Thursday, January 14, 2010

John Dewey on the hands

John Dewey wrote the following in the Schools of Tomorrow, E.P. Dutton & Co. 1915:
A child must go on learning to coordinate, with more and more skill, his muscular movements if his body is to be developed to the highest standards of health and efficiency; and nothing contributes to this better than the controlled and rather delicate motions necessary for making things with the hands. The fact that he is making things gives just the stimulus the child needs to enable him to keep on at the task, to repeat over and over the same efforts of mind, hand and eye, to give him real control of himself in the process. The benefits of handwork on the utilitarian side are just as great. The child learns how to use the ordinary tools of life -- the scissors, knife, needle, plane, and saw -- and gets an appreciation of the artist's tools, paint and clay, which lasts the rest of his life. It he is a child with initiative and inventiveness, he finds a natural and pleasant outlet for his energies. If he is dreamy and impractical he learns a respect for manual work, and gains something toward becoming a well-rounded human being.
These days, many children are introduced to computers, operating keyboard and mouse and skip over all the essential creative tools that pre-school students would have used in the past. So they come to school not knowing the basics of creativity. Some come to school never having used scissors. Teach first things first. Start with tools that allow the children to witness and understand the means through which their efforts are applied to the material. Start with tools that provide hands-on sensory feedback as to the structure, and density and tactile qualities of the materials. Through the hands-on manipulation and exploration of materials, the entire thrust of scientific exploration is recreated within their grasp (literally and metaphorically). Computers and electronic technology and their abstract representations of reality can wait.

12 comments:

Anonymous said...

HELLO MR. STOWE,

ONE OF THE THINGS THAT HAS BOTHERED ME FOR SOME TIME IS THE WAY THE COMPUTER HAS TAKEN A FRONT SEAT IN EDUCATION. IT SEEMS TO ME THAT IT REALLY IS JUST ANOTHER TOOL TO BE USED.

MORE AND MORE PEOPLE USE IT AS THE CENTER Of THEIR LIVES, INSTEAD OF AS A TOOL TO GATHER INFORMATION TO EXPAND THEIR KNOWLEDGE.

AT THE PLACES I HAVE WORKED IF THE COMPUTER GOES DOWN NO ONE KNOWS HOW TO ACCOMPLISH THEIR TASKS MANUALLY.

I FEEL AS IF THIS GOES BACK TO THE LACK OF HAND USE IN THEIR FORMITAVE EDUCATION.

I HAVE FINALLY SCHEDULED A MEETING WITH THE PRINCIPLE AT MY SON'S MIDDLE SCHOOL IN THE HOPES OF TRYING TO CONVINCE THEM TO LOOK AT THE EDUCATIONAL PROCESS DIFFERENTLY. I HOPE THEY WILL AT LEAST LISTEN.

SINCERELY,

TVI

John said...

>>John Dewey wrote the following in the Schools of Tomorrow, E.P. Dutton & Co. 1915:

A child must go on learning to coordinate, with more and more skill...<<

I am so thankful that my father grew up in this era and in this educational environment. He passed a lot of it along to me. Some of it was still left in the school system when I grew up in the 1950s, but why has this been largely lost in the last half of the 20th century?

Doug Stowe said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Doug Stowe said...

John, I think a lot of it has to do with the relative ease and popularity of testing. Standardized testing makes it easy to measure some things and those things take on disproportionate value, particularly to the non-artist.

Things like character are hard to measure and thus have become of lesser significance. Think about the rise of the Iowa Basics Skills tests that were becoming dominant in our childhood. When I took the ACT and SAT, no one ever thought of studying for such things. Now performance on those tests has become crucial to success in college entrance, and students cram and take practice tests and take the real tests multiple times in the hopes of improving their scores. It has become very serious, and big business, but most good colleges have come to the understanding that test scores have very little to do with ultimate success, which has more to do with the values that testing cannot measure, that are thus largely ignored in schools. But it is hard to make changes. We wouldn't drive the cars we drove in the 1950's, but we sure live with the educational model that first came out then.

anyn said...

