John Dewey in Action
So, here's how Rufus Thinking (October 2016's Thinking Tool) came about: I was teaching a SPAG lesson in one of the schools I support, attempting to bring a bit of flare and dazzle to modal verbs, when a young boy called Rufus decided to not do what I'd asked. I love this kind of thing. As a guest teacher I can go with it. I was curious about what he'd done. 'Look,' he said, 'I've done it this way.' He'd drawn the template you see in Rufus Thinking - completely different to my plodding pedagogical attempts. By ignoring my instructions and making his own task he created a much better activity than I'd planned. When I realised what he'd done I asked permission to share it (with you) and set about adapting and applying it. I'd call this a Dewey Moment and there aren't nearly enough of them anymore.
The Dewey Moment
John Dewey (1859-1952) was a man who pushed the human race forwards - through his thinking, his research and his political activism. Widely traveled and with broad interests (psychology, philosophy, journalism, politics, education) he challenged the status quo and catalysed change. His ideas about teaching, learning and professional development were very progressive yet balanced and can be summarised through the Rufus Dewey Moment:
||Rufus Dewey Moment Example
|Education is more than the acquisition of skills and knowledge; it must realise all students' full potential AND prepare them to contribute to the greater good.
||Sure, the class needed to know about key aspects of grammar but by letting Rufus choose his own path and by sharing his idea, his creativity and his leadership were valued.
|A curriculum must strike a balance between subject knowledge and the needs and interests of the student.
||We can debate SPAG all night but short of a revolt we're stuck with it for now. So let's be innovative in how we teach it. Let's explore the best kind of teaching and learning - even if we feel we are in a structured, restrictive analytic curriculum.
|Teachers must develop students who are autonomous, reflective and active in their learning rather than spoon feed them facts for the test.
||Rufus had to justify why his idea was effective. He had taken his own step in a parallel direction of learning. He achieved the lesson objective and in doing so demonstrated independence and creativity.
|Teachers should have a passion for knowledge and an incessant curiosity.
||Oh yes, I really did want to know what he'd done, how it worked, and how it could be applied. I'm still curious about Rufus and how he thinks....and if he gets into trouble much (he doesn't; his usual teacher is fab)
|Teachers should have the ability to watch and respond to 'the movement of a student's mind'.
||Yup. Didn't wait till the end of the lesson. Right there, right then, I saw what he did and acted.
Balance and Opportunity
OK, so maybe it's easier for me to do this kind of thing than you. After all, I can hand back the class after an hour (albeit with my 5+ teacher observers and full-on video) but you have the day-to-day with a curriculum, progress measures and targets. Although John Dewey is speaking your language, reawakening the reasons you chose to teach in the first place, there just aren't the opportunities to be that way in class - unless you teach 5-year-olds in which case it's your bread and butter.
But maybe there is a way. You see, one of Dewey's most important messages was BALANCE. He saw practice that was too dry and subject-heavy. But he also saw it swing the other way and be far too child-centered. He wanted folks to navigate the tricky yet interesting middle ground between the two: the teacher is the expert BUT the student must be active in learning from that expertise.
Here's all you need to do to try and get a Dewey Moment: in the middle of the pace and the progress and the targets and the goals and the initiatives and the constant changes, pause, breathe (3 times, deeply and slowly, you deserve that), look at your children and ask:
- What kind of curiosity is going on here?
- Where is the fascination with the world here?
- How is this activity adding value to these children?
- How will it help them add value to the world they grow up into?
If you get a nothing back, if you see little curiosity, fascination or value being added, then maybe it IS time for a revolt. A Dewey Revolt. A Rufus Dewey Revolt.
This year I've summarised as best I can the work of 4 inspiring educators: Charlotte Mason, Horace Mann, Jerome Bruner and John Dewey. No longer with us, but with powerful legacies, they all had ideas that are still relevant today but are largely ignored. With education systems that often look backwards to some lost 'golden age' that never actually happened, maybe policy makers should look a little further back and a little deeper into the minds of these 4. All 4 wanted children to gain knowledge, learn skills and be valuable contributors to the world. But they all knew that the child must be co-creator of their own future, not a passive recipient of someone else's past.