Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Reforming All the Time - Recuperating the Tradition of the Active Mind for Teacher Education

Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Reforming All the Time - Recuperating the Tradition of the Active Mind for Teacher Education

Article excerpt

Educational structures are more in flux now than they have been in recent memory, Mr. Bickman notes, and before they freeze into new rigidities and simplicities, there may be a chance to restore thinking - the continual act of mind - as the central activity of our schooling.

IN AN article that appeared in the September 1998 issue of the Kappan, I argued that genuine school reform can happen not through any change imposed from above but only through the consistent application of intelligence and steady thinking, by teachers and students, day by day, class by class.1 I traced a current of thought in American intellectual history that I call the tradition of the active mind, beginning with Bronson Alcott and Ralph Waldo Emerson, elaborated more fully by pragmatic philosophers, most centrally John Dewey, and flowering in the best work of the 1960s and 1970s by writers such as John Holt and George Dennison. This tradition has struggled continually - and most often unsuccessfully - with the forces of bureaucratization, authoritarianism, and social control. But it has been realized in small and temporary triumphs, such as Alcott's Temple School, Dewey's laboratory school at the University of Chicago, and Dennison's First Street School.

In short, the tradition of the active mind views knowledge as provisionally constructed by the mind in perpetual interaction with the world. The outcomes of this process are generally cultural artifacts such as ideas, classifications, formulas, and works of literature and the other arts - basically a body of knowledge that has been organized and divided as the curriculum. The worst mistake of conventional education is to overvalue and make fetishes of only these end products, merely handing them over ready-made instead of involving students in the process of reconstructing the world for themselves, of engaging in dialectical movements between experiencing and conceptualizing, acting and thinking, practice and theory. In trying to recuperate the tradition of the active mind, then, we should move toward a pedagogy that we would now term more constructivist, more student-centered, more metacognitive, one that engages students more as culture-creating agents than as vessels for the reception of culture.

In my previous article, space precluded me from extending the implications of my historical analysis more directly to the immediate task of school reform. To budge even a little a system as glacially inert as that in which we find ourselves is a complex and multifaceted problem, and many people will have to exert force on as many places as possible. But if my analysis is valid, the best place to focus reform efforts is where the rubber hits the road: the classroom itself. Moreover, the most promising point at which to break the vicious circle of mindless self-replication is the education of teachers. Teachers need to be given the confidence, the freedom, and the resources that are necessary to make those immediate adjustments to each class and student. Only in this way will we really transform schooling. Teachers should be encouraged to join with their students in a pedagogical alliance founded on self-reflection and openness that will "re-form" every educational situation.

To begin conceptualizing this process, let us return to John Dewey. Dewey began to notice that his own ideas were being seriously weakened, even undermined, by the way they were being taught to teachers:

The drive of established institutions is to assimilate and distort the new into conformity with themselves. . . . In teachers colleges and elsewhere the ideas and principles have been converted into a fixed subject matter of ready-made rules, to be taught and memorized according to certain standardized procedures and, when occasion arises, to be applied to educational problems externally, the way mustard plasters, for example, are applied.2

In other words, there was a fatal disconnect between medium and message, an ironic mismatch that Dewey had described as early as 1916:

Why is it, in spite of the fact that teaching by pouring in, learning by passive absorption, are universally condemned, that they are still so entrenched in practice? …

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