Tag Archives: Dewey

What Would Dewey Do? Thoughts on Teaching and the Process of Reflection

Steve Volk, March 26, 2018
Contact: svolk@oberlin.edu

One of the most pleasurable aspects of the Faculty-Student Partnership program that CTIE has been running at Oberlin for nearly five years is sitting down every other week with the students in the program. (I will quickly add that it’s also lovely to meet with their faculty partners, although that happens less frequently.) (Information on the FSP can be found here.) Each meeting provides an opportunity to discuss how the student are supporting their faculty partners, whether providing input through their observations, reflecting with them on how the class they just observed went, or simply listening as the faculty think out loud about their plans for the next class. But, as the semester proceeds and the end is in sight, I often ask students, based on their experience in the program and thinking about their own teachers, to list the characteristics of what they consider a “good” teacher to be, as well as how they would define a “good” student.

John Dewey by Andre Koehne, 2006, Wikimedia

Over the years, the students’ views of what good teachers bring to their classrooms have remained highly consistent. Invariably (and not surprisingly) they always begin in the same place: good teachers know their subject; I mean, they really know it. Further, they almost always indicate that not only do good teachers know their subject matter inside and out, but that they are able to communicate their passionate regard for it, and in that way, their love of physics, economics, psychology or whatever they’re teaching becomes infectious. It is this passion that often attracts students to major in a field that they had never considered, let alone taken a class in, before. Geology? Anthropology? Who knew it could be so thrilling!

The third point the students always raise is that good teachers help them to feel “safe” and “welcome” in those classes. (Hold your “delicate snowflake” critiques for a moment; we’ll unpack all of this shortly.) Finally (at least in terms of our discussion here), the students in the FSP program always observe that good teachers really listen to their students, are demonstrably interested in what they have to say, and often help them say it more clearly. That these teachers are listening is also evident to the extent that they will make adjustments, both large and small, in their classes that take account to what the students were saying.

New students in the program add additional observations over the years, but these four elements always seem to be present. And it’s not too surprising; I imagine that most of you would have come up a very similar list, and many of these same points came up in the last article I wrote about sitting in on my colleagues classes during “Open Classroom Week.” But as I was mulling these points over following the last discussion with this semester’s FSP students, I thought of the way in which the practice of reflection plays into each of these points, largely since the FSP program is itself predicated on reflection, on providing a structure and a forum for faculty, in concert with their student partners, to reflect on their practice.

Dewey’s Concept of Reflection

I’ve written before about the importance of reflection, particularly metacognition and self-regulation, to student learning. Here I want to think about these student comments in light of the reflection we do as teachers (a topic I began to think about here.)

John Dewey, 1902. Wikimedia

This led me back to John Dewey, a philosopher whose work on learning (How We Think and Democracy and Education, among others) is foundational…if a bit obscure. Or, as one educational researcher put it, “any student of Dewey’s knows that an encounter with his prose can be work.” Fortunately, Carol Rodgers, the researcher in question, has written an exceptionally clear introduction to Dewey’s concept of reflection that both helps systematize his writing on the topic and makes it more accessible to the lay reader. Much of what I summarize below comes from her article, “Defining Reflection: Another Look at John Dewey and Reflective Thinking,” which appeared in the Teachers College Record in June 2002.

For Dewey, the idea of reflection is a complex process, involving making meaning out of our experiences in a systematic and disciplined way, in conjunction with others (“in community”), and in a context that values the personal and intellectual growth of oneself and others. It is an integral part of Dewey’s view of the cognitive and affective mechanisms that lead to learning, that the purpose of education itself must be central, and this he understood to be “the intellectual, moral, and emotional growth of the individual and, consequently, of democratic society.”

Reflection is a “meaning-making process,” and, to be sure, as Rodgers observes, the ability to make meaning out of experience is a quintessentially human process. Experiences are what happens to you; what one makes of that experience, the meaning that one takes from it, derives from one’s ability to link that experience to prior experiences in a systematic and disciplined way. That is learning. It would seem, then, that the process of teaching is a process of providing the (disciplinary or otherwise rigorous) means of linking experiences (things that happen, reading a book, thinking, etc.) in a purposeful way. That is what good teachers do, but they can only do this because they are subject matter experts. Still, to leave it there is to miss the second part of what Dewey suggests about “meaning making” and what, I would argue, underlies the other characteristics that students pick up on when talking about the teachers who have meant the most to their learning.

