Critical Education Articles Placed in the Teacher Staff Lounge While I Was a Teacher, Part Sixteen: The Mechanistic Learning in Schools Versus a Democratic and Living Way of Learning

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

Richard Gibboney, author of the article,” Intelligence by Design: Thorndike versus Dewey”, argues that Thorndike’s mechanistic views on education won out over Dewey’s humanistic views. As a consequence,  the vast majority of reforms over the past half a century have not improved schools.

Thorndike’s mechanistic views of education have been implemented in schools. The author implies that teachers’ own work has been deskilled in the process. Experts are able to define what to teach, how to teach and how to assess independently of the interaction of the teacher, on the one hand, and children and adolescents on the other.

The author is certainly correct to point out that Dewey was concerned that schooling lead to the formation of democratic relations, but democracy was to be a way of life and not merely a political form of governance. The democratic way of life was to be intimately connected to the democratic control of basic processes vital for human life, such as the production of food, clothing and shelter.

Learning in schools, as the author affirms, was for Dewey to be a process of developing an attitude to learning—being motivated to learn as varying conditions warrant it (an evolutionary view); such learning could not be captured through “tests.” Thorndike, by contrast, considered learning to be subject-bound and tested within narrow limits—a feature characteristic of most modern schools.

Gibboney draws the contrast in the following manner: Thorndike considered education in the form or image of the machine whereas Dewey considered education in the form or image of life. Since modern schools have opted for Thorndike over Dewey, they have reduced the educational process to a machine process rather than a living process. For Thorndike, all quality could be reduced to quantity—and the modern school system reduces all human life to purely quantitative terms as well (see the post Critical Education Articles Placed in the Teacher Staff Lounge While I Was a Teacher, Part Fifteen: Progressive Versus Regressive Grading Systems in Schools).  

Thorndike relied on a mechanistic stimulus-response schema to explain human behaviour whereas Dewey argued that a child’s or adolescent’s aims contributed to what constituted a stimulus and thus had to be taken into account in formulating a theory of learning and putting it into practice.

Thorndike implied that tests were objective and certain; Dewey, on the other hand, considered problems to arise from uncertainty and, although solutions may be sought and realized, they were always subject to revision—an essential characteristic of the scientific method.

The author considers an evaluation of school reforms in light of two criteria, derived from Dewey’s theory and not Thorndike’s theory: 1. Do the reforms contribute to a democratic education; 2. Do the reforms lead to practice that is more intelligent by the teacher on the one hand, and children and adolescents on the other. Gibboney found only six reforms in the last half of the twentieth century that satisfy these two criteria.

Most reforms in the second half of the twentieth century have led, in fact, to a weakening of the democratic ethos even when they contributed to the intelligence of teachers, on the one hand, and children and adolescents on the other—defined in narrow, curricular terms, of course. Thorndike’s mechanistic view of education has predominated throughout schools in the last half of the twentieth century.

Gibboney—rightly—castigates teacher organizations for having remained complacent about the attack on the democratic curriculum in schools. They have largely ignored such an attack.

They have also, he implies, bought into the ideological rhetoric that school reform alone will address the needs of children and adolescents and will ensure equality of opportunity. It is poverty that leads to school failure, and no school reform will be able to compensate for the effect of poverty on school outcomes. What is needed, rather than curriculuar reform, in the first instance, is a concerted assault on child poverty.

Gibboney, however, does not really address how child poverty is to be attacked. Surely, it will require sustained struggle against those in power: internally, ranging from senior bureaucrats in the school system to principals who define learning in terms of the modern school system and, externally, ranging from elected representatives who espouse rhetoric of ending child poverty but do little to address the issue to those within the modern economic structure, who command the mass of labour of others at work—employers and their representatives.

 The rhetoric of the importance of children and adolescents is rampant in school circles. The reality is otherwise. When judged on the basis of addressing child poverty, children and adolescents are not important.

Should not those who are concerned with equity and social justice face the fact that micro solutions to macro problems will not work? Should we not be organizing to end child poverty? Should we not be struggling against those in power who oppose such a goal? Should we not fight for an end to child poverty and for a democratic way of life?

Or should we acquiesce and have the Thorndike’s of the world win out over a Deweyan vision—as occurred in the second half of the twentieth century?

What does equity and social justice demand?