The problem of educational experience

A great confusion in education is what counts as an educational experience. At first glance this would not appear to be a great source of confusion in schooling. School administrators, teachers, policy makers, parents, and even students quickly resolve this confusion with the belief that everything that happens in schools is an educational experience. Following this belief into classrooms finds educational experience represented in definitions, lists, explanations of processes, demonstrations of procedures, note taking, recitations, and tests. Most individuals in and out of schools would nod their head in agreement—yes, these are bona fide educational experiences. John Dewey, the foremost twentieth century philosopher of education, would term these institutional definitions of educational experiences as, in his words, “mis-educative,” and “non-educative.”

      Dewey’s criteria for categorizing what occurs in classrooms as a genuine educational experience are activity structures that grows student interest and provides frameworks for critical thought. Sitting in classrooms, whether at the turn of the century or in the present, would confirm Dewey’s view, that there is little evidence of student interest or critical thought. What one does observe are lessons that conform to institutional definitions of an educational experience: transmissible, categorical, and testable. School administrators, teachers, and faculties schools of education are drawn to definitions of educational experience where institutional goals are imposed on models of teaching and curriculum design.

      For Dewey, the principal problem with institutional definitions of an educational experiences is they ignore where students come from and, instead, command students to look at a world of academic abstractions that will become meaningful to them at some unnamed time in the future. Schools, if they are doing their job well, house a vast array of intellectual tools that provide young people with curricular and teaching models that evaluate the quality of worlds young people stand in and promising ways of improving the world they will experience. When educational experience is defined this way, from where an individual stand instead of what they should be looking at, school administrators, teachers, and the publics they serve are directed towards curricular structures and teaching models which are deliberative, collaborative, and evaluative. Educational experiences, that give equal attention to where a child stands as well as what they are looking at, design curricular structures and employ pedagogies, which include the following activity structures:

  1. The educational experience begins with a situation, a case, a scenario, which stands as problem, a dilemma, or an interest or, a particular group of students.
  2. The educational experience selects a deliberative process where disciplined ways of knowing are brought to bear on a problem, a dilemma, or an interest.
  3. The educational experience designs venues where students collaborate on possible solutions to a problem, a dilemma, or an interest.
  4. The educational experience contains an activity in which a group of students feels (not sees) the consequences of the actions decided upon to resolve a problem, dilemma, or the pursuit of an interest.
  5. The educational experience determines the connections between the means-consequences of the actions undertaken by a particular group of students.
  6. The educational experience examines the means-consequences of actions in light of a valued common good.

      Strong Instructional Leaders recognize that the schools they lead are institutions designed for looking at the world and not looking from the world. A strong component of their philosophy of education and instructional agenda is devoted to developing curricular offerings, pedagogical practices, and organizational configurations which create educational experiences where all students fully undergo educational experiences from where they stand.


Schools are designed by societies to purposefully influence the “the attitudes and dispositions necessary for the continuous and progressive life of a society” (Dewey, 1916). The pedagogy endorsed by Schools of Education for socializing the young into the life of society originates in Rousseau’s dictum that educators should follow the path traced by nature (Rousseau, 1762/1979).

The problem teachers confront when applying a pedagogy devoted to developing the nature of the child is the inherent conflict between a child’s private ways of knowing—language, culture, personal interests, friends and experiences—and institutional ways of knowing —the methods, structure, and content of the disciplines and the “intellectual, legal, economic, scientific, and political institutions of the larger society” (Olson, 2003).

Schools as institutions are dismissive of educational goals in opposition to their responsibility to “produce a certain output or effect in return for its entitlement of funds and social recognition” (Olson, 2003). To achieve the recognition and funding necessary to preserve the institution of schooling, educational leaders displace pedagogies devoted to “how children perceive, explore, understand, and enjoy the world” (Olson, 2003) with pedagogies devoted to enforcing institutional categories, distinctions, differentiations, and divisions.

To be an expert in today’s educational environment one must know the vocabulary, the processes, and the methods of accountability that will “normalize” a child’s private ways of knowing. In Olson’s (2003) words, “schools as institutions do not ‘care’ whether students enjoy quadratic equations as long as they solve them quickly and accurately.”

The process of “normalizing” (Popkewitz) the child requires that schools, teachers, and support personnel marginalizethe unique beliefs, desires, and intentions of children in the classroom and value a psychology which isolates causal factors (i.e. socio-economic states, impulsivity, learning disability) that detract from the achievement of institutional goals. 

What this normalization process looks like in school is the search by administrators, teachers, and all manner of “specialists” for “pathologies” which explain why a child is unable to conform to institutional norms and the application of “interventions” which “cure” the deviant behavior of the child. 

Strong Instructional Leaders recognize that the schools they lead are institutions designed to normalize the individualities of the children which enter their schools each day. A strong component of their philosophy of education and instructional agenda is devoted to developing curricular offerings, pedagogical practices, and organizational configurations which respect and give voice to “abnormal” talents, interests, and abilities.