What avail it — Dewey wrote (as quoted in Rodgers) — is to win prescribed amounts of information about geography and history, to win ability to read and write, if in the process the individual loses his own soul: loses his appreciation of things worthwhile, of the values to which these things are relative; if he loses desire to apply what he has learned and, above all, loses the ability to extract meaning from his future experiences as they occur?”

Dewey isn’t referencing the soul as spiritual, rather he suggests that the meanings we make are rooted in the values that we maintain. For Dewey, the primary values were those of democracy and equity, “the extent to which the interests of a group are shared by all its members [and the extent to which it] makes provision for participation in its good of all its members on equal terms…” Education, then, is not an act of transmitting information from expert to novice, nor, as many politicians keep banging on about, of seeing that the student has (just) enough skills to get a job. It is framed and giving meaning by values – and that’s what students perceive about their teachers.

This sense is reflected in the passion that they bring to their subjects, the rigor and attention they require of their students, and the fact that their classrooms are considered “welcoming” and inclusive. So let’s turn to those points.

The Welcoming Classroom

The narrative of the “coddled” student, the “delicate snowflake” who flees from difficult discussions and seeks comfort over controversy, is one that has gained ascendancy in the last few years, not just in more conservative media, but among New York Times op-ed writers and in other, liberal, venues. I don’t intend to take up that perspective here, and I’m quite sure that there are some students who fit that bill. But what the students I work with talk about when they talk about “safe” and “welcoming” spaces are classroom where, because the teachers worked so hard to make them welcoming to everyone, could more easily engage those difficult discussions.

Two points from Dewey’s approach to reflection enter the discussion here. In the first place, an experience involves an interaction between the person and the world; meanings are made of experiences, “reflection” occurs in broader contexts. As Carol Rodgers writes,

Because an experience means an interaction between oneself and the world, there is a change not only in the self but also in the environment as a result. The effect is dialectical with implications not just for the learner but for others and the world. Through interaction with the world we both change it and are changed by it.

Classrooms that are inclusive of a variety of experiences, in which all are made to feel not just welcome but that the classroom is structured with them in mind, are those open to the kinds of difficult interactions and conversations that help students change the world and be changed by it.

There are many ways in which teachers construct inclusive and equitable classrooms without  lessening the rigor of their classes. Expert teachers are often better able to do this than novices both because they simply have had more practice at it, but also because they are more at home with their subjects: having taught for some years gives one more confidence in her ability to teach the content well, attentive to its complexities and nuances. Experience also gives the teacher a greater sensitivity to class dynamics and a bit more space in which she can pay attention to interactions in the class. Beginning teachers often reflect “out,” thinking about experiences after they happen; more seasoned teachers can also reflect “in,” absorbing and changing in the midst of an experience.

Which raises the last point that students in the Faculty-Student Partnership have often commented on: those teachers who stood out for them were the ones who were best able to “listen to students.” When I asked them to explain this further, they raised a number of points. In the first place, “listening” involved teachers who showed themselves to be deeply interested in what their students had to say. Secondly, these teachers encouraged and solicited student input and comments. And, finally, the teachers actually listened, i.e., they tried to understand the student’s perspective without reshaping it by reference to their own (i.e., the teachers) set of experiences.

Dewey’s inquiry based model of democratic education

Let me put this in the context of asking questions and, once more, look to Carol Rodgers for help. We’d probably all agree with Dewey’s view that, “A question well put is half answered.” Helping students to formulate questions is “a disciplined [process] that demands that the individual continually ground his or her thinking in evidence and not overlook important data that may not fit his or her evolving ideas…” Rodgers observes that,

This is perhaps one of the most challenging aspects of reflection. The question that a learner is able to formulate depends directly on the completeness and complexity of the data or description that he or she has gathered and generated. The completeness and complexity of the data are in turn made visible according to the extent of the teacher’s own ability to observe, pay attention perceive, and be open — in short, be present – to all that is happening in the classroom.

