find out just how the subject-matters already
contained in that experience shall be directed so as
to lead out to larger and better organized fields. (Dewey, 1938)
Rogers and Frieberg (1994) provide further details
regarding what is involved in a teaching approach that
recognizes the importance of allowing learning impulses
to come from the students themselves. These authors
distinguish between passive and active classrooms,
and include the following on their list of the
features of active classrooms:
cooperative learning and group projects
students as shareholders; ownership of the classroom
students taking initiative to interact; creating new ideas
students involved, engaged; higher attendance rates
student work on display; students write every day
They found many examples of positive student experiences
at the High School for the Performing and Visual Arts (HSPVA)
Upon entering the campus, the visitor is drawn into its
climate of information camaraderie. There is neither the
repressed silence of a custodial atmosphere nor the noise
of the disengaged and idle. Instead, there is the busy
hum of activity, earnest discussing and purposeful movement.
(Freedom to Learn, 1994)
According to Rogers and Freiberg, the best teachers are not
necessarily the most "brilliant" ones. These will be remembered
forever by students, yet the same students "are quite unable
to remember what they learned in those classes." On the other
hand, say these authors, students "can remember in detail every
learning experience they themselves initiated." This difference
is what distinguishes a "facilitator" from any other kind
of teacher, they say.
Dewey's ideas about the purpose of education, linked with
these descriptions by Rogers and Freiberg of what it looks
like when teaching nurtures, builds on, and supports student
impulses, together give a clear picture of an appropriate
role for the teacher in the learning experience.
A further question concerns the nature of knowledge itself and,
in particular, the nature of truth. Perhaps truth is the most
vital piece of knowledge to get a hold on, because it is
at the core of whether we are able to assess progress
towards goals and also evaluate our performance as
teachers. What do we know about these phenomena? Can we
be sure of what we know? Do we share with other teachers
a common understanding of "truth" which allows us to
compare experiences--and learn in the process?
There are two concepts of truth that were explored
recently in a philosophy of education course I took.
First, there was Socrates and the Allegory of the Cave.
In this story, there is one truth and it exists at a
higher plane of reality that is achieved through the
experience of breaking chains of illusion and belief.
A second version of truth is much more relative, as
expressed by Maxine Greene (1995), in her description
of an approach to teaching and learning that acknowledges
and embraces multiple perspectives and multiple realities.
I would like to suggest that these two concepts of
truth can--and indeed ought to--be blended in a teacher's
development over the course of his or her career. Because
the process of letting go of long-held beliefs and assumptions
is frightening and generates so much temporary confusion,
or dissonance (Freire, 1970), there is a psychological
need for something concrete at that stage.
A person on a journey of lifelong learning needs to
stop at certain points and throw out a few anchors, locking
in his or her latest version of reality for a while. Then
it is time to break free again and grow through interaction
with colleagues and others who have different ideas and
different experiences from us. By moving back and forth
over time, from a universal truth position to one that
embraces multiple realities, a teacher will be able to
assess his or her performance and the experiences of
the students with increasing degrees of accuracy.
A longer version of this report was submitted to
fulfill a course requirement in a philosophy of
education class taken by the author and taught by
Dr. Kayann Taylor at Kansas State University.
By Robb Scott
Editor, ESL MiniConference Online
2008 ESL MiniConference Online
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