Saturday, June 13, 2015

Dewey, Society, and Cognitive Development

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

Dewey makes another critical point that I also brushed aside twenty years ago. He stresses that, for education to be effective, growth must occur along two parallel tracks: the sociological and the psychological. The sociological track is where we learn by participating in society, eventually contributing to society and rebuilding it as an individual. The psychological track is where we come into our own power, growing our capabilities as an individual. When we begin our education, we don’t and can’t know who we want to be or what we want society to be, yet. We need to grow to figure those things out, and we can’t grow psychologically if we don’t grow sociologically, and vice versa.

In Dewey and Society, I wrote that a strategic, coherent, independent, active, sense-making learner will want to rebuild all of the communities and relationships in his life, that he will want to change society. I’m sure that some of you balked at that: “Hey! Not everyone wants to change society. People have different interests, goals, and passions in life.” While that is true, it is also true that you cannot know all of your future interests, goals, and passions based on where you are right now. Are you happy with society as it presently exists? Is there anything you would change about society if you could?

Most of us feel as though we can’t, on our own, change society; we lack the capability. So, we don’t try. And to avoid any cognitive dissonance that might come from that decision, we tell ourselves that we aren’t that interested in changing society. But how can you know whether or not you want to change society if you haven’t even tried to envision what those changes might look like? Our sociological growth is limited by our individual capacity. We won’t consider trying to change society if we don’t think we have the capacity. And, if we can’t change society, we aren’t full members of society, so we hold back from participating and investing in society. But our psychological growth is also limited if we aren’t allowed to change society. If we aren’t allowed to change society, then we limit our aspirations to what society does allow. We dream smaller, and that limits our growth as individuals.

In My Pedagogic Creed, Dewey writes: “I believe that the psychological and social sides are organically related and that education cannot be regarded as a compromise between the two, or a superimposition of one upon the other.” He warns against letting one track take precedence over the other. I ignored that warning twenty years ago, and I ignored it again when I wrote An Introduction to Vertical Learning two months ago.

I define vertical learning as a process that takes us through a series of five developmental stages: from reluctant learner to strategic, coherent, independent, active, sense-making learner. I haven’t defined those stages yet (that will have to happen in a separate post), but those stages represent cognitive development, or what Dewey would describe as the psychological track, where we grow into our own power. In defining vertical learning, I didn’t discuss a parallel sociological track. That’s not because one doesn’t exist—my students wouldn’t have gone vertical unless I also nurtured their sociological growth—but because I didn’t recognize that psychological growth cannot occur without sociological growth. (By definition, a strategic thinker is operating in a social context and a full member of society.) I plan on rectifying this in the near future.

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