Sunday, July 17, 2011

John Dewey: Great Philosopher. Great Teacher?

If you spend any time at all in education school--which I did--you will surely end up reading something of John Dewey's. He was a great educational philosopher, and his works feel timeless when you read them.

[Want to try something of his that is relatively short, and eminently readable? Try Experience and Education, published in 1938, and coming in under 100 pages. It feels like Dewey could have written it in the last few years.]

But I've been thinking about what makes a good teacher, and what makes a bad teacher. Therefore, I was extremely interested to find an article about John Dewey--who was actually a teacher at the University of Michigan--and even more (delightedly) surprised to find that it tries to answer the question: was Dewey a good teacher?
John Dewey in the 1880s

In 1998, Brian Williams wrote an article for the Bentley Historical Society (Bulletin No. 44, July 1998), Thought and Action: John Dewey at the University of Michigan.

John Dewey started out as a high school teacher, and as happens with so many school teachers, he decided that it wasn't for him.
Following graduation he embarked on a brief teaching career at the high school in Oil City, Pennsylvania. But his true interest was philosophy, and in 1881, he left Pennsylvania after arranging for a year of private study with his philosophy instructor at the University of Vermont. This period of study prompted Dewey to enroll as a graduate student in the philosophy department at Johns Hopkins University in 1882.  (p. 5)

Dewey was on the faculty of the Philosophy Department for most of the time period of 1884-1894, leaving for the University of Minnesota for a short while. He left and went to the University of Chicago, where he was able to found the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools in 1896. (Yes, when they lived in Chicago, the Obama girls went to the Lab School.)

According to the article, Dewey came to Michigan at a time of change in educational methods.
The seminar method of teaching, introduced earlier at Michigan, was increasingly employed as a means of instruction, and students were offered a wider selection of elective courses to choose from and greater voice and freedom within the curriculum. The classical curriculum was giving way to the scientific curriculum, and chapel services, which previously had been mandatory, became voluntary, a nod to an increasingly secular society. Admission requirements were changing as well. Students from accredited high schools were now allowed to enroll on the strength of their diplomas rather than through the traditional formal entrance examinations, a move that dramatically altered the means by which students gained access to education. (pp. 3-4)
 Dewey wrote curricula.
Together, Dewey and Morris overhauled the Department of Philosophy, making it one of the leading centers of German scientific philosophy. They also established the modern foundations of psychology instruction at Michigan. (p. 5)
He accredited schools and evaluated teachers, including Ypsilanti High School.
Although Dewey was not formally affiliated with the pedagogical department, which held the departmental designation of the Science and the Art of Teaching, he was deeply interested in educational issues. He took an active role in high school accreditation visits and helped to found the Michigan Schoolmasters’ Club, an organization that united college-level instructors with their high school counterparts. The fact that Michigan was the first American college or university to create a permanent chair in education, in 1879, was not lost on Dewey.  (p. 15)
Dewey’s reports are flavored by his experience as a high school teacher and are suggestive of his future writing on education and schools. In June 1888, he inspected the high school in Ypsilanti, Michigan, visiting several classes and observing the instruction and the response of the students. His observations of the instruction in Greek are particularly insightful: “Mr. Hopkins’ methods are somewhat slow and at times tedious, and he spends much time on points rather finer than the average high school teacher devotes himself to; but the slowness does not arise from any lack of interest as he is personally enthusiastic about his subjects. While the class’s attention would at times be held better by less detailed attention to minutiae, I am bound to say that I thought Mr. Hopkins’ work if judged by results was more than ordinarily effective. The students upon the whole, were accurate and thorough in their work.” (p. 18, emphasis added)
 About a high school in Corunna, Michigan, he had this to say:
Dewey’s report on Corunna noted that there were two teachers, one he rated “medium or below” and the other “fair.” He went on to record that the school was “rather demoralized” and “altogether too large for two teachers.” He discussed his findings with members of the school board and related his impression of the superintendent as “straight forward and well meaning but not very energetic.” Observations made by Dewey during these inspection visits become significant when viewed in the context of the importance he placed on schools and education as instruments of change. (p. 18, emphasis added)
 But was Dewey himself a good teacher?
As it says on Facebook about some relationships--"It's complicated."

As with so many teachers, there was a lack of unanimity. Those who said yes, said:
Throughout his lifetime Dewey was known as a rather shy and unassuming man. His manner won him praise in the classroom. In 1890, an anonymous writer for the student newspaper the Chronicle, described Dewey as “modest and retiring” but noted that his “method of instruction is excellent” and he “is one of the most popular, most satisfactory class room lecturers in the University.” The writer went on to praise Dewey’s “easy, earnest and unconscious manner before a class” and the “utter lack of any spirit of pedantry.” In his classroom, Dewey fostered a sense of equality with his students and was praised for placing a “higher premium upon a single attempt at original, intelligent thought than upon the parrot- like repetition of whole volumes of other men’s thoughts.”56 William Warner Bishop, a former student and later librarian of the University of Michigan, writing over fifty years after being a student under Dewey, favorably recalled, “He was by far the ablest lecturer under whom I have studied; never dictating, he was clear and unmistakable in expression. You could get the whole of his talk, in contrast to the very little one often received from speakers who were more fluent.” (pp. 22-23)
 Those who said no, said:
An anonymous author in the student annual the Oracle offered some “specimen definitions” from the “Sophster’s New Dictionary.” One of the definitions read “Dew(e)y.- Adj. Cold, impersonal, psychological, sphinx-like, anomalous and petrifying to flunkers.” Student publications contain several sarcastic jabs at Dewey and the deep and heavy nature of some of his courses. His courses in psychology prompted a twelve-line poem in the Michigan Argonaut about “a girl who died Taking Dewey’s Psychology.” (p. 23, emphasis added)
O what is the matter with you, lank girl,
A pale and wild and haggard she,
Oh, don't you know, the old man said,
She's taking Dewey's Psychology.

Once she was fair to look upon,
Fair as a morning in June was she,
And now the wreck you see to-day
Is caused by Dewey's Psychology.

A year had passed, again I strayed
By the Medic's hall; what did I see
But some whitened bones of a girl who died
Taking Dewey's Psychology.

Poem about Dewey's psychology course appearing in the student paper Michigan Argonaut, Vol. 7, No. 6, November 10, 1888. Taken from Thought and Action: John Dewey at the University of Michigan (1998)

With this nuanced view, I think you get an idea of what makes teacher evaluation so difficult. What, exactly, do you value?

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