The Role of Democracy in Education

Were all instructors to realize that the quality of mental process, not the production of correct answers, is the measure of educative growth something hardly less than a revolution in teaching would be worked.
-- John Dewey, Democracy and Education
About UsA proper introduction to a blog, the purpose of which is to write about the role of education in a democracy, is to begin with John Dewey. Dewey was a strong proponent of free public education in which children are taught to think rather than merely memorize. That education was the backbone of the American democratic republic without which the nation would revert to the tyranny of the wealthy. He also believed that the poorest child among us was entitled to the same education as the richest child; that the obligation of every citizen was to invest in the education of all children.
There is much to agree with in Dewey's notion of the role of education in a democracy. In the broad view, Dewey is concerned with the idea that learning to think clearly is preferable than learning a set of trivial facts. He argued in many written essays that learning was dependent on one's transformative experiences; that learning itself was not a linear growth model, rather, it was subject to the fits and starts of transformation. With this, I agree.
What I deny, however, is the idea that curriculum should, or even could, be standardized. The very idea that we can standardize learning denies the background of the individual child, the experiences that child brings to the classroom. One of the main points of this blog is to argue for the differentiation of learning toward a common goal through the application of what I call "Interest-Based Learning."

The Role of Democracy in Education: Interest-Based Learning 

Interest-based learning draws heavily on the differences found in virtually every classroom in America. Even the most homogeneous classrooms are populated by unique children with remarkably idiosyncratic life experiences. To mold a curriculum with the purpose of teaching all children as if a one size fits all is doomed from the start.
When I was in graduate school, the rage was schema theory. One may think of schema as being the rules for behavior in society. There is a schema for ordering at McDonald's, a schema for tying one's shoes, for working a math problem, and so on. Based on the idea that culture dictates how one behaves; that cultural rules are absorbed as if they were innate. The idea makes sense in general terms. Think of the chaos that would take place if everyone driving a car did so with his or her own set of rules. For some things, a schema is a powerful tool for teachers to use to help children learn to follow the general rules of society.
Thinking, however, as the basis for learning simply does not work that way. At the very least, the transformative experiences we have dictate how we approach new learning. In Dewey's model, the transformative experience is one that is life-changing. Brushing one's teeth may be an experience. It is not, however, transformative.
What transforms is noteworthy. Everyone I know is able to report on any number of things that altered the path upon which they traveled. I am old enough to remember the moment I heard that President Kennedy was assassinated. I can see the room I was in, the thing I was working on, the smell of food cooking in the kitchen, It is all as if it was yesterday. That moment changed my focus from having no idea why I was in the university, now with a clear focus on the humanities: history, English literature, and philosophy.
During my graduate school education, a course in linguistics was required. I was dreading that class. When I emerged from the class, I simply wanted more. I fell in love with how language worked, with the innate nature of language in human beings. I was transformed.

The Role of Democracy in Education: Transformation in the Classroom 

interest-based learningWhat does it mean to apply transformative educational practice in the classroom? I wish to share a particular example of best practice in one fifth-grade classroom.
In the fall of 1997, I was working on a grant project in a large midwestern city. The purpose of the grant was to guide teachers through a process of turning their practice from a teacher centered to a student-centered one. One of the teachers I worked with was in a school in a neighborhood that had been plunged into poverty when a local industry closed displacing several thousand people from their jobs. This particular teacher saw her job as the purveyor of facts for her students to learn. She was, however, quite willing to experiment with a different model.
She and I met before the teaching of the "Age of Exploration" unit she was getting ready to teach. Together, we decided to have the students do an interest-based project related to the main topic of the unit. She divided her thirty-students into six groups of five each. The students were told to figure out what they wished to learn about that was related to the history unit they were studying.
One group of five girls wondered how sailors were able to sail across open ocean where there were no landmarks and still navigate successfully. They researched the problem in the school library and demanded that they be able to go to the local branch of the public library to study. They found that in the 1400s ship navigation used an instrument called an astrolabe to figure out the parallel they were on. The astrolabe was a primitive precursor of the sextant based on the degrees of a half-circle.
Near the end of the project, I arrived at the school on a rather crisp November morning. The sky was covered with a thin layer of clouds that allowed the circle of the sun to be revealed. I climbed the three flights of stairs to the room. I didn't even have time to remove my coat when the five girls grabbed me, "Mr. Passman, come with us." I did as I was told.
Outside, with the demonstration protractor in hand, a string tied to its knob, a weight at the bottom of the string, one of the girls sighted along the straight edge of the protractor toward the outline of the sun through the clouds. Another student read the degree upon which the string fell. 44-degrees she joyfully announced. On the way back to the classroom they joyfully announced that an astrolabe was accurate to ±10 degrees. The city in question is, in fact, at 42 degrees North latitude, a perfectly accurate reading.
When the class presented their results, these five girls not only explained the workings of an astrolabe, they talked about the difficulties of navigation. They also talked of why the astrolabe was more accurate on land than on the sea. They reviewed a history of navigation on the ocean. In short, they explored deeply into the difficulties faced by the European explorers in the 15th and 16th centuries.
This is an example of interest based education. There were others from that class as well but to my mind, this was the most successful of the six.
The Role of Education in Democracy: So What's the Point?
Teach children a set of disparate facts alone and you create a generation of robotic children. This is not to say that background is not important, it is. But it is not the goal of education. The root of the word education comes from the Latin, educere "bring out, lead forth. Plato wrote of the illiterate slave boy that Socrates was able to demonstrate mathematical principles that were already present, that with proper questioning could be drawn out.
Background knowledge is important because facts do actually matter. But just as, and perhaps even more, important, is the ability to reason. To ask questions, to investigate, and to rationally develop answers to real problems. Thinking about issues is the core of a working democracy. Without the ability to reason, one can be fed any line of argument and fail to find the flaws inherent in the argument itself. When that happens, democracy is doomed to fail, people are relegated to class, with the wealthy demanding entitlement.

Who am I to Write About This? 

My name is Roger Passman. I hold a doctorate in Language and Literacy from National-Lewis University. I began my career as a middle-school Language Arts teacher, earned my doctorate and moved to teaching at Texas Tech University. I finished my career at Northeastern Illinois University from which I retired as an Associate Professor. I co-authored a book on teaching writing, wrote a number of articles published in scholarly journals, and presented papers internationally.
In my retirement, I decided to write this blog because I am disheartened by the current drive to destroy free public education in the United States. I look forward to your participation in this blog.