Adrift at sea

The most significant question which can be asked, accordingly, about any situation or experience proposed to induce learning is what quality of problem it involves.

           — John Dewey, Democracy and Education, 154)

Each person—the butcher, the parent, the child—occupies a different position in the world, which leads to a unique set of experiences, assumptions, and expectations about the situations and objects she or he encounters. From integrated sets of assumptions, expectations, and experience, individuals construct a worldview, or frame of reference, that shapes their interpretations of objects and experiences. Everything is perceived, chosen, or reject on the basis of this framework.

—Diane Vaughan, The Challenger Launch Decision; Risky Technology, Culture, and Deviance at NASA.

      One theme that has been pursued in my blog postings is, what I have termed. the dilemma of institutional schooling: the divergence between the institutional goals of order and conformity and the educational goals of individuality and autonomy. School administrators escape this dilemma by occupying themselves with resolving the daily managerial diversions listed in their daily calendars.

      While the diversions of school administration keep the occupants of main offices busy and will garner accolades from the community, the schools they lead are adrift morally and intellectually. Without an instructional anchor a sea of legislative mandates, board initiatives, model programs, and the demands of special interest groups batter their schools. Doing diversions well will keep a school afloat, but it will fail to navigate the school in any particular direction.

      School administrators, who sense that their school is adrift at sea, could look for those educational values and goals in their school’s mission statement or in their academic coursework. What they will find in both sources are text awash in waves of educational platitudes and rafts of techniques. After being tossed around in the hurricane of visions and recipes, the occupants of main offices,return each day to the school helm, where at least they can keep the school afloat. As they right the school vessel, however, they know they have not disturbed the calm at the bottom of the sea—the beliefs, the goals, the values, and the organization of institutional schooling. 

      Missing from their quest for instructional anchors is a philosophy of education restoring value to what teachers do in classrooms and methods of inquiry that examine the consequences of school practices fundamentally opposed to the valued outcomes of schooling. John Dewey, among a number of other philosophers of education, proposed a philosophy of education focusing on methods of inquiry that required children and their teachers to step-out of the confines of their culture and personal-self-interest to resolve the real social, economic, and political problems confronting their communities. Dewey’s philosophy went on to describe in great detail the kind of pedagogy and curricular that grows a child from the purposeful resolution of personal needs and desires to the purposeful resolution of public needs and desires— the movement from being stuck in custom and circumstance to “the kind of life we ought to live and what sort of world we should call into existence” (Garrison, 1997).

      Philosophies of education, whether it be Dewey or some other philosopher educator, offer schools administrators a blueprint for WHY of schooling—the “ends in view” that will interpenetrate the practices of schooling. School administrators and teachers who work in school cultures woven together with a common philosophy of education not only know what values they are teaching each day, but also know when the fabric of their school is unraveling.

      Even with a well thought out philosophy of education, however, school administrators and teachers still work in a “machinery of schooling” which prizes conformity over creativity; passivity over engagement; credentialing over understanding A philosophy of education strong enough to resolve the separation of school from society and the child from curriculum must first find pathways between the theories and ideas that inform teaching, learning, and organizational behavior and the practical world of classroom teaching. Secondly, that philosophy must be comprehensive enough to understand and address in purposeful way the five problems of schooling that cut instructional anchors from schools and sink most reform initiatives.

      The six blogs that follow will describe the six problems of schooling and the educational stance a school administrator should assume to author a strong instructional worldview.

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