The problem of goals

The knowledge and skills taught to students in our schools originate from an age-old struggle between four competing conceptions of what students should know and understand when they leave grade twelve. Two conceptions of schooling —the civic (Dewey, 1916/1966) and vocational (Bobbitt, 1915)—view schools as the “principal instrument in awakening the child to cultural values, in preparing him for later professional training, and in helping him to adjust normally to his environment” (Brown vs. Board of Education). The other two conceptions of schooling—the “cultivation of humanity” (Nussbaum, 1997) and creation of an authentic self (Greene, 2000; Morris, 1966) view schooling as a place where young people learn “how to be a human being capable of love and imagination” (Nussbaum, 1997) and how to accept “personal responsibility for the authorship of one’s own values” (Morris, 1996).  In the ideal republic the community would support a way of life —the civic and instrumental goals—that would give full expression to an individual’s search for meaning and a greater understanding of the world around them —the goals of cultivating humanity and the authentic self.

      Underlying the struggle for the American curriculum are two views of knowledge that support the pursuit of each aim of education. Those who view schooling as a process of socialization perceive knowledge as the acquisition of power to control the environment, society, and one’s self (Knowledge as Power). Those who view schooling as a process of cultivating humanity and an authentic self-perceive knowledge as a process of interpretation (Knowledge as Interpretation) that equips young people with methods of inquiry and systems of theories and ideas, that lead to better understanding of the self and the “particular struggles over identity, citizenship, politics, and power” (Giroux, 2000).

      Thrown into the traditional struggles over what sort of student the public wants schools to graduate are the administrative goals of schooling and a myriad of legislative mandates requiring schools to fix the latest social ill. The easiest solution to the problem of goals is to pursue the outcomes most favored by the public and policy makers—in today’s society that would be vocational goals of schooling (college bound curricular belong is this category). A more difficult option, but one which is still attractive to most school administrators, is pursuing a “shopping mall” (Powell, A. G., Farrar, E., & Cohen, D. K., 1985) curricular where different goals are found in different parts of a school building. Within limits, which are becoming more constrained by the day, students are free to pick from a goal her and goal there.

      The final option, and the most complex one to apply, is viewing the goals of schooling as mutually enforcing rather than mutually exclusive. This is the view Dewey adopted in his writings and one which is lost in facile understandings of curriculum and instruction. For Dewey, and other contemporary curricular theorists (e.g. Eisner, Katz, Meier, Noddings) the optimum curricular configuration is one in which a child’s personal ways of developing meaning find expression and full realization in vocational and civic undertakings. The “meaning of life” in such a curriculum is employing private interests and talents in public ways of making a living and contributing to the common good.

            Strong Instructional Leaders recognize the struggle over different perceptions of what it means to be “educated” dominates the politics, pedagogy, and curriculum of schooling. They have inherited schools where past school leaders favored one perception over another or tried to achieve peace between the perceptions by allocating different ratios of time, space, and credits to each perception. He knows from first-hand experience that institutionalizing one school goal over all others disenfranchises the interests, talents, and abilities of large groups of students. He also knows that creating a shopping mall curriculum, while satisfying most faculty, violates the first law of curriculum and instruction which states that deep understanding of subject matter is wholly dependent on “instructional program coherence” where course sequences and instructional programs are “guided by a common framework for curriculum, instructional, assessment, … and are pursued over a sustained period” (Newman,, 2001). A strong component of their philosophy of education and instructional agenda is devoted to formulating administrative goals, pedagogical practices, and organizational configurations which dissolve the perceived differences between personal ways of knowing the world and public ways of expressing them.

The problem of pedagogy

Schools, as institutions, require administrators and teachers to design instructional programs that are efficient—efficiency is defined as transmitting large quantities of information, to large groups of students, with the minimum expenditure of time, money, and effort. Studies of the social context of schooling (Eckert, 1989; Jackson, 1990; Rosenholtz, 1991; Wexler, 1992; Bourdieu, 1993; Lortie, 2002; Pope, 2003;) describe how institutional approaches to schooling influence how teachers think about pedagogy and how those beliefs become realities in the classroom. The dominant pedagogy of the day is the expectation that teachers in the classroom will be covering objects of knowledge (knowledge as “immobile solid” (Dewey, 1902/1990) so students can possess the knowledge for final transfer from one context to another.

The opposing pedagogy to the “assign and assess” model of instruction is John Dewey’s portrayal of a pedagogy in which a teacher creates situations requiring students to interact with their environments to discover possible solutions to problematic situations that arise in a society with scarce resources, with elites and masses, with different moralities, and with different identities.

Educators and state legislative bodies have largely dismissed the other problems of schooling (e.g. institutions, goals, the self, and experience) in favor of turning research agendas and policy initiatives over to researchers who use quantitative methodologies to establish causal relationships between teacher traits, dispositions, and behaviors and student achievement (Nuthall, 2004). For educators, quantitative studies of the relationship between classroom teaching and student learning provide a distinct body of knowledge that secures their status as a profession.

