Thursday, June 11, 2015

Dewey and Society

[This post is part of a series: Piaget, Dewey, and Vertical Learning.]

When I read Dewey twenty years ago and he said that education is a social process, that made sense to me. While we can and do learn on our own, we learn more effectively when we interact with other people. It opens us up to new experiences and viewpoints that can generate cognitive dissonance, which causes us to revise our mental models and learn.

Consider the game Minecraft. Millions of people play Minecraft and learn from each other every day. Now, imagine that the social component of Minecraft did not exist: you could still play Minecraft, but you couldn’t share what you were doing or know what others were doing. People would still play Minecraft, but probably not as many. People would still learn to do new things in Minecraft, but again, probably not as many. Our education in Minecraft is dramatically enhanced when we are an active member of a larger community, even if that community is just one other person.

But Dewey took his thinking much farther than that. He didn’t just say that individuals learn by participating as members of a society; he said that individuals must also participate in creating that society. In My Pedagogic Creed, Dewey writes: “In sum, I believe that the individual who is to be educated is a social individual and that society is an organic union of individuals. If we eliminate the social factor from the child we are left only with an abstraction; if we eliminate the individual factor from society, we are left only with an inert and lifeless mass.” Educating ourselves to participate in a society that we cannot change is a pointless exercise. We aren’t full members of a society we cannot change.

Twenty years ago, I didn’t know what to do with that line of reasoning. I couldn’t translate it into classroom practices, so I assimilated it and brushed it aside. Today, it makes sense to me. For learning to go vertical, you need to be in a state of constant cognitive dissonance. To tolerate a state of constant cognitive dissonance, you need to experience continuous growth and increasing agency. It takes a very special and a very rare community to support and nurture that. If you spend a lot of time with people who constantly make you think and help you grow and do, you notice. And if you are inquisitive, you wonder about it. What makes this community and these relationships different? Why aren’t all of my communities and relationships like this? How can I make all of my communities and relationships better?

Can we learn vertically if we aren’t members of a community that we can change? Of course. You can learn vertically on your own. You can learn vertically using a community as a resource, drawing from it what you need. But if you are participating as a member of a learning community that nurtures vertical learning, eventually you are going to want to change it… and society in general. When you are a reluctant learner, you may ignore the differences between the vertical learning community and the other communities in your life. But those differences will generate cognitive dissonance once you are an independent, active, sense-making learner; and you will want to rebuild your communities once you are a strategic, coherent, independent, active, sense-making learner. If you sense that changing the community is not an option, it places a ceiling on your potential growth and agency, and you won’t tolerate the state of constant cognitive dissonance required to go vertical. In fact, the community will cease being a vertical learning community at all.

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