I’ve been catching up on several issues of Education Week that piled up as I spent some time decompressing from the stresses of the spring semester and the joys of my younger child’s college graduation. Several commentaries caught my eye and brought John Dewey’s habit of dissolving apparent dichotomies to mind. I’ll mention just two here:
1) In the May 21st issue, NYU Dean Mary Brabeck highlights the importance of what she calls (following researchers in the medical field) “translational” research. Brabeck argues that the soon-to-be-post-Whitehurst Institute of Education Sciences ought to be thinking about supporting research that brings neuro-, cognitive-, and medical sciences investigators into direct collaboration with those studying the practice of pedagogy and the education of teachers. Brabeck acknowledges that this range of researchers may be “epistemologically at odds” with one another, but she offers significant NIH funding for centers that bring basic scientists together with medical practitioners and the development of two new journals with “translational medicine” in their titles as evidence that educational research agendas can be shaped so that conflicting ways of knowing are bridged by carefully designed collaboration.
In the practice of medicine and teaching, one’s knowledge of the “basic science” that informs each profession serves as a kind of reflective platform on which one stands when determining possible interpretations and plausible responses to this particular case. The findings of the neuroscientist don’t tell me what to do, but those findings do tell me where to look, what questions to ask, what possibilities to consider. The epistemic divide apparent between basic researchers and researchers of practice is a post hoc analytic distinction, not a distinction present in the moment of decision, in the process of interpretation and response. If that is so, then there is no bar in principal to the kind of research Brabeck supports.
2) In the June 4th issue, Clayton Christensen, Michael Horn and Curtis Johnson argue that “disruptive innovation” will change the way we learn. They bemoan, as many commentators have, the standardization in contemporary schooling and they call for customization of instruction.
Unfortunately, they begin their commentary with the claim that “all students learn differently,” insisting “most of us know this intuitively. We learn best through different methods, with different styles, and at different paces.” They suggest that differences are in learning styles, multiple intelligences, and/or aptitudes. Dewey would challenge this claim, I think, or at least require a more precise linguistic formulation of the fact of our learning. Dewey’s view is that we all learn in the same way no matter what the lesson – through a process of inquiry, employing the “method of intelligence” -- but that every learning experience is different because every particular set of learning circumstances is unique.
Despite their reliance on a misleading cliché, Christensen and friends are right about the need to recognize the unique quality of particular learning experiences and to call for school restructuring that supports customization by enabling “disruptive innovation.” The latter concept fits neatly with the Deweyan reliance on doubt and discomfort as the prompts for learning.
Christensen et al. suggest that standardization and customization are mutually exclusive. On the surface (and as exemplified by their example of Microsoft’s Windows closed operating system versus Linux open source and modular system), their dichotomy makes some sense. But Dewey warns us to be wary of such hard and fast distinctions when recognition of a certain kind of “standardization” (the common process of human learning) is what enables us to explain the variance and customization in actual learning experiences.