Confessions of a Philosophical Neophyte

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Confessions of a Philosophical Neophyte

This is a piece I wrote pre-pandemic. I was reminded of it by my friend Bruce Thomas who was responsible for introducing me to the reading that inspired it. He wanted to know why I hadn’t used it in my blog. I wasn’t really sure, but in this time of existential crisis in education it seemed out of step with the basic survival mode in which s schools and teachers are operating. Bruce replied, “What’s more urgent than getting teaching and learning right?” With that encouragement, I present this piece which I call “Confessions of a Philosophical Neophyte.”   

I came to teaching in a very unorthodox way. I will spare you the details, but suffice it to say that I entered the classroom as a philosophical virgin, untouched by any course work that usually comes with the teacher preparation territory. I had read personal narratives by popular icons of the day like Herbert Kohl, George Dennison, and John Holt, but not a word of John Dewey. It was as if I had embarked on a study of American history without any familiarity with the US Constitution or any of the other core documents on which our country was founded.

If someone had asked me during my many years in the classroom to articulate my philosophy of education, they would first have been met with a blank stare.  Then I would have replied that I had no philosophy, that I simply did what felt right, based on my knowledge of my students.  I followed my own interests and passions and hoped that the kids would join me in some fashion, as they did in one of my favorite books by the late teacher/author James Herndon in his book The Way It S’pozed to Be. A philosophy was a weighty thing, a luxury of the people who weren’t “in the trenches.”  It was something dense and wordy that I had no time or interest in grappling with while I was busy plotting out the five or six thousand days I spent in the presence of students whose personalities and passions I had to consider as I sought the right formula for the next period, day, unit, the next year

Dewey and company finally caught up with me when I became a teacher educator exhorting my students to articulate the philosophies on which they were going to base their practice. I was scrambling to keep up with them as they were introduced to Dewey, Rousseau, Freire whose texts their other instructors were assigning. And lo and behold I discovered in the course of this work that I, in fact, had had a philosophy all along.  I possessed neither the language nor the presumptuousness to attach such an august label to what I was cobbling together in my daily grind, but nonetheless there was a philosophy lurking behind those lesson plans.

Recently, a friend introduced me to an article that embodied my current understanding of what it meant to have a philosophy of teaching.  It was written by David Hansen, then of Columbia University, and is entitled “Dewey’s Conception of an Environment for Teaching and Learning.” I have to admit that, in spite of the powerful impact of my late introduction to Dewey, I recoil initially from reading anything beyond his small body of easily accessible texts. For the rest I rely on intermediaries like Hansen to direct me to the nuggets of wisdom surrounded by language that is not always easily digestible by connoisseurs of good prose. Take this as a confession of my own intellectual shortcomings.

Relying on an interpreter like Hansen, who has parsed Dewey’s work with such lucidity, opens new avenues of insight for me. In this case, Hansen has cleared the underbrush and pointed me toward some really helpful insights into my teaching during those “pre-philosophy” days. Hansen’s teasing out of Dewey’s beliefs about the central role of a genuine learning environment has been particularly helpful to me:

              “There is not, in fact, any such thing as the direct influence of one human being on another, apart from use of the environment as intermediary.” (Education and Democracy, 1997, P.28)

              “We never educate directly, but indirectly, by means of the environment.” (1997, Pp. 18-19)

There it was, in the proverbial 25 words or less, the philosophy that guided my teaching when I didn’t know I had a philosophy. I was trying to create opportunities for my students to interrogate the world in ways that would result in the kind of learning that sticks to your ribs as direct instruction never does. My most gratifying moments as a teacher flowed from occasions when I had planned with sufficient care to allow me to stand aside and observe as students actively engaged in creating their own knowledge.

When I was teaching in a small, working class New Hampshire town, my 5th and 6th grade students discovered that a nearby more affluent town (which happened to be the one I lived in) was planning to haul its trash to its poorer sister because their own dump was full. NH, in accordance with its “Live Free or Die” philosophy had no zoning laws so there was little to constrain the dumpers from taking this action. Capitalizing on the students’ righteous indignation, I offered them the opportunity to do something with their anger. I provided them with the time, the materials and the expert advice that enabled them to research the effects of the dumping on their town’s river, into which the garbage was leaching dangerous chemicals. Based on their research they fashioned a presentation to the town’s selectmen, who took the unprecedented step of passing a zoning ordinance putting a stop to the dumping.

Dewey would have loved this story for so many reasons. Here was a situation where students were engaging with real world problems on an issue that directly affected them. They were acting as citizens engaged in the democratic process. Most important for the current discussion, I had created an environment that enabled them to engage in learning that was likely to remain with them long after a lecture about water pollution or about the structure of town government.

