April 9, 2019

The following is an exert from chapter 5 from my book Dewey: A reflection on the inevitable. The book is a reflection of me and my co-author’s reflections on every chapter of John Dewey’s book Experience and Education. This particular chapter discusses Dewey’s idea of freedom as spelled out in his book.

For my reaction to this chapter, I am going to explicitly discuss Mass Customized Learning (MCL) and reflect on an essay by Jordan Shapiro that was published in Forbes magazine, as well as John Dewey. In chapter 5, Dewey discusses two kinds of freedom: physical freedom and intellectual freedom.  Dewey strives for a school system where students have significantly more physical freedom from which he believes intellectual freedom emerges.  For example, students silently sitting in rows awaiting the word from the all-knowing teacher hinders the process of intellectual freedom of students because the structure of compliance impedes intellectual freedom. In other words, the learning process must have as its basis a level of physical freedom.

New Normalization of School Structures

Meanwhile, Shapiro argues for a new “normalization” in school structures.  Specifically, he states, What we need instead is a new kind of normalization—new classroom rules, new district-wide administrative systems, new school designs and new educational customs that will break the cycle of winners and losers, haves and have nots, believers and heathens.”  At the heart of Shapiro’s criticism of the current education system is that it glorifies (one may argue sanctifies) the fact that there are winners and losers in society.  Schools “normalize” students into the belief that efficiency and productivity are equated with high morality and those that accumulate more have more value. These are the “normalized” (almost hidden) structures of schools.  In effect, the structures become more important to individuals and society than the skills that are being taught to our children.

Questions For Reflection

How does an MCL structure differ from the current structure of schooling? 

Does it allow for physical freedom of the students?  Yes. 

Does it allow for the intellectual freedom of students? Maybe. 

Does it fundamentally change the “normalized” structures of learning?  I think we really have to reflect on this question. 

Assuming it is worthwhile to create a system where the common good is as important as climbing your personal Mount Everest, then we will grapple with what MCL actually changes.  The benefit of an MCL structure is that, foundationally, it is not about tinkering on the edges of learning.  Rather, it is about changing structures of learning. 

The problem, as I see it, is that all of us involved in the designing of the MCL experience are subconsciously enmeshed in the current system.  Our professional default mode is away from freedom (both physically and intellectually) and toward traditional, normalized structures.  I see this as we are creating our new learning ecosystem at IU8.  We have spent the better part of a year grappling with how to change the structure of learning. We have spent a lot of time discussing the importance (or lack thereof) of curriculum.  Should we concentrate on “21st Century skills”, or are these skills just window dressing to what is really important in schools?  

In my mind, I am not interested in curriculum because I believe that any skill transfer to students is only tangential to the actual power of creating a meaningful learning experience.  In these learning experiences, we will change the normalized structures of schooling and move away from the hyper-individualized culture of the current school system.  Ultimately, I believe we will create a system that changes the structure of schools.  However, it will take diligence on our part not to slip back into our default mode of education.

About the author 

Tom Butler, Ph.D.

I believe that public education is for the public good and that education should be uncompromisingly learner-centered. The New Learning Ecosystem points us away from the old model of education that does not serve kids well. All educators regardless of where they work can help lead and contribute to the New Learning Ecosystem.

  • Try changing eating habits to become more healthy (for those of us who do not eat properly) and you get a sense of how much is “enmeshed” in our current state of eating. Similarly, you describe that we are “enmeshed” with a system that is fixed and our habits are founded in that culture. I could not agree more. Thanks for making us all think about what is “enmeshed” in all of us.

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