Monday, April 24, 2006

John Dewey Run Rampant

I am currently in the middle of reading a book about John Dewey's influence on the modern public school system. Although I have not completed the book, what I have has given an interesting insight into this article that appears in the Washington Post today.
Fairhaven, in a wooded nook of Prince George's County near the Patuxent River, challenges the assumptions of every public and private school that measures success with test scores and prizes academic rigor. It is an educational anomaly in the super-competitive Washington area: The school day here is unscripted.

Seventy-two students ages 5 to 20 run the school with a staff of eight adults. Students follow no curriculum other than curiosity and whim. Sometimes they seek out a class or workshop, but they are not compelled to take English, geometry or any other subject. Often they just hang. For this, their parents pay $6,680 a year per student, less for siblings.

Is Fairhaven even a school? What is a school?

"The question, too, is what is an education?" replied staff member Mark McCaig. "What is an educated individual?"

The answer could lie in the fiction, philosophy and history lining the school's bookshelves. Or in the way children play on a seesaw, swing, stage or computer when no one is telling them what to do. Or in their own words.
John Dewey, who could be considered the font of modern educational thought in many respects believed in a schooling where "dogma" or "bookishness" in public schools because he envisioned schools as agents of social change. Dewey believed in education through experimentation or experience. Thus in his world view, a school like Fairhaven would the ulimate expression of his ideals.

But is it. Despite what many progressives would like to believe about education, we still live in a world where performance matters, and the only way to judge performance is through various measurements. I have long advocated that schools do a better job of measuring their effectiveness, beyond mere testing. And our world, based on long experience, believes in the instrinsic value of quantative and qualitative measures. If a school offers no such measurement device, the world cannot evaluate and education attained by a student. For students of Fairhaven,
[t]here is little way to evaluate Fairhaven except on its own terms. The school is not accredited by any independent organization. The school has awarded 16 diplomas over eight years and has seven diploma candidates. To receive one, students must spend at least three years at the school and be 16 or older. They must also write and defend a thesis on how they have taken responsibility for becoming effective adults. An assembly of students, staff and parents votes on awarding diplomas. No one has ever been rejected.

Three graduates have gone on to four-year colleges: Sarah Lawrence College in New York, Ursinus College in Pennsylvania and the Art Institute of Chicago. Some have gone to community college. Other alumni include a professional skateboarder, a waiter and a librarian.
Thus the only way to judge a Fairhaven education is by subjective analysis. To be sure, some truly driven students could thrive in a self-directed environment, but I imagine those students are few and far between.

This is not to say that I disapprove of Fairhaven. As a strong believer in school choice, I think that Fairhaven has found a market and fulfills that market. The students and their parents must deal with the consequences of their choice, but I would no more deny families their right to choose this school as would deny them their choice of church. But the problem with this style of progressive educational model is that it is based on the whims of children, a notoriously shifting footing for a school to operate.

Experience is a wonderful teacher, but without guided reflection, without guided experience, nothing is learned from experience and no one can learn from the experiences of others. Afterall, you can't keep reinventing the wheel and then expect to build a spaceship.

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