I have a doctor friend who is passionate about the need to reform medical education which, since time immemorium, has been based on the lecture model, which may feed the hungry egos of the lecturers, but which proves to be a notoriously inefficient method of learning. My friend cites data which shows only a 3% retention rate from lecture-based instruction, and that’s from a population of learners far more motivated that your typical CPS students. He favors instead an approach that is gaining traction in some forward-looking medical schools that is based on the analysis of case studies, materials which I think would meet Dewey’s criteria for creating an environment free of a teacher “teaching” in the traditional sense.

There is a story, perhaps apocryphal, about a teacher who had built a classroom environment that enabled his students to explore and learn without his instructional presence at the front of the room. On the day of his observation, the principal looked in, saw the kids busily engaged in a project and said “Never mind. I’ll come back on a day when you’re teaching.”

It should be no surprise that Dewey’s views on environment and education are totally at odds with the kind of direct instruction that characterizes rigidly structured schools, particularly those serving low income students of color. The kind of inquiry that best describes Dewey’s vision of a learning environment remains the domain of the privileged, the movers and shakers who are expected to develop the problem solving ability to fuel the continuing advancement of society.

Dewey himself wrote some scathing critiques of free schools that flew the banner of progressive education. At worst they were lazy, laissez-faire operations which assumed that if kids were allowed to do their own thing, something good would result. Free market advocates believe the same about the virtues of an unregulated economy, which we can thank for the exploding inequities in our society. Hansen dismisses that idea. “For Dewey, a school or classroom environment that is left to chance is as likely as not to be miseducative as educative.” (P.270)

But at best, free schools were thoughtful and well-planned experiments in environmental design that reflected a deep intuitive understanding of the conditions that foster learning.  The creation of such effective environments requires a level of planning far deeper than the preparation of a lesson plan based on the teachers’ guide to a packaged curriculum. It calls on the teacher to be attuned to Jeremy’s love of dolphins, Marissa’s skills as a dancer and Justin’s limited attention span, all informed by a deep understanding of the developmental trajectories each of them is following.

“The opposite of a chance or random environment for Dewey, is neither a predictable environment nor one in which conduct is prescribed. According to Dewey, the right response of the dangers of leaving the environment entirely up to fate is not to go to the opposite extreme of trying to blueprint every aspect of classroom interaction. Such a project would bring any meaningful notion of growth, for both students and teachers, to a close.” (P. 270)

Adopting Dewey’s views about creating an educative environment opens the way to addressing two of the most intractable problems facing teachers and teacher educators. In too many classrooms I visit, there is a palpable lack of student engagement, or what Dewey calls “interest.” The effects of that disengagement are often masked by the culture of compliance enforced by the school. When that veneer of control is stripped away, chaos reigns – disrespect of adult authority, fighting, off-task behavior. These classroom environments have left no room for curiosity, for exploration, for connecting to the students’ world outside of school.

For teachers, “Dewey’s conception of the environment intensifies the complexity and the demands good teaching makes on the people who occupy the role. According to Dewey, the teacher must be, among other things, knowledgeable in subject matter, mindful of the broad significance of education and committed to what he calls soul study, a term that stands for a kind of permanent deepening intellectual and moral attentiveness to students” (P. 273) that Maxine Greene calls “wide-awakeness.” This is a conception of the teacher that may seem daunting on the face of it, but this view of teaching as serious intellectual and moral work is exactly what draws and retains the best people in the profession.

What it takes to keep teachers engaged, and which is so often missing, especially in settings where retention rates are painfully low, is the belief that they have room to grow in response to the ever-changing needs to craft environments that respond to new conditions and new interests.

“A striking feature of Dewey’s conception of the environment is that if teachers regulate and control the environment in the manner he articulates, they will be constantly educating themselves…They will be influenced by all the many steps that are part of shaping a meaningful environment because those steps call on teachers to be thoughtful, resourceful, perceptive, determined and more. This process means continuously developing and extending those very qualities in themselves.”

In addition to introducing me to the philosophy I didn’t know I had, Hansen, channeling Dewey, has helped me understand how I managed to remain in the classroom through almost three decades without suffering the clichéd “burn-out” or the desire to move up(?) the career ladder into administration or coaching: by creating environments in which both the students and I had continuing opportunities to learn. It wasn’t happening every single day, but that engagement was always close enough at hand to make us eager to see what the next school day had in store for us.

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Marv Hoffman

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