Good teachers, the students I spoke with suggested, were those who were “present” in their classrooms.


Two other aspects of Dewey’s understanding of reflection seem an appropriate way to conclude, even though they were not part of the students’ commentary. In the first place, Dewey argued for the importance of reflecting “in community.” To think without having to “express oneself to others,” is an “incomplete act.” Working in community with other teachers “allows teachers to acknowledge their interdependence in a world that scorns asking for advice and values, above all, independence for both students and teachers,” Rodgers argues.

Finally, for Dewey, reflection must include action. Reflection that does not lead to action is not responsible. So, even if action is partial or hesitant, trying out of new ideas that, themselves, will become subject to reflection, conversation, and new action, is a fundamental step in the process of reflection.

Critical Thinking in the Classroom: Some Questions for the Summer

Steve Volk (May 4, 2014)

If you did a search for the “learning goals” of liberal arts colleges, you probably wouldn’t  find a single one that didn’t emphasize “critical thinking.” In fact, critical thinking as a desired educational outcome only makes headlines when some group decides that it’s not what schools should be teaching, which brings us to the 2012 platform of the Texas Republican Party:

We oppose the teaching of Higher Order Thinking Skills (HOTS) (values clarification), critical thinking skills and similar programs that are simply a relabeling of Outcome-Based Education (OBE) (mastery learning) which focus on behavior modification and have the purpose of challenging the student’s fixed beliefs and undermining parental authority” (p. 12).

Ah, yes. Education should not challenge fixed beliefs or parental authority! Still, I’m not interested in pursuing that line of thought at the moment (as tempting as that might be), but rather want to consider what we mean when we talk about “critical thinking.” And, while I’m at it, I’d like to raise some questions for us to think about over the summer months which are visible right on the horizon: Are we doing what we should to foster critical thinking skills in the classroom? What more could we be doing? What kind of support do we need to create classroom pedagogies that foreground critical thinking? What challenges are we likely to face?

Walking to the Horizon (by I-am-Avalon). Creative Commons

While there is some discussion as to what, precisely, we mean by “critical thinking,” most cognitive or developmental psychologists would be content with the description provided by the American Association of Colleges & Universities (AAC&U) in one of its “VALUE” rubrics: “Critical thinking is a habit of mind characterized by the comprehensive exploration of issues, ideas, artifacts, and events before accepting or formulating an opinion or conclusion.” Those who create classroom strategies based around Bloom’s (2001 revised) taxonomy will recognize critical thinking as central to higher order thinking skills: analyzing, evaluating, and creating. (Bloom’s Taxonomy is a standard means of categorizing cognitive tasks by complexity, with the simplest at the bottom and the most complicated at the top.)

Bloom's Taxonomy (Revised)

Daniel T. Willingham, a cognitive scientist at the University of Virginia, provides his own layperson’s definition: “Critical thinking,” he writes, “consists of seeing both sides of an issue, being open to new evidence that disconfirms your ideas, reasoning dispassionately, demanding that claims be backed by evidence, deducing and inferring conclusions from available facts, solving problems, and so forth.”

The November 19, 2012 “Article of the Week” was Willingham’s “Critical Thinking: Why Is It So Hard to Teach?” In it he discussed the complications of actually teaching critical thinking, and you can review it again to see his arguments.

But I remain confident that as we explore the various components of critical thinking, we can develop teaching strategies which foreground it as an essential learning outcome for each class we teach. Perhaps what is so difficult about teaching critical thinking is that it is just one cognitive competency that is at stake within broad pedagogical contexts that require the development of specific abilities (e.g., the ability to take multiple perspectives, to layer relationships, etc.) and dispositions (including risk taking, task persistence, the ownership of learning, and perceptions of accomplishment)  (Perkins, 1994).

