The Child & The Curriculum – Everything Old is New Again, Again

“Extreme depreciations of the child morally and intellectually, and sentimental idealizations of him, have their root in a common fallacy. Both spring from taking stages of a growth or movement as something cut off and fixed. The first fails to see the promise contained in feelings and deeds which, taken by themselves, are uncompromising and repellent; the second fails to see that even the most pleasing and beautiful exhibitions are but signs, and that they begin to spoil and rot the moment they are treated as achievements. What we need is something which will enable us to interpret, to appraise, the elements in the child’s present puttings forth and fallings away, his exhibitions of power and weakness, in the light of some larger growth-process in which they have their place. Only in this way can we discriminate.” John Dewey, The Child and the Curriculum, p 13-14

So in my latest reminder that nothing is new, reading John Dewey’s 1902 The Child and the Curriculum exposed that Dewey defined fixed and growth mindsets in educators more than a century before these concepts exploded into TED talks and Twitter. Dewey begins the text by examining the “old education,” which views children as unformed adults in need of improvement, and the “new education,” which views children as complete beings capable of revealing the world to themselves through open, unstructured inquiry. This, distressingly, sounds familiar, as well.

As Dweck’s growth mindset gets battered about in the social sciences research wars, I’ve been considering what makes growth vs. fixed/entity mindset so powerful for me as an educator. As a social constructivist, I am sure that we learn from one another, and that the deeply implicit belief that others around me are learning and can learn, even if it’s not what I wish them to be learning, creates the conditions for growth. By believing in growth as a process, adults can “get rid of the prejudicial notion that there is some gap in kind (as distinct from degree) between the child’s experience and the various forms of subject-matter that make up the course of study” (Dewey 11).

Degree presents a key concept for the educator in this regard. In the top quote, Dewey emphasizes discrimination of the child’s progress toward an end, a place on a continuum between novice and expert, not-knowing and knowing, a near infinite series of degrees of capacity. Discrimination places an onus on the educator to at once know what mastery of a given subject looks like and to know the child’s mind. Understanding mastery allows the teacher “to know in what direction the present experience is moving, provided it move normally and soundly… defining a present direction of movement” (Dewey 13). Again, Dewey anticipates Understanding by Design and contemporary curriculum methodology, probably because those authors, brilliant as they are, read Dewey closely.

In this light, Dewey defines teaching as “continuous reconstruction” between the present state of the child and expertise in a subject area (11). The curriculum sets a frame for defining mastery, especially when teachers are asked to serve as a “More Knowledgeable Other” across multiple disciplines daily. Believing in growth as a natural process and the experience of the child as “fluid” exposes for Dewey that “the child and the curriculum are simply two limits which define a single process” (11).

The process, of course, is growth. The adult guides the growth; however, Dewey, in characteristic prose, points out that “Guidance is not external imposition. It is freeing the life-process for its own most adequate fulfilment” (17). Dewey defines three levels of a child’s fluid experiences as they dabble in and explore their world: “waning tendencies, ” “prophetic” experiences that suggest future courses of growth, and “signs of a culminating power and interest” which “selected, utilized, emphasized, they may mark a turning-point for good in the child’s whole career; neglected, an opportunity goes, never to be recalled” (14). That’s a great parsing of the teachable moment.

Dewey cautions the educator not to overvalue or celebrate the waning tendency, lest a child become stuck, or to ignore the prophetic in favor of conforming to a different task, lest a child start a million short journeys, always tasting and never eating. Character education, all the rage, suffers from periodicity in this manner – not so much a framework for addressing teachable moments on character in light of a school’s stated values, but more often a means for either judging developmentally appropriate behaviors too harshly as they might wane, thereby fixing them, or dabbling in brief lessons, apropos of nothing, and suggesting that the entire concept of character is mutable and lame.

Clearly, within subject area study, skill and knowledge outcomes, core concepts, and areas for examination must be deeply understood by teachers to allow them to react. Dewey writes that “What new experiences are desirable, and thus what stimuli are needed, it is impossible to tell except as there is some comprehension of the development which is aimed at” (19). Reflective, engaged practices connect the teachable moments to a chain of inquiry leading to more and more growth for the child.

The same is true for adults honing their craft. Without a vision for and models of exceptional teaching practice, how can anyone be expected to improve? Some will reach out in the absence of vision or models, particularly with socially networked PLCs or in professional coursework, but left to our own devices or applauded for minor victories, “nothing can be developed from nothing,” Dewey warns us (18). We need a framework.

So here’s my thing: so many of the outcomes of a modern curriculum point to externally examined courses as culminating events – those minor achievements that Dewey warns about in the top quote – or “college & career readiness,” which smacks of dispositional or personality tracking. Often, well-meaning educators fall into prediction and judgement based on some narrow evidence of performance from a subject area in a given time frame. As Dewey writes:

“The child’s present experience is in no way self-explanatory. It is not final, but transitional. It is nothing complete in itself, but just a sign or index of certain growth tendencies. As long as we confine our gaze to what the child here and now puts forth, we are confused and misled. We cannot read its meaning.” (13)

A growth mindset requires that we hold one another, adults and children alike, as works-in-progress in our learning communities, which demands a tremendous amount of grace on the parts of us all. Ours is not to narrow a child’s experience or to communicate limiting judgments to the child, locking her into what Jo Boaler terms “psychological imprisonment.

Growth mindset at once asks the educator to believe in growth, to recognize degrees, and to remain fluid oneself, not fixating on a single moment in the child’s development as a way to understand, once and for all, who the child is, now and forever. A living curriculum creates a framework for learning in which the teacher can make meaning of performances and behavior to suggest and guide future growth toward ever more useful, powerful knowledge and expertise. In this sense, a curriculum provides an epistemological framework for teachers to build a knowledge of learning founded on growth.

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