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Hirsh and Taylor vs. Dewey

October 1, 2013

Two recent articles on trends in education led to the title of this blog, which could just as easily been titled “The Factory School vs. The Network School”.

An article in Sunday’s NYTimes titled “Culture Warrior, Gaining Ground” profiled E.D. Hirsh, a “reformer” whose best selling book “Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know” provided lists of facts that every high school graduate should know that embedded books they should read and content they should study. The article  included this paragraph with my emphasis added:

When “Cultural Literacy” was published (in 1987), it was a cannon shot in the long war between progressives and essentialists, or traditionalists, over how American children ought to be taught.

Today’s classroom owes much of its structure to John Dewey, the early-20th-century education theorist who thought schools should be places where children were empowered and not simply spoken to, education historians say. From Dewey’s teachings, for example, came the idea of “learning by doing”: going to a forest, say, in addition to just learning about it in class.

In 1987 I was in the first decade of my career as school superintendent and I can assure you that the classrooms I had observed in ME and NH— especially those at the secondary level— seldom had structure based on Dewey’s teachings. The majority of elementary classrooms and virtually ALL HS classrooms had students in rows with the teacher presenting information to the entire classroom for most of the day. In elementary classrooms students divided into no more than three homogeneous reading groups for part of the morning and did tasks assigned by the teacher. “Classrooms where children were empowered to learn” were few and far between and with the Carnegie unit strangling the awarding of credits, “learning by doing” was completely absent at the secondary level. In short, the notion that classrooms were structured based on Dewey’s ideas was completely untrue.

Cloaking Inequality, Juan Vasquez Heilig’s blog, recently featured a post titled “Taylor vs. Dewey: The 100 Year Trickle Down vs. Pedagogical Debate/Fight in Education Reform” that covered the same ground. Heilig accurately assigns the “reformers” to Taylor’s camp, noting how their top-down approach mirrors that of Taylor. His pictures of Rhee vs. Ravitch and Duncan vs. Linda Darling-Hammond are hilarious… But here’s what’s sad: I cannot think of a single political figure or media icon who is on Dewey’s side… so academicians like Ravitch and Darling-Hammond serve as opponents because no one with any money or political swag will speak up for Dewey.

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