(Public Domain)

Shari Tishman, David Perkins and others (Tishman et al, 1993) have been examining what they call “thinking dispositions” for many years, developing useful approaches to help teachers develop informed pedagogies. Their list of seven dispositions that normally describe productive intellectual behavior includes:

  • The disposition to be broad and adventurous – open minded; explore alternative views; being alert to narrow thinking; the ability to generate multiple options.
  • The disposition toward sustained intellectual curiosity: to wonder, probe, find problems, observe closely and formulate questions; a zest for inquiry, alertness for anomalies.
  • The disposition to clarify and seek understanding: a desire to understand clearly, to seek connections and explanations; an alertness to muddiness, an appreciation of the need for focus; an ability to build conceptualizations.
  • The disposition to be “planful” and strategic: the drive and ability to set goals, make and execute plans, envision outcomes; an alertness to a lack of direction.
  • The disposition to be intellectually careful: the urge for precision, organization, thoroughness; an alertness to possible error or inaccuracy; the ability to process information precisely.
  • The disposition to seek and evaluate reasons: the tendency to question the given, to demand justification; an alertness to the need for evidence; the ability to weigh and assess reasons.
  • The disposition to be metacognitive: the tendency to be aware of and monitor the flow of one’s own thinking situations; ability to exercise control of mental processes and to be reflective.

Much like the broad field of critical thinking, it isn’t easy to teach these dispositions. As we rush to cover the content areas that our students need in any particular class, we often quietly shove any focus on these learning dispositions out the window.

Matthäus Merian, Defenestration of Prague, 1618 (Creative Commons)

But even if it’s not a question of sacrificing dispositions to content coverage, foregrounding learning dispositions can be challenging for a number of reasons. For one, we often find that students, in their own cognitive development, are embedded in a “multiplist/subjectivist” phase of thinking, as Patty deWinstanley has pointed out in her valuable discussions with faculty preparing to teach first year seminars. [The best known proponent of a theory of intellectual and cognitive development among college age students is William G. Perry (Perry, 1970).] Whatever a student in that stage thinks is right, is right; and in areas where the “right” answer isn’t known, a multiplicity of views is right. Our challenge then becomes how we move students from this phase to a more “evaluativist” position.

In many ways, grappling with critical thinking and creating thinking dispositions in our classes can turn them into what Mary Louise Pratt described as a “contact zone” – a social space where “cultures meet, clash, and grapple with each other…” If difficult, that “zone” is also where, Dewey argued (1910), real thinking occurs. Dewey talked about some experiences as “educative” because they enhanced the making of further experiences, and others as “mis-educative” because they had no further influence upon later experiences (Dewey, 1947). Thinking occurs, he argued, when the “normal flow” is interrupted, when our common assumptions and perceptions are challenged, when problems and conflict arise. In other words, learning occurs at this point of “clash.”

Our challenge as teachers, then, is to encourage the emergence of a “contact zone” classroom, what I would call the “uncomfortable classroom,” at the same time that we use the discomfort created to open it to real dialogue (Freire, 1970). When we have figured that out, we will be far on our way to promoting critical thinking in the classroom.

Still, as I suggested in the opening questions, creating such pedagogies often requires considerable support, so I encourage you to use the summer months to think about what you could use to help create challenging and dialogic classrooms. What seems perfectly clear and sounds impeccably logical on paper can feel quite different in the heat of the moment in a classroom discussion.

Some bibliography

John Dewey, Experience and Education [1947] (Free Press, 1997).

_______ , How We Think [1910] (CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform (February 10, 2013).

Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed [1970] (Bloomsbury Academic; 30th Anniversary edition (September 1, 2000).

See David N. Perkins, The Intelligent Eye. Learning to Think by Looking at Art (LA: The Getty Center for Education in the Arts, 1994).

William G. Perry, Forms of Intellectual and Ethical Development in the College Years: A Scheme (New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1970.)

Shari Tishman, Eileen Jay, David N. Perkins, “Teaching Thinking Dispositions: From Transmission to Enculturation,” Theory into Practice 32:3 (Summer 1993): 147-153.]

Daniel T. Willingham, “Critical Thinking: Why Is It So Hard to Teach?” American Educator (Summer 2007): 8-19.