Monday, August 29, 2011

First Day Back at Work after FI, progressivism and Dewey and Magic Rings

So after a couple months of summer vacation I went back to work today. I was reading "Philosophical Foundations of Adult Education" by Elias and Merriam on the commute there and back. My commute is about an hour and fifteen minutes each way. I probably get about an hour of reading in one way since some of that time is transfers. I already used to read on the commute but now I've decided since I'm doing my masters that instead of reading novels I'll read stuff related to my study. I think that not only is it a good strategy to utilize my time, it will also perhaps lend itself well to being more reflective as a teacher. As I read concepts and whatnot before class, I can have some of this stuff in mind as I teach to see if any of it rings true to my experience in the classroom. It may not always line up that way depending on what I'm reading or what particular class I'm teaching, but I think it will be interesting. On the ride today I was reading chapter 3 on progressive education. There's a lot in there about John Dewey's theory of education. Some things I read that relate to what I'm interested in recently, trying to introduce or encourage critical thinking skills in the classroom, were related to some of the passages I read. I can't really take notes on the subway, but as I read I was highlighting things I thought might be interesting or relevant to me later and occasionally makes some small comments in the margins. Here's some examples of passages I highlighted and remarks I made.

"While Dewey saw the task of the schools as important in social change, he did not go as far as a radical social reconstructionist such as George Counts.  . . . Dewey maintained that the task of the schools was to educate individuals in democratic values. Students would then work for a better society. Thus the school was only indirectly involved in social change." (Elias and Merriam p. 50)

This is what I wrote in the margins this morning on the subway beside that.

Perhaps a good model for me, I wouldn't want to preach atheism but teach critical thinking skills, give students a good bullshit detector ability and let them decide when and where to apply it.

I guess I saw a parallel, in that like Dewey who wanted social change, I would want to enable students to have the critical thinking skills to challenge and reason about things. That doesn't necessarily need to be religion. It could be belief in ghosts, quack medicine, conspiracy theories, lying politicians, or racist propaganda. It could even be challenging my beliefs as a their teacher, although the idea was for me not to really reveal my beliefs so much as I think there could be an ethical question there since I'm being paid to teach English as a Foreign language, not comparative religion per se. However I do teach a writing class, and in formal essay writing students need to learn to think critically. Korea's education system has traditionally focused more on authoritarian banking methods with students learning by rote and memorizing. If they ever wish to study in a Western university it could be a difficult transition. Anyway, my point is that, even though being an atheist is an important part of my identity and a huge influence on my personal philosophy and morality (ie not doing what is right because of a fear of divine reward or punishment, but doing what is right because you believe it to just be the right thing to do, like Plato's Gyge's Ring question, if you had a magic ring that made you invisible, would you still choose to act moral or would you go around stealing things and peeking in the women's changing room.

This hypothetical question of Plato's can be seen as a trope occurring in Tolkien's Lord of the Rings or the less divinely inspired Hollowman) I want to be respectful of my students freedom to believe what they want to believe, and also for the practical purpose of maintaining a comfortable vibe in the classroom. Religion, as everybody knows is a heated topic that many take very personally, so I would tread with care in the classroom.

Also, another quote from a few pages later.

"Eduard Lindeman's book, The Meaning of Adult Education, appeared in 1926 that the ideas of the progressives were fully applied to the field of adult education. Lindeman was directly influenced by the ideas of John Dewey and other progressives. He saw education as having as its primary aim the development of social intelligence, that is, the practical understanding of the world in which we live." (Elias and Merriam p. 53)

I underlined the words social intelligence within the part I highlighted and wrote this in the margins.

Critical thinking skills? For Lindeman? For me!

I remember wondering if critical thinking skills would have been something that Lindeman (or Dewey for that matter) would have considered part of social intelligence, a pre requisite for social intelligence, both or not at all. At any rate, it dawned on me that I would consider critical thinking skills a definite aid in developing social intelligence.

