By David A. Gamberg
“Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself.” – John Dewey
What is most essential about the ways in which our students of all ages engage in the learning process? How often do we say, or more importantly do students hear, “you will need this for the test”? How often are we trying to prepare them for their future?
These questions and considerations about the focus of the teaching and learning process represent a misguided way to motivate our students to perform well, primarily on standardized tests. Thus, the focus for them is to compete with one another, for schools to compete with other schools, and even for our country to compete with other countries as a central focus of the learning process.
Which brings me to John Dewey. Particularly during the pandemic, students (and adults) yearn for connection, for a humanity born out of social engagement. “Dewey’s impact on education was very evident in his theory about social learning; he believed that school should be representative of a social environment and that students learn best when in natural social settings” (Flinders & Thornton, 2013). Dewey went on to say, “Knowledge is socially constructed and based on experiences.” Despite the fact that Dewey’s theories were developed during the early 20th Century, they have relevance in the 21st Century.
What we yearn for most about “in-person learning” are the relationships among students, between students and caring adults, and the adult to adult, collegial work relationships. Important connections are developed in a trusting atmosphere, where mutual respect is the norm. For now, let’s focus on the student experience and what this portends for our return to in-person learning.
Very often the non-academic, so-called “extra-curricular” environment becomes the best place for these relationships to flourish. During my 33 years in education the most impactful examples of relationships that flourished which led to student growth were found in the arts, athletics, clubs, and activities that supplemented the day-to-day classroom experiences of students.
I would argue that we must begin the hard conversations about the focus of education upon the return to full, in-person learning. However we design or reimagine learning, we should acknowledge that some of what has transpired during the past 11 months (which is likely to continue for several more months) will become a feature of education moving forward. Using technology to remove routine tasks associated with the learning process will be an inevitable component of the student’s “educational diet” in the years ahead. Equity and access to technology will continue to be a major challenge, as it was so dramatically evidenced during the pandemic. This must be addressed.
That which we focus on during the precious in-person portion of the educational agenda should, therefore, address the importance of the social-emotional, value added experience part of the learning process. Project-based, long term, collaborative and student driven aspects of the curriculum should be the dominant part of a student’s experience. Here is a sample of what I mean:
Displays and presentations that are adjudicated by a panel of experts in the fields of science, journalism, etc., entrepreneurial projects that allow students to innovate, tending a garden, creating a school museum for visitors that is showcased by student ambassadors, theatrical productions that require large chunks of time to rehearse and create an evocative experience, art gallery exhibits in the community, participating in a robotics program, community service that brings students out into the real world, mentorship and apprenticeship programs that harness the wisdom of senior citizens, civic and other community leaders, maintaining a TV Production studio that provides weekly broadcasts (web-based) to the school and outside community, testimonials before local government officials that propose solutions to local problems impacting the community, adoption of community spaces to help preserve the historical or environmental value of a given locality, partnerships with civic groups and agencies dedicated to the well being of its citizens are all examples that are authentic, and by their very nature require student collaboration which have them engage in a natural and social setting as suggested by Dewey.
They are also ways to engage students that attend to his view that knowledge is socially constructed and based on experiences.
We often talk about the concept of being life-long learners, of teaching students how to learn and not just what to learn in an ever changing and dynamic society. Students must, therefore, learn determination and dedication, be allowed to make mistakes, not fear failure, and develop the skills and dispositions that truly motivate them to pursue greater understanding of a given topic, subject or issue. The best way forward is to honor the belief that Dewey had, which is to see the educational process within the present, not some distant, unknown future.
Passport For Good is a digital platform strengthening student connectedness and visibility for districts by capturing and measuring what we all value, student engagement. Passport For Good helps districts organize community service, extracurriculars and career development, while managing projects in real time – all in one place. Contact us to learn how we can enhance your student connectedness efforts.
About the author:
David A. Gamberg is a retired School Superintendent. He served for 12 years in Southold UFSD, and as a shared superintendent in Southold and Greenport UFSD for the last six years, neighboring districts on Long Island, in New York. He has served as an Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum and Instruction, an Elementary School Principal, and a classroom teacher. David has worked in school systems in California and New York, and he is passionate about reimagining education that supports student engagement that is authentic and purposeful.