Is Dewey relevant to today’s issues on technology and pedagogy?

This blog addresses in brief the question “Are the ideas in Dewey’s  ‘Experience & Education’, written in 1936, relevant to today’s issues regarding technology in the classroom and technology pedagogy?  I answer that question by focusing on the education of urban students, particularly African American student in urban areas.  I believe that when we learn how to effectively teach urban African Americans, we would have learned how to teach most everyone else.


One of the main ideas Dewey had put forward in this book is that education must be rooted in the experience of the student.  It must start from the situation the student is coming from.  Account must be made of the students’ environment, the students’ prior experiences, be they positive or negative.  The community the student comes from, the history of the shared experience of the community and how that history is exerting its’ influence in the present, must all be taken into account in order to effectively reach the student and build authentic educational experiences; verses mis-educational experiences.   Dewey defines authentic educational experiences as ones that do not limit the continuous positive growth of the student.  Positive growth is thought to be that ability to extend or transfer previously learned problem-solving skills into new but similar situations.  Education according to an external standard, that is foreign to the daily cultural experience of a student, that is forced upon the student, that is not sensitive to the situation of the student, is mis-education, counter productive and even damaging. 


Well all of the above is what African American parents, educators, public advocates, and people of good conscience have been saying from ‘the get go’, or from the beginning.  One size does not fit all.  One normalized standard projected on a national, state or even local level, will not satisfy the educational needs of diverse communities.  There must be a willingness on the part of educators and policy makers, to engage the students at the level of their experience, and modify the curriculum material according to that experience.  In guiding the student from their reality into a broader reality, the teacher has to provide scaffolding in culturally sensitive ways.  This is necessary in any subject or discipline, including technology. 


Dewey spoke of applying a scientific method to educational practice, where the teacher helps the student explore means, analytical tools, adaptive techniques, that will enable the student to bridge the gap between the student’s current knowledge base to one that is on an accomplished level.  That competent level coincide with a state of empowerment to modify ones’ environment to such an extent that it will promote the continued growth of the student into the future.  It is a building of knowledge, construction through empirical investigation, augmentation of proven methods of analysis and synthesis of related facts, that forms the bedrock of development and civilization itself.  This is a permanent change from which to build.  To not accumulate this library or database of accomplished investigation and knowledge is to revert back to barbarism.   Cheik Ante Diop, a highly respected African Scholar wrote a book, ‘Civilization or Barbarism’, that I think makes this same admonition.  If African Americans are not building a cultural container of knowledge, survival strategies, competencies to compete in a technologically demanding society, then are we flirting with barbarism in a modern sense? 


With regards to African Americans making effective use of technologies to foster the educational experience, I think it is clear that an emphasis must be placed not just on accessibility to technology, but on methods of using the technology in such a way that will address the unique problems African American students are situated in, with the aim of improving their situation over time.  This again requires cultural sensitivity embedded into curriculum of instruction.  The programs, interfaces, built in relationships, methodologies and purposes of the technologies used, must relate to the historical as well as present experience of African American students in order for those technologies to have any relevance to the students’ natural desire for positive growth.  Student’s will not learn how to use the technology in productive ways unless they can see how it can uplift their circumstance and help them reach their goals of future well being.  African American students that I teach are quick to ask, “why should I learn this, I’m never going to use it anyway?”  I also read into that assertion, “I am not going to learn this because I don’t see how it relates to me and how it can help me in my life!”  I always try to give a convincing answer that speaks to their lived situation.


Finally I will say that this is not an issue unique to African Americans.  It is one that concerns all young people ; that is, making education relevant to their experience, and ensuring that education will help students achieve a productive, affective, and empowered life that harmonizes, as well as achieves harmony with their world. 


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