A few sentences later was a quote from Lindeman's The Meaning of Adult Education,

"Every adult person finds himself in specific situations with respect to his work, his recreation, his family-life, his community-life, et cetera--situations which call for adjustments. . . . Texts and teachers play a new and secondary role in this type of education; they must give way to the primary importance of the learner. [Lindeman, 1926, pp 8-9]

In the margins my thought was this

Maybe my challenge to be fulfilled as a teacher needs an area where the students are more likely to need / want / benefit from critical thinking skills. 

I guess what I was thinking there was about how I approach instilling critical thinking as an educator depends partly on what type of students I'm teaching, what their situation or subject is, and what the requirements and limits of my job are. For example right now I'm teaching EFL in Korea and my primary role is to teach English. I can incorporate some critical thinking skills but I need to remember what my main purpose is. However, I was thinking of some of the stories from the Vella book, Learning to Listen, Learning to Teach, and how in lots of cases different organizations brought her in to teach workshops. I can imagine that if someone was brought in to do a workshop for biology teachers who were struggling with resistance to evolutionary theory from students or parents coming from an evangelical background I might be covering different ground and have a wider scope in relation to my own identity as a non believer and champion of rational thought, the scientific method, and secular humanism. Again, if I happened to move to Canada and teach ESL with students from many different and possibly hostile to each others religions (think a Jewish student, a muslim student, a catholic student, and a buddhist all in the same ESL class) I would need to tread carefully around topics of religion if I didn't want the class atmosphere to become a powder keg. I don't think that means religion could never be a topic, but it would have to be well thought out in a method of discussion that allowed all students, and myself for that matter to feel safe in the learning environment. What about a group of atheists who formed a group who ask an adult educator to come in and help them with a workshop on how to organize themselves for community outreach, political lobbying, for example. In that particular group of students, It would be perfectly reasonable for me to self identify.

Here's what I did in class today in an attempt to make it relevant to what I'm studying. I'm teaching a class called Reading and Composition. In that class part of the design of the course is to read examples of essays or articles, and to study them, and then for students to write their own essays as a response, or to use the articles they read to get new ideas for writing. We will also look at things like format, and different types of essays too. But, what I did was I encouraged my writing students, when writing about or in response to the essays they read, not to just write an essay summarizing what the article said (unless we are studying summaries at a particular lesson) but to also write about their own opinions, feelings and ideas that they had after reading the article, not to accept everything the article says on faith but to question in and weigh it in their own minds. I tried to convey to them the idea that they have important ideas and viewpoints and that I want to know what they think, and learn something from them too while I'm teaching and helping them.

Here's some interesting reading on Gyge's Ring I'll leave you with if you're more interested, an imaginary dialogue

And the wikipedia article about Gyge's Ring
As a teaser, here's the first few lines cut and pasted to ponder

The Ring of Gyges is a mythical magical artifact mentioned by the philosopher Plato in book 2 of his Republic (2.359a–2.360d). It granted its owner the power to becomeinvisible at will. Through the story of the ring, Republic discusses whether a typical person would be moral if he did not have to fear the consequences of his actions.

A nice twist on that was in the Will Smith movie, Seven Pounds where he wants to reward a stranger by donating an organ. The guy asks Will's character, "Why me?" and he responds with 

Because you are a good man.
No, really.

Even when you don't know
that people are watching you.
Here's the trailer. This is a great movie!


  1. Lots to think about there, Trevor. You're a lucid writer and a deep thinker. You also write like you talk, which I like.

    I teach my business students blog writing and one of the keys to making your e-prose easier to read is to provide lots of paragraph breaks because reading stuff on the screen is a lot harder than on paper.

    Think WHITE SPACE.

    I tell students that intros and conclusions should be no longer than four lines and central paragraphs should be no longer than five (I cheat and use eight myself).

    Keep reading on your commute!

  2. Ha ha! Oops! I manage my mom's blog and forgot to sign out of her account. That comment was from me, Frank Armstrong, Trevor!

    Hoo hoo!


  3. Thanks Frank/Mary. Maybe I'll try to make paragraphs shorter, but it's challenging for me, when I get into writing this blog type of stuff I'm somewhat in stream of consciousness mode, sometimes floating into planned modes, so I'll most likely forget half the time. I try to keep it in the cavern though.

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