Our son Stephen is known for his audacious Christmas lists. Tongue in cheek, he asks for over-the-top gifts like a Maserati or 60 inch TV. I too have an audacious Christmas wish this year. I’d like to be a part of launching something similar to John Dewey’s Laboratory School.
I love education. I don’t love the prevailing forms of education however. As a Christian, I believe scripture says genuine education entails knowing by doing. As educational philosopher Kieran Egan notes, knowledge “exists only as a function of living tissue.”1 Learning is hands-on.
We observe this in how Adam and Eve learned. It was embodied learning, as in “Adam knew Eve” – nuptial union (Genesis 4:1). Jesus echoes this: “If any man is willing to do his (the Father’s) will, he shall know of the teaching, whether it is of God, or whether I speak from myself” (John 17:7). Knowing by doing.
This understanding of education went into decline with the rise of the Enlightenment. Education became knowing by listening. If you took notes and passed the exam, you had knowledge. This is a far cry from the ancient view of education and John Dewey knew it. In his masterful book, The Metaphysical Club, Louis Menand retells Dewey’s story.
In 1896, Dewey, then chair of the Department of Philosophy of the University of Chicago, opened an experimental school to test his assumption that children learn by doing rather than through lectures. The University Elementary School of the University of Chicago had sixteen children, all under twelve, and two teachers.
Students learned to cook, as it combined arithmetic (weighing and measuring ingredients, with instruments the children made themselves), chemistry and physics (observing the process of combustion), biology (diet and digestion), and geography (exploring the natural environments of the plants and animals). It was a local sensation.
By 1902, there were 140 students, twenty-three teachers, and ten graduate students working as assistants; it had become an international sensation; and it was known as the Dewey School. It was a laboratory, a place, as Dewey later put it, “to work out in the concrete, instead of merely in the head or on paper, a theory of the unity of knowledge.”
By “unity of knowledge” Dewey did not mean that all knowledge is one. He meant that knowledge is inseparably united with doing. Education at the Dewey School was based on the idea that knowledge is a by-product of activity: people do things in the world, and the doing results in learning. In the traditional method of education, teachers pass on disembodied information to pupils. Knowledge is cut off from the activity in which it has its meaning, and becomes an abstraction, concept, or “theory.”
Dewey countered this with cooking and carpentry. The children cooked and served lunch once a week. Preparing a meal (as opposed to, say, memorizing the multiplication table) was a goal-directed activity, a social activity, and continuous with life outside school. Cooking became the basis for most of the science taught in the school.
It turned out that making cereal became a three-year continuous course of study for all children between the ages of six and eight – with (on the testimony of two teachers) “no sense of monotony on the part of either pupils or teacher.” Cooking was soon seen as seamless with the sphere of the home, industry and business. The children learned to work with iron, for example, building their own tiny smelters.
The pedagogical challenge in all this, wrote Dewey, was to demonstrate how chemistry is indivisible from lunch, learning indivisible from the doing. “Absolutely no separation is made between the ‘social’ side of the work, its concern with people’s activities and their mutual dependencies, and the ‘science,’ regard for physical facts and forces.”2 This is precisely what the Bible teaches us. Genuine education requires knowing by doing.
Of course, the pedagogical challenge in all this is how it runs counter to our current educational approaches. Launching something similar to John Dewey’s Laboratory School would be audacious. It would reframe education, returning to the ancient approach of knowing by doing. Jim Collins says great companies have a BHAG – a Big Hairy Audacious Goal. I know of some educational institutions desiring to reframe education, returning to knowing by doing. I hope to be a part. That’s my Christmas wish.
Follow me on Twitter: @Metzger_Mike
1 Kieran Egan, Getting It Wrong From the Beginning: Our Progressivist Inheritance from Herbert Spencer, John Dewey, and Jean Piaget (New Haven: Yale, 2002), p. 68.
2 Louis Menand, The Metaphysical Club: A Story of Ideas in America (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2001), pp. 320-324.