It’s official, we have arrived upon what must be one of my most favorite topics in education; the changes. I am obsessed with the changes in education. I revel in comparing past, present and future pedagogies. I adore borrowing what works from all categories and anticipate what might come next. In the next three blog posts, I will blog about some of the transitions we have seen in education and pedagogy and try to tie it all together by explaining my own educational philosophy.

Part 1: The Past

I often think about what formal education was like in its infancy. During these times, I turn to John Dewey as he was so ahead of his time. In his book, Democracy and Education, he begins by describing the informal and incidental manners of learning. That is, the learning that occurs as a result of interactions with others merely by living within a culture and society and based on our life-experiences. He also believed, “as societies become more complex in structure and resources, the need of formal or intentional teaching and learning increases.” Identifying these somewhat opposing manners of knowledge acquisition led him to say, “one of the weightiest problems with which the philosophy of education has to cope is the method of keeping a proper balance between the informal and the formal, the incidental and the intentional, modes of education.”

When I look at some of his work I can’t help but sense the timelessness of his insights. Even now, 100 years after Dewey wrote, Democracy and Education, I too grapple with making education and schooling relevant. Let’s pause and recognize how amazing the word relevance is. With regards to education and curriculum, relevance indicates the necessity to learn. However, like Dewey, I too am perplexed with the notion of formal curriculum and find it undermines relevance the further it is removed from society and culture. Dewey states regarding formal education, “thus we reach the ordinary notion of education: the notion which ignores its social necessity and its identity with all human association that affects conscious life, and which identifies it with imparting information about remote matters.”

Is that all that is meant of school? To formally and intentionally teach conspicuous, arbitrary, remote or even irrelevant curriculum?

Curriculum is not the only matter which I become passionate about when I consider the changes in education. The organizational structure can also be quite enlightening. In order to take a closer look, let’s see what Sir Ken Robinson’s view is in this animated short titled Changing Educational Paradigms.

Sir Ken Robinson highlights a couple of issues that date back to the impetus of a large scale public education system. He says that the intellectual fallout of the enlightenment and the industrial revolution has created the “current system of education” which “was designed and conceived and structured for a different age.” Robinson points out that when the public system was created, it was created with a value for academic content. Furthermore, he laments about how people are judged by this academic view of the mind and how this correspondingly pigeon holes and labels individuals as “academic and non-academic.” It seems that the education system, as explained by Sir Ken Robinson, is based all too much on the formal and the intentional. In other words, our educational process has isolated and marginalized the learner from informal and incidental learning experiences to such a degree that Dewey’s advocacy for balance between the formal and the informal is clearly not being realized.

Another innovator, Sugata Mitra, speaks to the education system, pedagogy and curriculum in this video excerpt taken from the mini documentary titled Future Learning.

Sugata Mitra Quote from adam leibowitz on Vimeo.

If relevance was the first great word of this post, then Mitra brings up the second great word, obsoletism. Which brings me to one of my most favorite questions I ask educators, what do students of today, REALLY, REALLY need to know for the potential reality of tomorrow? The truth is we don’t know what the future will hold and therefore we don’t really know what content we should be teaching that will prepare them for that future. Mitra’s recognition prompts us to consider whether the content we teach and/or the way we teach are obsolete? Mitra’s example of the changes in what we teach is almost trivial when he jokes about students not needing to learn how to shoot a gun and ride a horse. Trivial example aside though, again we are confronted with the conundrum of what the formal education should be about. Moving forward, I believe that asking the question what is obsolete can help policy-makers, curriculum designers, educators and subsequently our students.

So after thinking about John Dewey, Sir Ken Robinson and Sugata Mitra, and in the interest of moving on, how can we balance the formal and informal? How can we make learning relevant while getting rid of the obsolete and systemic structures that alienate our students? Dewey argued that an education that incorporates the informal and the incidental would help to enable a more balanced pedagogy but how do we do this? I wonder what Dewey would say about Project-Based, Problem-Based, Challenge-Based or other learning theories that have emerged in recent-ish past? Would they speak to these informalities that Dewey acknowledged or better yet, would they help to marry the formal and informal?

img_1352I believe that these learning models do approach a more balanced pedagogy. In addition, I would even argue that the three theorists we have discussed thus far would also demonstrate a propensity for some or all of these learning theories. For example, if we believe that the problem-based approach can and also should be reality based then the formal and the informal are able to merge authentically in a way that Dewey was arguing for. As for Project-based learning, it’s comprehensiveness allows students to approach an issue, standard, unit or curriculum in an integrative and interdisciplinary way. Moreover, Project-based learning demands a paradigm shift or a much needed restructuring of the learning environments which correspondingly increases our students capacity for divergent thinking, as Sir Ken Robinson explained. Finally, it seems Sugata Mitra might likely promote Challenge-Based learning as the challenges are meant to be authentic and relevant to our times and our local or global issues. The attempt to solve real challenges not only embed the informal but also do wonders in forcing the educator to examine and reconsider what is, and what isn’t obsolete in education.

The reality is, any learning approach, model or curriculum is going to have it’s downfalls. As I said at the start, this is why I love borrowing what works from many past pedagogical approaches. It is our job as educators to find ways to incorporate them into the present, although focus on the present will be the focus of the next post in this 3 part blog series.

In conclusion, by looking into the past, we are able to shed some light on ways we can adjust, change or disrupt our education system. After reflecting on the work from Dewey, Robinson and Mitra, I am reaffirmed in my desire to make schooling relevant and eradicate the obsolete! I want education to be authentic and housed in real-world contexts! Lastly, although this will be explained in full in part 3 of this blog series, I want to challenge myself and my students to anticipate and envision the future of our world and then build education that is able to mirror the potential reality of that future.