What Would Dewey Do? Thoughts on Teaching and the Process of Reflection

Steve Volk, March 26, 2018

One of the most pleasurable aspects of the Faculty-Student Partnership program that CTIE has been running at Oberlin for nearly five years is sitting down every other week with the students in the program. (I will quickly add that it’s also lovely to meet with their faculty partners, although that happens less frequently.) (Information on the FSP can be found here.) Each meeting provides an opportunity to discuss how the student are supporting their faculty partners, whether providing input through their observations, reflecting with them on how the class they just observed went, or simply listening as the faculty think out loud about their plans for the next class. But, as the semester proceeds and the end is in sight, I often ask students, based on their experience in the program and thinking about their own teachers, to list the characteristics of what they consider a “good” teacher to be, as well as how they would define a “good” student.

John_Dewey_Andre Koehne

John Dewey by Andre Koehne, 2006, Wikimedia

John Dewey by Andre Koehne, 2006, Wikimedia

Over the years, the students’ views of what good teachers bring to their classrooms have remained highly consistent. Invariably (and not surprisingly) they always begin in the same place: good teachers know their subject; I mean, they really know it. Further, they almost always indicate that not only do good teachers know their subject matter inside and out, but that they are able to communicate their passionate regard for it, and in that way, their love of physics, economics, psychology or whatever they’re teaching becomes infectious. It is this passion that often attracts students to major in a field that they had never considered, let alone taken a class in, before. Geology? Anthropology? Who knew it could be so thrilling!

The third point the students always raise is that good teachers help them to feel “safe” and “welcome” in those classes. (Hold your “delicate snowflake” critiques for a moment; we’ll unpack all of this shortly.) Finally (at least in terms of our discussion here), the students in the FSP program always observe that good teachers really listen to their students, are demonstrably interested in what they have to say, and often help them say it more clearly. That these teachers are listening is also evident to the extent that they will make adjustments, both large and small, in their classes that take account to what the students were saying.

New students in the program add additional observations over the years, but these four elements always seem to be present. And it’s not too surprising; I imagine that most of you would have come up a very similar list, and many of these same points came up in the last article I wrote about sitting in on my colleagues classes during “Open Classroom Week.” But as I was mulling these points over following the last discussion with this semester’s FSP students, I thought of the way in which the practice of reflection plays into each of these points, largely since the FSP program is itself predicated on reflection, on providing a structure and a forum for faculty, in concert with their student partners, to reflect on their practice.

Dewey’s Concept of Reflection

I’ve written before about the importance of reflection, particularly metacognition and self-regulation, to student learning. Here I want to think about these student comments in light of the reflection we do as teachers (a topic I began to think about here.)

John_Dewey_1902_Wikimedia

This led me back to John Dewey, a philosopher whose work on learning (How We Think and Democracy and Education, among others) is foundational…if a bit obscure. Or, as one educational researcher put it, “any student of Dewey’s knows that an encounter with his prose can be work.” Fortunately, Carol Rodgers, the researcher in question, has written an exceptionally clear introduction to Dewey’s concept of reflection that both helps systematize his writing on the topic and makes it more accessible to the lay reader. Much of what I summarize below comes from her article, “Defining Reflection: Another Look at John Dewey and Reflective Thinking,” which appeared in the Teachers College Record in June 2002.

For Dewey, the idea of reflection is a complex process, involving making meaning out of our experiences in a systematic and disciplined way, in conjunction with others (“in community”), and in a context that values the personal and intellectual growth of oneself and others. It is an integral part of Dewey’s view of the cognitive and affective mechanisms that lead to learning, that the purpose of education itself must be central, and this he understood to be “the intellectual, moral, and emotional growth of the individual and, consequently, of democratic society.”

Reflection is a “meaning-making process,” and, to be sure, as Rodgers observes, the ability to make meaning out of experience is a quintessentially human process. Experiences are what happens to you; what one makes of that experience, the meaning that one takes from it, derives from one’s ability to link that experience to prior experiences in a systematic and disciplined way. That is learning. It would seem, then, that the process of teaching is a process of providing the (disciplinary or otherwise rigorous) means of linking experiences (things that happen, reading a book, thinking, etc.) in a purposeful way. That is what good teachers do, but they can only do this because they are subject matter experts. Still, to leave it there is to miss the second part of what Dewey suggests about “meaning making” and what, I would argue, underlies the other characteristics that students pick up on when talking about the teachers who have meant the most to their learning.

