The Pragmatism of John Dewey in “Experience and Education”

Late brunch at Yakun this morning with a visiting friend who’d just met with a group of Ministry of Education scholars now serving their bonds as teachers in various schools in Singapore. Said friend was aghast at their expressions of anti-government sentiment and their reluctance to teach anything about Lee Kuan Yew because it was “just government propaganda”.

Yakun Coffeeshop - kaya toast, soft-boiled eggs, coffee and teaSince I do not know these people personally, it would be hard to sieve through their muddled thinking to understand what exactly they disagree with and why – and perhaps, if they were heavy-users of clumpy thinking, they may not have the self-awareness to explain themselves either. The issue is not whether anyone is for or against Lee Kuan Yew; the issue is the failure to think critically and carefully, and avoid the trap of false dichotomies (you must either be for or against a person or an idea).

How to train people so that they don’t grow up like this? I suspect it’s not too different from what I’ve been thinking about sporadically over the last few months – the best pedagogical methods to use for teaching others to read the Bible for themselves. Possibly, common grace means it will be a mash-up of many existing education theories and learning and instructional hypotheses that are yet to exist.

The important skill, it seems (not just in properly exercising our democratic right as voters in any upcoming elections, or to read the Bible for ourselves but also in a global world with many competing voices), is the ability to make proper judgements, personally and collectively, having continuously learned and thought in a variety of situations, workplaces, platforms (virtual or physical), and having found and selected the right knowledge.

Yakun Coffeeshop - kaya toast, soft-boiled eggs, coffee and teaToday, I looked at the pragmatism of John Dewey in his seminal Experience and Education and the social learning theory of Albert Bandura.

Every learning theory and pedagogical method is based on certain ontological and epistemological presuppositions. Foundational to Dewey and Bandura’s theories seems to be the ontology of materialism and naturalism as expressed in pragmatism, and the epistemology of radical empiricism.

If the definition of pragmatism is that something is true only if it works, this assumes firstly that what “works” can be measured or observed, and secondly that the result can be viewed in the lifetime of the researcher.

Regardless, useful takeaways are:

  • the idea that learning takes place among and through other people and artifacts as relational activity;
  • experience must always have a context if learning is to take place and be transmuted to the cognitive and communicative sphere;
  • learning can occur by observing a behaviour  and the consequences of the behaviour (vicarious reinforcement);
  • in the symbolic model of observational learning, it seems that people’s constructions of reality depend heavily on what they see, hear, read, rather than what they personally experience;
  • (couple this with reciprocal determinism and you get a theory of why extremism in all sorts of thinking is on the rise in the internet generation).

Instructional theory-wise, progressive education and David Kolb’s experiential learning are key methods.

I have already started trialling a very similar method in training Bible study leaders, outcome akan datang.

“…it is impossible to prepare the child for any precise set of conditions. To prepare him for the future life means to give him command of himself; it means so to train him that he will have the full and ready use of all his capacities; that his eye and ear and hand may be tools ready to command, that his judgment may be capable of grasping the conditions under which it has to work, and the executive forces be trained to act economically and efficiently” (John Dewey)

Ontology, Epistemology, Learning Theory, Instructional Theory, and Instructional Design

Have been thinking again about how best to teach the various groups I’m to train over the next few months. Here’s a back-of-the-napkin thought about how instructional design is based on theories of instruction, that are themselves based on theories of learning, that must be based on different epistemological and ontological theories. Cheap and quick, so probably many errors.

ontology, epistemology, learning theory, instructional theory, instructional design, and Stump Jump GSM

Materialism says that matter is the fundamental substance in nature, and that all phenomena, including mental phenomena and consciousness, are the result of material interactions. Knowledge, therefore, comes only or mainly from sensory experience and can be evidenced.

Its/their natural (not nurtured?!) children are:
(i) behaviourism (primary psychological paradigm 1920s – 1950s): humans are born tabula rosa (blank slate), resulting behaviour is a result of stimulus and response, the environment.

“Give me a dozen healthy infants, well-formed, and my own specified world to bring them up in and I’ll guarantee to take any one at random and train him to become any type of specialist I might select–doctor, lawyer, artist, merchant-chief, and, yes, even beggarman and thief, regardless of his talents, penchants, tendencies, abilities, vocations, and race of his ancestors. I am going beyond my facts and I admit it, but so have the advocates of the contrary and they have been doing it for many thousands of years.” (John B. Watson).

Related instructional theories would therefore be something to do with conditioning, whether classical (Ivan Pavlov), operant (B.F. Skinner), or social learning (Albert Bandura). And the attendant instructional design would be stimulus-response, reinforcement by rewards-punishment, and modelling. Skinner would also advocate practice as part of reinforcement – by for a reason different from that of David Ausubel (see below) who wouldn’t have cared for repetitive rote-learning.

(ii) cognitivism (primary psychological paradigm 1950s-1990s): humans are born with minds like black boxes that influence behaviour. Focus is on neuroscience, the brain, memory (long-term, short-term). Cognitive development occurs in stages (Jean Piaget) by the construction of a series of schemata to understand the world (schema theory – Frederic Bartlett, Richard C. Anderson). Therefore instructional theory emphasises learning styles (for different minds), repetition and mnemonics (to aid the memory), progressive differentiation and advance organisers (David Ausubel).

Phenomenalism says that physical objects do not exist as things in themselves but only as may be perceived through a person’s senses or with their mind. We cannot experience anything beyond the phenomena of our perceptions. Solipsism then states that actually, we can only be sure that our mind exists. Therefore, it agrees with rationalism that truth is best discovered by the use of reasoning and logic rather than by the use of the senses. Learning is therefore done in the context of constructing on what is already known (constructivism) rather than acquiring new knowledge.

Each person has a different interpretation and construction of the learning process. But this can be aided within a zone of proximal development (Lev Vygotsky). Instructional theory would therefore include scaffolding (because of ZPD), collaborative learning, active learning, discovery learning, knowledge building. This would result in instructional design outcomes like problem-based learning, assignments, disputations, interrogations, individualised programmed learning.

And critical theory probably says that none of these theories are valid because they include oppressive use of authority by educators! 😉

*this is not to say though that each of these instructional design theories must definitely be based on the corresponding ontological and/or epistemological theories as set out above.