Old Ideas Made New Again, pp. 2 of 10

New Old Ideas

But it occurs to me, that much of what we advocate today to enable young learners to succeed in the 21st century is not new.  I’m not saying we don’t need to continue to change and develop our teaching skills and practices. Rather, we can build on what we know and do. The twentieth century was still going strong when I started to teach and started to hear some of the same ideas about education that we hear today. Many current ideas about good teaching have been around as far back as the 20th century, and earlier. And much or some of what is advocated today, you already try to do in your classroom.  Who doesn’t want to engage learners, to promote deep understanding, or equip young people to be problem solvers?  The difference is what was once “good enough” is no longer good enough.  In the past, if learners couldn’t see how what they were learning was relevant to them, it was okay as long as they could remember long enough to do well on examinations. If they learned information but couldn’t make conceptual linkages or apply what they learned to new situations it was okay as long as they retained the information.  But today, we are told, it is not “good enough.”

Consider what MOE describes as the over-arching Desired Outcomes of Education:

  • A confident person who thinks independently and critically;
  • A self-directed learner who questions, reflects and perseveres in learning;
  • An active contributor who can collaborate and innovate;
  • A concerned citizen who takes an active role in bettering the lives of others.

These are not new ideas.  Educators have been talking about how to teach for real understanding for years.

John Dewey

Being an historian at heart, I think about old ideas.  And this led me to reread some of the essays of John Dewey.  John Dewey was an American philosopher who thought a lot about education in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  At the turn of the 20th century he founded a school in Chicago to implement his ideas. (The school, the Chicago Lab School, is still operating today.)  Dewey was born in 1859 and died in 1952. I’m fascinated by that time span. Not simply because he lived a long, and productive, life. (In 1946, when he was 87, he married his second wife, a woman of 46. And they adopted 2 children.)  I’m fascinated when I consider the kinds of changes he saw in his life time. He was born in a small town in Vermont prior to the American Civil War. Most of the nation, indeed the world, was rural.  People lived an agrarian life style, often living and dying in the same little town or on the same little farm in which they were born.  Children in these towns often went to school for several years, enough to learn some reading, writing and ‘rithmetic.  Only an elite few went to secondary school.

He died after World War II.  The country was urbanized, as was Dewey himself.  He had lived most of his adult life in Chicago and New York. He had even lectured in China in the 1920s. The United States was no longer largely agrarian; it had become an industrial powerhouse. Hardly anyone, any more, lived without electricity or running water in their homes. The nation was much more mobile.  People had been traveling great distances on trains for years.  By the early 1950s automobiles were increasingly the transportation of choice for Americans and the highway system was beginning to expand.  It was a very different world than the one he had been born into.

An Inspiring Quote

"[Open-mindedness] includes an active desire to listen to more sides than one; to give heed to facts from whatever source they come; to give full attention to alternative possibilities; to recognize the possibility of error even in the beliefs that are dearest to us."

~ John Dewey, How We Think

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