Critical Education Articles Placed in the Teacher Staff Lounge While I Was a Teacher, Part Twenty: The School as the Embodiment of Character Formation Versus the School as the Embodiment of the Three R’s

This is a continuation of a series of posts on summaries of articles, mainly on education.

When I was a French teacher at Ashern Central School, in Ashern, Manitoba, Canada, I started to place critiques, mainly (although not entirely) of the current school system. At first, I merely printed off the articles, but then I started to provide a summary of the article along with the article. I placed the summaries along with the articles in a binder (and, eventually, binders), and I placed the binder in the staff lounge.

As chair of the Equity and Justice Committee for Lakeshore Teachers’ Association of the Manitoba Teachers’ Society (MTS), I also sent the articles and summary to the Ning of the MTS (a ning is “an online platform for people and organizations to create custom social networks”).

As I pointed out in a previous post, it is necessary for the radical left to use every opportunity to question the legitimacy of existing institutions.

The following post refers to John Dewey; Dewey was one of the major philosophers of education of the twentieth century.

The attached article for the ESJ Ning is prefaced by the following:
Hello everyone,
I sent the attached article to the ESJ Ning. I prefaced it with the following:

Ian Westbury, in his article “ `The Educational Situation as Concerns the Elementary School’: Implications for our Time,” uses Dewey’s own title from an article that Dewey wrote in order to point out that we face the same problems that Dewey faces today. Rational curriculum and other educational reforms, he argues, will not be a result of mere theorizing about the problems.

Dewey argued that we need to address not only the theoretical and practical issues of what constitutes education and how that concept of education is to play itself out in curriculum, in pedagogy and in teacher-student interactions. We need to address, on a practical level, the inertia of the present school structure and the inertia of communities who define education in the old way: the three Rs (and, later, when high schools arose, the teaching of separate disciplines, such as science, mathematics and social studies without a mechanism that leads to their integration).

Dewey pointed out that theoreticians could repeat until they were blue in the face about ideal educational conditions and how schools do not embody such ideal conditions—and school bureaucrats would ignore such criticisms. Theory and practice stood at loggerheads, but practice actually won since practice was the site of schools—not universities (except, of course, as school sites themselves—but that is another story).

The problem for Dewey was defined in terms of the inadequate understanding of how schools needed to be organized in order to perform their educational function. The public and the school bureaucracy considered that the essential nature of education was embodied in the traditional three Rs (and, it can be added, the separate disciplines, such as mathematics, science and social studies). [Dewey, however, was quite naïve in considering that conservative forces did not contribute to the inertia of the organization or structure of schools.]

Many educators agree theoretically that character formation should take priority in education, that the concrete should be the point of departure for an understanding of the abstract rather than vice versa, and the real take priority over the symbolic. On the practical level, on the other hand, character formation was left to the “hidden curriculum,” the abstract took precedence over the concrete and the symbolic dominated the real.

To be sure, new studies were added to the curriculum, such as music and drawing, but they were add-ons rather than integrated into the traditional studies. Simply adding such activities to the traditional curriculum of the three Rs led to no rational relation of such add-ons to what was considered to be “real education.” The original organization of the school centered on symbolic learning (the three Rs). The inclusion of later studies was merely grafted on to this structure as frills, with the centre of school organization still being the three Rs (and later, the separate disciplines with no integrative mechanism).

The conflict between the old and the new studies, Dewey argued though, is not inherent to the studies themselves. Both old and new studies should be capable of integration in the form of a new curriculum structure, but the old school organization, based on the old three Rs model (and, later, the separate, unintegrated disciplines), the graded school, the graded curriculum with the division of curriculum according to grade and subject prevented the creation of a rational, integrated curriculum. The old school structure was what the public itself defined as education. Deviations from that model were considered to be non-educative.

There was a major problem, then, for educational reform: to gain legitimacy, educational reform would have to conform to the organization embodied in school institutions, but those institutions were organized according to rigid or fixed model of the three Rs (and the separate, unintegrated disciplines). Reforms that contradicted that school organization may be added to the curriculum, but more as add-ons or frills rather than as integrated components. The “real” curriculum was still considered the three Rs (and the separate, unintegrated disciplines).

As a consequence, teachers had their role already defined by the school organization—as executors of a given fixed curriculum structure.

To overcome this situation, it would be necessary to engage in educational practice rather than in continuing to focus exclusively on theory. New experiments in school organization would be required in order to test new theories and to provide evidence of the advantages of different organizational forms of schools. It would be through such experiments at the local level that large-scale change would emerge—and not through continued developments in theory alone. The public would have to be convinced by practice and not just by more theory development.

Westbury notes that Dewey’s call for the reform of school institutions through, initially, small-scale experiments in different forms of school organization has not been realized in the twenty-first century. Indeed, what Dewey warned of—the development of theory without any corresponding development of experimental embodiment of such theory in different forms of school organization—has been repeated in relation to Dewey’s own theory and practice. University professors may be well-versed in Dewey’s theory and practice, but they have remained aloof from attempting to realize in practice his theory (unlike Dewey, who did try to realize his educational philosophy in the University Laboratory School in Chicago between 1896 and 1904). Teaching practices still operate in what is largely the same organization of the school and the same curriculum structure, and the public’s image of what education involves is still tied to that old, fossilized school organization.

Curriculum theory, rather than just being a theoretical exercise, needs to become a practical endeavour of experimentation as the organizational level of the school as well as a mobilization effort of the public to support such innovations in school organizations.

Westbury, however, denigrates a vision of what real education involves. Although theory without practice undoubtedly spins around itself, practice without theory will be blind.

Another limitation of Westbury’s article is his unrealistic evaluation of the difficulty in overcoming the inertia of school organization. The dogma of school bureaucrats will not be overcome by setting exemplars of experimental schools; Dewey’s own exemplar at the University Laboratory School has all but been forgotten.

What is needed to overcome the inertia of the deadening school organization is a struggle on multiple fronts, both inside and outside schools. That will also require a struggle to overcome wider social organizations and structures that weigh on people, such as the hierarchy at work both for private and public employers.

The creation of a school organization that children and adolescents deserve will not arise without such a struggle. Equity and social justice demands such a struggle—objectively.


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