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The Classroom as Real World

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What does it mean to teach?

At least once a week I come across a contrast between school and "the real world." What is most dispiriting is that the comment is often made by people who work in schools. That some people have their reasons for disparaging the work of schools is understandable, if regrettable. But that school staffs should participate in a demeaning of their own work is scandalous. Who do they think defines the real world: generals, stock brokers, TV executives, advertisers? As someone who has worked in classrooms for the past 39 years, I consider the contrast between school and real world to be the most insulting thing that anyone can say to me. To say of anyone that their work is not part of reality is the ultimate put-down.

Since this language is so common, it is hardly surprising that many students do little but wait out their sentence, anxious to join the real world. If the people in charge of schools do not believe in the seriousness of what they are doing--or even the reality--why should students work hard? And yet school life is real, often painfully so, for students required to be there. Placing the school outside reality means that no one need carefully attend to the lives of students.

Undergraduates in college are not legally required to be in school, but the majority of young people now go on to postsecondary education because they know that is the route to a good job. For some of them, college is an expensive extension of their waiting time. I find a great contrast between undergraduates who are being told that they are not yet in the real world and graduate students who come to class between their eight hours on the job and the subway ride home to dinner. Most of these graduate students experience the classroom as a breath of reality.

The contrast between school and real world has controlled most attempts at educational reform in this century. If the school is outside reality, then reformers logically go in one of two directions: (l) Make the school as painless as possible; let the students' interests dictate what the school does until the student can enter the real world; (2) Knock down the school's walls and bring real-life problems to students; expect classroom instructors and their students to solve problems that no one else can.

The first of these reforms began in the 1890s with the attempt to humanize schools. School curricula, it was argued, should follow the child's development. The child should be placed at the center of the school, and the emerging field of psychology would provide the direction. The intention behind this movement was admirable, and most schools did become more pleasant places. But already in 1900 John Dewey was trying to redress an imbalance that placed the child above the curriculum. Dewey insisted that the immature child had to move in the direction of the mature wisdom of the race expressed in the curriculum. Dewey failed to redirect this reform, and eventually he resigned from the Progressive Education Association because of its "child centered" ideology. The movement and this rhetoric have never disappeared, stronger in some decades (such as the 1960s) than others.

A fruitful continuity between school and out-of-school experience requires a recognition of several settings of education.

The other reform movement, one that would knock down the school's walls, acquired the name of social reconstructionism in the 1930s. Taking its cue from Dewey that "education is the fundamental method of social progress and reform," this movement encouraged schoolteachers to address "real-life problems." Classroom teachers should become passionate preachers of social and economic reform. George Counts' book Dare the Schools Build a Better Social Order? asked not whether schoolteachers should do this but whether they had the courage to do so. This book led John Dewey to revise his earlier principle and to conclude that "it is unrealistic, in my opinion, to suppose that the schools can be a main agency in producing the intellectual and moral changes ... which are necessary for the creation of a new social order." This reform movement has also never died out. Schools are still being asked to solve problems of race, drugs, AIDS, auto fatalities, and other "real life" problems.

Both of these contrasting reform movements have been credited to, or blamed on, John Dewey. By the end of the 1930s, Dewey had repudiated both. It is almost the mark of a great thinker to be misunderstood in opposite directions. Dewey should not be blamed for people repeating slogans in his name that he was fighting a century ago. However, some fault does lie with Dewey in that he was not able to extricate himself from premises that he started with in the 1890s. He did not invent the contrast of school and real world, but he helped to solidify it.

When Dewey started to advocate educational reform in the 1890s, he perceived the enemy to be a "traditional curriculum." He tried to bring the child's learning powers and interests into the picture while insisting on the need for children to be taught art, science, math, and history. Fifty years later, Dewey was still attacking the traditional curriculum, although most of it had disappeared. What Dewey's followers had heard was that the child is the beginning and the end of education, the sun around which schools should revolve.

In the 1930s, Dewey constantly talked of "real-life experience" as the need of the school. What he seems to have wanted was a continuity between school and out-of-school experience, but what people heard was a contrast between the unreality of schools and the real world beyond the school. Dewey always insisted upon the importance of "subject matter" in the classroom, but serious study can easily be upstaged by nonschool concerns. When the wall of the school is taken down, the outside world simply engulfs the fragile structure of the school.

What is missing in educational literature is a discussion of what it means to teach. A fruitful continuity between school and out-of-school experience requires a recognition of several settings of education, each with its own way of teaching. It is amazing that in a work such as Democracy and Education Dewey hardly ever uses the verb "to teach." The few times he does refer to the act of teaching he equates it with the work of the "professional educator." So long as it is assumed that teaching is what classroom instructors do, we will never have intelligent and useful discussions about the many kinds of teaching.

Because the classroom works mainly with words it can be vacuous, but when students and classroom teachers are appropriately prepared, no force in the world is more powerful.

To teach means to show someone how to do something; it is one of the most fundamental human acts that everyone engages in. Writers and speakers regularly refer to the parent as the first and most important teacher. In the next breath, they are likely to refer to "parents and teachers," a phrase that denies that parents are teachers at all. We need discussions about teaching between parents and schoolteachers, or between classroom teachers and parental teachers. Even within the school setting there are seldom discussions about the different kinds of teaching: classroom instruction, the teaching of artistic performance, the teaching of technical skills, and the teaching of athletic activities.

The strange form of teaching that is appropriate to a classroom cannot be appreciated without a comparison to teaching in other settings. Otherwise, teaching is assumed to be a variation on adult-child relations. Teaching then gets understood as big people telling little people what to think. But teaching finds its perfected form in what adults do for each other. Children are an exception in teaching, although very young children are a great test of teaching. If we thought of children growing into the relation of teaching-learning, we would be more aware of the power relations that surround them.

Lacking a theory of teaching, Dewey could not distinguish between the kind of teaching proper to a classroom and other kinds of teaching. He and many other reformers tended to bad-mouth the classroom as a place that is all talk and no action. Instead of distinguishing different forms of speech, Dewey advocated bringing "things" into the classroom. His principle of learning by doing is a good one, but the "doing" in a classroom is mainly talk. Classrooms are places where people can learn to speak better, to read better, to write better. They learn that from people who speak well, read well, and write well. Today's schools need televisions, computers, and other technology. But in a classroom nothing can substitute for intelligent conversation between students and teachers, students and students.

The school is a place distinct from ordinary experience but not outside reality. In fact, it is one of the few places that take all reality as their province. If the school is to engage in its own serious business, it needs its own distinct place and time and tradition of work. Within the school several forms of teaching occur, the most peculiar being classroom instruction. A classroom is a bare-walled place for a highly structured conversation. Classrooms are one of those rare places in which people may hear words that bring about an understanding of the world they live in and change the way they live. Because the classroom works mainly with words it can be vacuous, but when students and classroom teachers are appropriately prepared, no force in the world is more powerful.

Asking classroom teachers to give up their control of the word "teaching" may seem to be an undermining of the schoolteacher's profession, but a conversation about teaching within schools and outside schools is the way to a stronger profession and better schools.

Gabriel Moran is a professor of education and the director of religious education in the department of culture and communication at New York University, New York City. A past president of the Association of Professors and Researchers in Religious Education, he recently published Showing How: The Act of Teaching (Trinity Press International, Valley Forge, Pa.).

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  • Democracy and Education. The full text of John Dewey's 1916 classic book. Dewey rejected authoritarian teaching methods, regarding education in a democracy as a tool to enable the citizen to integrate his or her culture and vocation usefully. To accomplish those aims, both pedagogical methods and curricula needed radical reform.
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