Friday, September 27, 2013

(Mis)Education and Experience: Two examples grounded in the work of John Dewey

Recently, I've been re-reading John Dewey's seminal work Experience and Education.  It's not an easy read (though it's short), but it's a must-read for anyone who believes that education is about more than transmitting information.  The core of Dewey's argument is that all genuine learning comes about through experience; however, not all experience is equally educative.  He differentiates between educative experience, which expands a learners opportunities for learning and growth in the future; and miseducative experience, which stops or distorts future growth and learning.

I came across two cases this week that are great examples of each of these categories of experience.

First, the miseducative experience from the German school system.  There are 4 million muslims living in Germany, which has led German government and school officials to look for ways to integrate German-Muslims into communities, while still respecting their religious beliefs.  The most recent case has centered on required swimming lessons in German schools and has received a fair amount of international media attention.  At the heart of the buzz is a German court's ruling that Muslim girls must take part in co-educational swimming lessons as part of their educational experience, but will be allowed to wear burqinis.  There are two issues associated with the case--modesty and male-female interactions.  The modesty issue has largely been addressed through allowing Muslim girls to wear burqinis.  However, the plaintiff in the case, a Muslim teenage girl and her parents, claim that requiring her to participate in swim classes with other young men runs counter to their religious beliefs and practices.

German schools clearly believe that swimming is a fundamental skill that all German students should master.  This seems sound and, at some level, the court's ruling makes sense.  If they were to grant exemptions to this requirement for particular students, they would be neglecting their obligation to educate all students.  However, this is faulty logic, and here's why.

The ultimate goal of educational experience is to facilitate and encourage future experience (see Dewey's definition of educative experience).  It's probably safe to assume that the basic swimming instruction German student's receive isn't enough to make them master swimmers.  Instead, it's purpose is to equip students with basic levels of competence and also encourage them to participate in recreational swimming outside of school.  It's a sound approach (and one educators apply in all sorts of other disciplines).  But, the German court's decision is likely to have the opposite effect.  By forcing Muslim girls to swim, they will ensure that these girls will swim for the few hours a week they are required (during the few months when they are in the class).  But, this forced participation is also likely to turn Muslim girls off to swimming in the future.  And, in that way, this will become a miseducative experience  because it is likely to inhibit these students' learning and growth as future swimmers.  In this case, the court has forgotten that the swimming lessons offered in schools are the means to an end.

Now, the educative experience from a pretty unlikely source--a grassroots movement to end street harassment toward women.  Essentially, +Emily May and the Hollaback movement she started invites women to use their smartphones to document, map, and share incidents of street harassment with a worldwide internet community.  It's a really clever idea that uses technology, social networks, and social pressure to fight back agains a pretty ugly trend.  And, it invites and empowers women to participate in an experience that meets both Dewey's requirements for educative experience.  First, it attends to the criterion of continuity because it positively impacts the future experience of both the women who participate as well as the men they are "hollabacking" at.  Women who share or read stories of fighting back against street harassment are likely to be more empowered and skilled in doing so in the future (which would then provide additional experiences and learning opportunities)
.  And, the men who they are responding to are likely to think twice before making similar comments in the future.  Second, Hollaback has provided meaningful opportunities for interaction through its platform because it allows women to share and hear one another's stories in ways that lead to learning.  So, in addition to Hollaback being termed a "movement," it might also be characterized as an educative experience.  From this standpoint, Hollaback is fulfilling the role of an educator to provide, design, order, or facilitate an experience that leads to long-term and meaningful growth.

My point here is that, when it comes to issues of learning and the types of experiences educators should provide, it's important to consider long-term outcomes and how educational experiences and environments can be designed to not only ensure that learners "do what they're supposed to" in the short term (the German example), but that the experience we've provided has the potential to lead to additional learning and growth in the future.

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