New Book by Education Professor Published
Mon August 19, 2019
Jeffery Frank, associate professor of education and coordinator of the undergraduate education program, had a new book published, titled Teaching in the Now: John Dewey on the Educational Present (Purdue University Press, 2019).
Frank wrote the following opinion article about his book:
By Jeff Frank
John Dewey hoped anyone concerned with education would regularly ask what appears to be a simple question. What is the meaning of preparation?
The question appears simple, because we are often told, as students, that we are doing something in order to be prepared for something in the future. Why do we learn addition? So we can do multiplication in the future. Why do we learn multiplication? So we are prepared for upper-level math.
At almost every stage of education, when a student asks why they are learning something, they are told that they are learning that thing so that they are prepared to do some other thing in the future.
In some ways, this way of justifying education makes sense. It is hard to do an advanced skill without the requisite background knowledge, understanding and skill. And yet, Dewey wants us to wonder if there are better ways to think about preparation. He wants us to think about the hidden costs of justifying a student’s present learning in terms of future gain.
There are at least two ways of seeing Dewey’s point when it comes to preparation. First, we can think about our own habit of deferring to the future. How many of us tell ourselves some version of the story: Once I have X job I will be happy, or Once I have X amount of money I will be happy, or Once I have tenure, or my own classroom I will begin doing the things I truly want to do? Dewey thinks that this line of thinking is a recipe for never living in the fullness of the present moment, and he worries that we learn to think this way in schools.
Second, Dewey wants us to think about how teaching works when we are adults. To take a simple example, when we want a friend to like something that we care about, we generally don’t tell them they have to do a lot of preparation work to get there. If we want them to enjoy hiking—for example—we find the easiest hike with the biggest payoff. If we want them to enjoy cooking, we find a recipe they can cook and that will surprise them by its deliciousness.
Dewey wonders if school can approximate this way of teaching, at least some of the time.
As a former high school English teacher and now a college professor, I work hard to find readings that are immediately interesting to students and that are challenging enough to allow them to do more difficult reading in the future. Instead of seeing the beginning of the semester as merely preparatory for a later point in the semester or a course further along in their college study, I believe—with Dewey—that the best way to prepare a student to do good work in the future is to let them begin doing that work now, in whatever form they can.
This is most certainly not to say that everything a student does in class needs to be fun or easy. Rather, Dewey wants us to be honest, asking ourselves the hard question: Is my classroom, in this very moment, actually preparing my students for more effective and engaged work in the future?
Here is another way of looking at the problem. If a student is so disengaged by their experience learning a subject that they want nothing to do with it again in the future, can we actually claim that they were being prepared in that classroom? Even if a student was successful in terms of getting a good grade in the class, if they aren’t interested in learning more about the subject in the future, can we say that they’ve received a good preparation?
It is easy to dismiss Dewey’s vision of teaching as asking too much of schools and teachers, but before dismissing his thinking on the educational present out of hand, I just want us to think about small changes we can make to invite our students into our subject. If our students were adults who we didn’t have the power of grades and discipline over, how would we teach our subject? If we really want each of our students to keep engaged with our subject into the future, how would we teach?
These are the types of questions Dewey would have us ask, and these are questions that are worth asking at the start of this school year.
There are no easy tips or tricks that lead to the creation of this type of present for students, but we will never get there if we keep telling ourselves the same old stories about preparation. What we need to do is begin thinking about the present as the precious thing it is. If we want to create a future worth living, we need to do everything we can to approximate that future now.
As you plan your first day of class, think about what you might do to create the experience you get when you see an excellent movie trailer. If a trailer is good, it is both an end in itself, and something that makes you excited to see the full movie. Instead of reading the class rules or going over the syllabus—as important as these are—can you approximate something like a movie trailer on the first day as well? Then, can you follow that up with days that are similarly interesting in themselves and offer bridges to the future that students actually want to walk down?
For Dewey, this is what it means to prepare students. I believe we should hope for nothing less from schools, even if this means asking them to do much less of the work that is justified in the name of preparation.