Doug,

I'll have to disagree that SAT scores have, "little to do with ultimate success" - I'm assuming you mean academic success. The scores are just indicators, signals if you want, that are theoretically linked with how well someone would do in college. There may be better indicators out there or better models for future academic success (http://gsppi.berkeley.edu/faculty/jrothstein/workingpapers/rothstein_cbvolume.pdf) BUT when you can ascribe 62% of the variation in college freshman GPA to High School GPA and SAT scores (54% and 53% when considered separately - http://professionals.collegeboard.com/profdownload/Validity_of_the_SAT_for_Predicting_First_Year_College_Grade_Point_Average.pdf) then that's a tool an admissions officer can use to trawl through the thousands or tens of thousands of applications they receive each year. Is it perfect? Certainly not, but it is a useful indicator.

Doug Stowe said...

I'll agree that test scores can be useful indicators for college abilities, but I believe that most college entrance counselors would probably agree that there are other considerations that may be of greater value.

anyn said...

Other indicators / considerations such as?

Doug Stowe said...

Community involvement as volunteers, through internships, participation in extracurricular music and ballet. Leadership in clubs. Many college admissions officers are looking for well rounded, mature, solid performance and leadership. Some of these things don't show up on the ACT.

One of the things about having a blog is that I sometimes overstate my case, as I did in stating "little to do with ultimate success". But we have developed a system of education that is test heavy, and character lite. So I exaggerated a bit in the debate.

My daughter is a third year at Columbia University, so I very well remember the discussions with admissions officers from some of the very top schools we visited, and they assured us that test scores were only a part of what they had to look at.

JD said...

Doug,

The best predictor of success in university is prior success, i.e., grade point average. The SAT is not the best predictor of success as a college student. Success breeds success! Students with high SAT scores and low GPA scores are those who are suspect....i.e., they might have potential, but they have not applied themselves. Not applying themselves as HS students often means they won't apply themselves as college students. I'll take a student with a high GPA and a marginal SAT score any day... usually they are committed, focused, and desirous of accomplishing something.

Doug Stowe said...

There are other things like taking available advanced placement classes outside the standard curriculum. Some schools don't offer much. It is interesting that some schools like Wake Forest have given up ACT and SAT as entry requirements. It is one of a number of schools that have decided that the test scores are not the best predictors of college level success.

Personally, I think many young men would benefit by taking a gap year to mature and work in the housing industry or something prior to college entry. That extra year of maturity can make a big difference in school adjustment and performance.

toysmith said...

I agree with Doug "most good colleges have come to the understanding that test scores have very little to do with ultimate success..." Emphasis here on the word "ultimate." Not to be pedantic, but anyn mis-interpreted some of the statistics in the College Board report to suggest that a majority of the variation in first year college GPA is explained by the SAT and high school grades. See, for example, published critiques by Richard Atkinson (psychologist, former President of the University of California) who in 2001 recommended that the UC system do away with the SAT requirement.

Doug's larger point, as I read it, is that there are many valued outcomes of education poorly measured by standardized tests. But what gets measured (cheaply) is what drives the policy debate. Even on measurable outcomes like GPA (while in school), future earnings, etc., the predictive value of the SAT diminishes with each passing year. People are complex critters living in complex societies, and all sorts of things conspire to influence our success.

The nagging frustration (for me) is that when you get adults engaged in thoughtful conversation, there can be broad consensus on what we want for our children, and that includes the development of sound judgment, "character," ethics, joy, etc. Well-known scholar/advocates such as John Dewey, Ted Sizer, and Nel Noddings have articulated and argued for schools that support such a vision. Yet (and here's the frustration) when the rubber meets the road schools are still judged (by law) largely by test scores. By law, in some states a parent can "opt out" of a school that fails to teach their child mathematics, but can't "opt out" of a school that fails to instill a love of learning.

Doug Stowe said...

Toysmith, thanks for getting my point and adding so much to the discussion. Our educational dependence on standardized testing has other implications as it is derived from the multiple choice test which has only right and wrong answers. We learn from the arts and from science (when it is not dogmatized) that there are many ways to look at a problem, and a diversity of reasonable and acceptable outcomes. I fear that our current highly polarized political environment is the result of students not being equipped to work with subtlety and nuance, and who are trained to see issues only in black and white. Something I've learned as a woodworker, and that all artists learn is that there are many possible, reasonable, and acceptable answers dependent on very subtle aspects of character and will.