Legislative bodies find the relationship between the studies of teaching and student achievement attractive because it provides legislators with a rationale for holding teachers and school administrators accountable for the effective implementation of “scientific approaches” to teaching and learning. The scientific turn in education has displaced the philosophical inquiries that historically guided discussions of what it means to be educated (Egan, 1983) and has transformed the complex practice of teaching into the mere implementation of techniques and scripted lesson plans.

The Table below represents the two traditions of pedagogy that clashed in schools for the last century. The organizational structure of institutional schooling, public perceptions of what schools should look like, and accountability mandates favor the employment of mimetic tradition of pedagogy in our nation’s schools. There have been brief periods in the history of American schooling where transformative traditions of pedagogy (Eight Year Study) bubbled to the surface in particular schools. These experiments in progressive pedagogy were quickly silenced, however, by managers of virtue, who viewed progressive teaching, as too costly and too idiosyncratic for the efficient operation of schools.

Strong Instructional Leaders recognize that the schools they lead are designed to support a pedagogy suited for imposing order and accountability are large groups of students. A strong component of their philosophy of education and instructional agenda is developing curricular offerings, pedagogical practices, and organizational configurations that support theories, ideas, and practices that reconnect the child with their school’s curriculum.

How should children Learn?ImitateDiscover
What knowledge is of most worth?Facts
Big Ideas
How should subject matter be organized?Textbook
How should we assess what students understand?Forced choice testsAuthentic Assessments


The history of schooling in America is the story of the transformation of the one-room schoolhouse into the comprehensive high school. The steady march towards more efficiency and greater capacity has gradually eroded the discussion of the goals of schooling from “what is an educated person” to the institutional functions of certification, preparation, and custodial care. The pedagogy of schools dominated by the” mechanics of school organization and administration” (Dewey, 1906/1966) reduces classroom teaching to an “assign and assess” (Tharp, 1993) delivery model of instruction — the premise of which is that knowledge is acquired through some of form of correspondence between facts in textbooks with what is in (Plato) or not in a child’s mind (Locke). The “machinery of school-work” (Dewey, 1906/1969) places teachers in schools where the goals of schooling —jobs, high test scores, and admission to college —and the means of schooling — large class sizes, standardized curriculum, and large amounts of testing —are antithetical to a practice that requires creativity, flexibility, and sensitivity to uniqueness. Children find themselves in classrooms where the goals of schooling—promotion, good grades, and following rules—and the routines of schooling—sitting quietly, listening, waiting to be called on, completing worksheets—are hostile to the social need to be known, the emotional need to be interested, and the intellectual need to make sense out of their experiences.

 Dewey largely blamed the failure of schools to educate on the bureaucratic organization of schools more concerned with rules, procedures, and documentation than with creating environments where children could explore individual interests in socially constructive ways. Studies which have documented the sameness of classroom teaching (Goodlad, 1984; Lortie, 1975; Jackson, 1990) confirm Dewey’s belief that institutional requirements of efficiency and conformity to rules induce school administrators to pay more attention to daily diversions of schooling rather than what is happening in classrooms and teachers paying more attention to routines and techniques than the interest and curiosity of the children seated in front of them.

The table below summarizes the characteristics of Bureaucratic Organizations and Knowledge Organizations. Contemporary organizational theorists (e.g. Deming, Senge,) and business leaders (e.g. Bill Gates, Warren Buffett) look for employees who are better at breaking the rules than following rules. Flexibility, creativity, and innovativeness are essential attributes of organizations that will prosper in a “flat world” (Friedman) of no borders, no rules, and no life-long careers. The call-in school mission statements for “life-long learners,” “critical-thinkers,” and “knowledge workers for the 21st century” become mockeries in schools designed for taking orders and recalling information. Strong Instructional Leaders recognize that the schools they lead are preparing students for the 19th century, not the 21st century. A strong component of their philosophy of education would be devoted to developing curricular offerings, pedagogical practices, and organizational configurations promoting the goals and methods of knowledge organizations.

TABLE:     Bureaucratic Organizations versus Knowledge Organizations

  GOAL: Efficiency, Certainty, & Conformity  

Hierarchy: Top-Down Decision-Making  
  GOAL: Creativity, Innovation, Flexibility  

Flat Structure & Egalitarian Culture
Based on placement in the hierarchy and prescribed responsibilities for specific functions (Job Descriptions)  
Based on expertise and particular requirements to complete a task (Task Specifications)  
ORGANIZATIONAL ENVIRONMENT Impersonal environment based on role, status, communication up and down the chain of command    ORGANIZATIONAL ENVIRONMENT
Interpersonal environment based on professionalism, autonomy, and discourse communities focused on projects.

Performance on prescribed criteria listed in job descriptions
Performance based on completion of tasks and contribution to furthering knowledge in particular sector of an industry  
Codification of rules, procedures, and institutional decision making      
Should not get in the way of innovation: “ We should probably write-down what we invented.”  
Data Analysis; Sanctions for Non-Compliance, Benchmarks; Alignment with Rules & Procedures, Achievement on Standardized Measure of Achievement)  
Observations of intentional states (Beliefs, Desires, Goals, Satisfactions, Feelings, Judgment, Thoughts) and performance on real world tasks