Wednesday, September 5, 2012

How NOT What: Doing Dewey

As we kicked off the school year last week, I really started to think about learning, teaching and instruction in general. During my 15 years in the world of education, I have always struggled with the ideas of the "best" instructional strategies to reach our kids and enrich their learning. Although I don't think there is ONE answer, I have come to one conclusion that has been proven to me over and over again during my years as a teacher and lead learner (thanks to my friend Joe Mazza for introducing me this term - follow @Joe_Mazza on Twitter) and that is, our kids learn best when DOING! A special thank you to John Dewey for inspiring this post... his words were uttered almost 100 years ago but they are still so relevant and important! 
In order to execute a successful educational experience, which would be personalized for each child to best meet their needs, we must shift the focus from the “what” to the “how.”  Too often, the focus in our educational institutions is on what the children are learning, how much of the curriculum is being covered and what materials are being used to teach the various concepts. Although these are important points to consider because they do impact our children, they cannot become the focal point of said educational experiences. As Dewey repeatedly points out in Democracy and Education: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Education , we must always be mindful of what we give our students to do as opposed to what we give them to learn. We cannot merely communicate information to our students, lecturing for example, and expect that the students have learned everything just because we talked about it or “taught” it (teaching does not always result in learning). We cannot continue to “pour information in” or expect our children to passively absorb information as a result of our teaching. Instead, we must employ a variety of creative, active and hands-on instructional approaches and techniques that raise the level of student engagement and challenge our children to construct their own knowledge and understandings based on what they are doing in the classroom. We must remember that education is about constructing understandings, not just being given a lot of information. Dewey states, “They (educators who employ methods that are successful in formal education) give the pupils something to do, not something to learn; and the doing is such a nature as to demand thinking, or the intentional noting of connections; learning naturally results.” This statement needs to be the crux of every educational vision or mission statement if we are to ensure that all of our children learn in a meaningful way. Our educational institutions need to challenge our children to think because thinking is the basis for all intelligent learning and development of understandings. We must move away from this current push of standardized tests that assess low-level comprehension skills through multiple-choice questions (and we must disconnect these results from teacher evaluations) and challenge our children to employ higher level thinking skills where they synthesize and apply knowledge in different contexts and settings (and we must connect these results to teacher evaluations).
Furthermore, in order to maximize the learning experiences for our children, we must arouse and maintain their interest because they will then actively participate in their learning. This is where the idea of personalizing a child’s education comes into play. We must move beyond merely differentiating instruction (i.e. – harder work for the smarter children and easier work for the needier children) and look for ways to personalize instruction. If a child exhibits certain strengths, interests or significant background knowledge in any given area, then we must ensure that our schools tap into these strengths and interests to help our children learn in the most meaningful ways possible. Again, the focus must shift from how we teach to how we make sure that our children learn. The rich and meaningful learning experiences that our children will carry with them for years, which will ensure that they are educated individuals and will shape their life’s trajectory, will likely come as a result of the “how” and not the “what”!


  1. Excellent post Tony! I have considered this same notion. I am still under the belief that the increased focus on standardized student assessment is one of the main reasons that our focus has moved away from how we instruct children and has become increasingly focused on what. So much so, that some educators and administrators are willing to "cheat" to attain the desired scores.

    When we can focus on how to prepare students for the real life skills they will need to compete in today's global economy. I hope that we can find a way to make education more about discovery as compared to memorizing information. It just seems easy to see how learning can improve and be more engaging for students if it becomes about addressing a child's natural curiosity, rather than completing a list of objectives endorsed by politicians.

  2. Excellent post. Our task is to produce fearless, independent learners that are well prepared to face the challenges that await them. Standardized testing, reckless differentiation for the sake of some reform movement, are creating new obstacles that may doom our nation's future.

    Differentiation when used properly is effective, when not used properly is destructive and prevents the formation of courageous learners.

    Testing should be used to measure children, not teachers, schools, or societies.

    We are embarking on a very dangerous social experiment this year, I hope our children's future survives.