What avail it — Dewey wrote (as quoted in Rodgers) — is to win prescribed amounts of information about geography and history, to win ability to read and write, if in the process the individual loses his own soul: loses his appreciation of things worthwhile, of the values to which these things are relative; if he loses desire to apply what he has learned and, above all, loses the ability to extract meaning from his future experiences as they occur?”

Dewey isn’t referencing the soul as spiritual, rather he suggests that the meanings we make are rooted in the values that we maintain. For Dewey, the primary values were those of democracy and equity, “the extent to which the interests of a group are shared by all its members [and the extent to which it] makes provision for participation in its good of all its members on equal terms…” Education, then, is not an act of transmitting information from expert to novice, nor, as many politicians keep banging on about, of seeing that the student has (just) enough skills to get a job. It is framed and giving meaning by values – and that’s what students perceive about their teachers.

This sense is reflected in the passion that they bring to their subjects, the rigor and attention they require of their students, and the fact that their classrooms are considered “welcoming” and inclusive. So let’s turn to those points.

The Welcoming Classroom

The narrative of the “coddled” student, the “delicate snowflake” who flees from difficult discussions and seeks comfort over controversy, is one that has gained ascendancy in the last few years, not just in more conservative media, but among New York Times op-ed writers and in other, liberal, venues. I don’t intend to take up that perspective here, and I’m quite sure that there are some students who fit that bill. But what the students I work with talk about when they talk about “safe” and “welcoming” spaces are classroom where, because the teachers worked so hard to make them welcoming to everyone, could more easily engage those difficult discussions.

Two points from Dewey’s approach to reflection enter the discussion here. In the first place, an experience involves an interaction between the person and the world; meanings are made of experiences, “reflection” occurs in broader contexts. As Carol Rodgers writes,

Because an experience means an interaction between oneself and the world, there is a change not only in the self but also in the environment as a result. The effect is dialectical with implications not just for the learner but for others and the world. Through interaction with the world we both change it and are changed by it.

Classrooms that are inclusive of a variety of experiences, in which all are made to feel not just welcome but that the classroom is structured with them in mind, are those open to the kinds of difficult interactions and conversations that help students change the world and be changed by it.

There are many ways in which teachers construct inclusive and equitable classrooms without  lessening the rigor of their classes. Expert teachers are often better able to do this than novices both because they simply have had more practice at it, but also because they are more at home with their subjects: having taught for some years gives one more confidence in her ability to teach the content well, attentive to its complexities and nuances. Experience also gives the teacher a greater sensitivity to class dynamics and a bit more space in which she can pay attention to interactions in the class. Beginning teachers often reflect “out,” thinking about experiences after they happen; more seasoned teachers can also reflect “in,” absorbing and changing in the midst of an experience.

Which raises the last point that students in the Faculty-Student Partnership have often commented on: those teachers who stood out for them were the ones who were best able to “listen to students.” When I asked them to explain this further, they raised a number of points. In the first place, “listening” involved teachers who showed themselves to be deeply interested in what their students had to say. Secondly, these teachers encouraged and solicited student input and comments. And, finally, the teachers actually listened, i.e., they tried to understand the student’s perspective without reshaping it by reference to their own (i.e., the teachers) set of experiences.

Inquiry-Model

 

Let me put this in the context of asking questions and, once more, look to Carol Rodgers for help. We’d probably all agree with Dewey’s view that, “A question well put is half answered.” Helping students to formulate questions is “a disciplined [process] that demands that the individual continually ground his or her thinking in evidence and not overlook important data that may not fit his or her evolving ideas…” Rodgers observes that,

This is perhaps one of the most challenging aspects of reflection. The question that a learner is able to formulate depends directly on the completeness and complexity of the data or description that he or she has gathered and generated. The completeness and complexity of the data are in turn made visible according to the extent of the teacher’s own ability to observe, pay attention perceive, and be open — in short, be present – to all that is happening in the classroom.

Good teachers, the students I spoke with suggested, were those who were “present” in their classrooms.

Conclusion

Two other aspects of Dewey’s understanding of reflection seem an appropriate way to conclude, even though they were not part of the students’ commentary. In the first place, Dewey argued for the importance of reflecting “in community.” To think without having to “express oneself to others,” is an “incomplete act.” Working in community with other teachers “allows teachers to acknowledge their interdependence in a world that scorns asking for advice and values, above all, independence for both students and teachers,” Rodgers argues.

Finally, for Dewey, reflection must include action. Reflection that does not lead to action is not responsible. So, even if action is partial or hesitant, trying out of new ideas that, themselves, will become subject to reflection, conversation, and new action, is a fundamental step in the process of reflection.

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