Earlier this summer I took a course in educational philosophy in which we read “A Teacher and His World,” an essay by John Dewey first published in 1935 in the journal The Social Frontier.
Apart from the sexism in the title, I found resonance in Dewey’s argument. I regret that I cannot locate an open-source version of the essay to link to in this post. Sigh.
Here is a quote:
The sum of the matter is that the times are out of joint, and that teachers cannot escape even if they would, some responsibility for a share in putting them right. They may regard it, like Hamlet, as a cursed spite, or as an opportunity. But they cannot avoid the responsibility. Drifting is merely a cowardly mode of choice. . . . The first need is to become aware of the kind of world in which we live; to survey its forces; to see the opposition in forces that are contending for mastery; to make up one’s mind which of these forces come from a past that the world in its potential powers has outlived and which are indicative of a better and happier future.
While the social forces are different, the times remain as disjointed today as they were when Dewey first wrote his essay.
We live in an age of global connectivity and social isolation, of community building and niche marketing. Vast amounts of data and information flow freely across virtual borders, while the security of geographic borders is hotly contested. Ours is a society hobbled by provincial, close-minded attitudes even as it pays lip service to concepts like “the human network” and “the global village.”
These social and political divides are caused in large part by the advance of the digital era, and, if I heed Dewey’s call, I share some responsibility in “putting them right.” As a teacher and student in instructional technology, I see Dewey’s call to action as an opportunity and not “a cursed spite.”
Because of technology’s impact on our culture, I interpret Dewey’s recommendation as an imperative for keeping pace with the changes in technology. It is simply no longer acceptable for teachers to say, “It’s too complicated – we need more training,” or “I don’t have time to teach computer skills, that’s the business teacher’s job!”
In truth, today’s technology is cheap, ubiquitous, and easy to learn and use. Young people already know this; they are utilizing technology daily to collaborate, create, and communicate with others in new and exciting ways – outside school hours. During school hours, it is another story. All they hear is a litany of “no cell phones,” “no downloading,” “no blogs,” and so on. We deny them access to the tools they use for meaning-making and then scratch our heads in bewilderment as levels of student disengagement continually soar!
Dewey’s advice means not only understanding how technology works and how to employ it but also being keenly aware of its impact on society. This means teaching about and through technology.
What exactly does this practice look like and how is it done?
Another implication stemming from Dewey’s imperative is that I cannot be afraid to delve into new technologies as they become available. There is no need to wait for specialized training; many of the newest tools are free, open source, and user-friendly. When necessary, defer to the experts – the students!
As an educator, I bring my own expertise to the table: the ability to facilitate a dialog about the merit and worth of technology. By modeling how to be a critical consumer of technology, I can help my students develop the affective skills they will need for a lifetime of responsible and ethical engagement with technology. This seems to be in step with Dewey’s directive that we make conscious decisions about which societal forces will lead to “a better and happier future.”
Again, what exactly does this practice look like and how is it done?