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As the battle for influence over school reform continues in the 21st century, Mr. Gibboney finds that Edward Thorndike maintains the upper hand over John Dewey.

As the battle for influence over school reform continues in the 21st century, Mr. Gibboney finds that Edward Thorndike maintains the upper hand over John Dewey.



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    Dewy vs Thorndike CENTENNIAL REFLECTIONS Dewy vs Thorndike CENTENNIAL REFLECTIONS Document Transcript

    • 170 PHI DELTA KAPPAN As the battle for influence over school re- form continues in the 21st century, Mr. Gib- boney finds that Edward Thorndike main- tains the upper hand over John Dewey. One cannot understand the history of education in the United States during the twentieth century unless one realizes that Edward L. Thorn- dike won and John Dewey lost. — Ellen Condliffe Lagemann1 I N THAT brief statement, historian Ellen Lagemann provides a useful scaf- folding for understanding the problems education faces today, nearly a century after Dewey published Democracy and Education (1916). In the juxtaposition of these two figures, we can see one of the primary rea- sons that 80% of education reforms pro- posed and implemented over the past half century have yielded such poor results. The mechanistic view of learning es- poused by Thorndike dominated the last half of the 20th century in so-called school reform. With the signing of the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act in 2002, Thorn- dike’s ghost marched at the head of the re- form parade while the chief marshal, Presi- dent George W. Bush, flanked by legisla- tors of both parties, waved approvingly from the reviewing stand. In what did Thorndike, who died in 1949, believe? In short, he believed in the possibility of a science of education so pow- erful that experts alone would be able to de- cide what to teach, how to teach it, and how to evaluate it. In The Transformation of the School, Lawrence Cremin describes Thorn- dike’s faith in numbers as “unbounded.” Indeed, he believed that such value-laden matters as setting the aims of education could be done efficiently by experts, using the kind of science he was developing. Thorndike’s little band of experts (mostly psychologists) included no informed teachers. Thorndike’s research also led him to be- lieve in the specific nature of the transfer of learning. This meant that learning to think in one subject, such as physics, did no more to increase general intelligence than learn- ing in any other subject. According to this view, subjects such as bookkeeping or Latin appeared to be equal in their effect on in- telligence.2 This view led many educators to question the value of academic subjects, a position about which Thorndike himself had some doubts. Dewey’s ideas on the transfer of learning were fundamentally more humanistic than Thorndike’s. Dewey believed subject matter in schools exists to make the quality of democratic life as good as it can be under given conditions. He asserted that a teacher ought to try to arouse a continuing inter- est in learning throughout a student’s life. Dewey argued that people within the broad span of normal human abilities had a vast capacity for learning and that a critical in- telligence was essential for democratic life. In Democracy and Education, he stated, “Since growth is the characteristic of life, educa- tion is all one with growing; it has no end beyond itself. [One can judge the value of a good school to] the extent in which it creates a desire for continued [learning] and sup- plies means for making the desire effectivein [practice].”3 Notice that, where Thorndike takes a cramped, narrow path between sub- jects and confounds transfer of learning with intelligence measured by tests, Dewey takes an expansive, generous view of transfer. He includes all normal citizens within his view and argues that the goal of schools ought to be developing an attitude — the love of learning. And ultimately schools should be judged on how well they meet this difficult goal. In other words, what is transferred when a student learns something that is truly important is intangible and immeasurable by tests. It is an attitude, the desire to learn. Sub- ject matter is but one among many means used to attain this central objective, which is sadly overlooked in today’s race for higher test scores. To put the distinction sharply, Thorn- dike saw humans in the image of the ma- chine; Dewey saw them in the image of life. Why has America, at the beginning of the 21st century, chosen the machine over life as the template for educating our bio- logical and cultural replacements? Thorn- dike is famous for his statement that any- thing that exists, exists in some quantity. I wish that more teachers, policy makers, and education reporters would remember his next sentence: “To know [something] thorough- ly involves knowing its quantity as well as its quality.”4 In these words, there is reason to believe that even Thorndike had some intimations that numbers and measurement were not, by themselves, enough to “thor- oughly know a thing,” such as the full con- text of a student living in poverty or a stu- dent living in affluence. There is no doubt that Thorndike’s stim- ulus-response theory was mechanistic and CENTENNIAL REFLECTIONSIntelligence by Design: Thorndike Versus Dewey BY RICHARD A. GIBBONEY RICHARD A. GIBBONEY, a past member of the board of the John Dewey Society, is a professor emeritus at the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, and the author of The Stone Trumpet (SUNY Press, 1994). He wishes to dedicate this column to the memory of WilliamVanTil (8 January 1911– 24 May 2006).
    • OCTOBER 2006 171 fragmented. But Dewey argued that human behavior could not be explained by piling up layers of S-R connections like so many lay- ers of sedimentary rock. Dewey insisted that a sentient human being perceived — and thus reshaped — the stimulus itself. One’s aims and beliefs were thus part of the S-R context and so had to be considered in any comprehensive theory of learning. Thorndike found a specious certainty in tests and numbers, which oversimplified the basics of learning. Dewey sought reality in uncertainty and change, and he knew that practice is always richer and more com- plex than theory. He believed that a life lived (one’s experience) presented problems that could not be solved for all time but could nonetheless be intelligently addressed by act- ing in the world — that is, by doing some- thing. The real-world results of our action come back to us, via snail mail, as conse- quences — to our pain, confusion, or de- light. The usefulness, worth, or truth of an idea-in-action is determined by our evalu- ation of its consequences. William James expressed a similar idea when he said that “truth happens to an idea.” That is, an idea is made true or untrue by events. Stripped to essentials, both Dewey’s and James’ thinking reflect the core of the mod- ern scientific method. Thorndike’s view I would describe as “scientistic,” in that too much value is attached to what can be easily counted. The last half of the 20th century wit- nessed a blizzard of ideas in curriculum devel- opment, and our ideas for reforming schools have embodied the conflict between Dew- ey’s humanistic thinking and Thorndike’s mechanistic thinking. In The Stone Trumpet, I considered dozens of reforms promoted from the 1950s through the 1980s.5 I judged their worth according to two criteria, de- rived from Deweyan theory and from my own experience in school-based progressive reform work over the course of a decade. These two criteria are: • Does the reform support democratic values? • Does the reform cultivate the intelli- gence of teachers and students? Just six reforms I analyzed met both cri- teria. The six were the Trump High School, open classrooms, nongraded schools (of the type endorsed by John Goodlad and Robert Anderson), team teaching, the Coalition of Essential Schools, and the Paideia proposal. A few met one criterion or the other. For example, the new math and science curric- ula of the 1960s certainly cultivated the in- telligence of students and teachers, but, be- cause they were mostly taught in white, af- fluent schools, they failed to support demo- cratic values. Most of the reforms of the last half of the 20th century embody the domi- nating influence of Thorndike’s mechani- cal view of learning and so have worked to weaken the world’s oldest, most diverse, and most democratic system of public education. Today, we could add the No Child Left Behind Act to that list of reforms, and there would still be just six that met both the in- tellectual and the democratic criteria. Indeed, judging from the remedial reading programs funded under Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (1965), NCLB, and most state accountability programs, it seems clear that many legislators, public school edu- cators, and university professors have fully embraced aThorndikean style of behavior- ism. As Ellen Lagemann points out in the quote with which I began this Centennial Reflection, Thorndike and his successors surely won the minds and hearts of their countrymen. Dewey, ignored in the rough and tumble of legislative halls and teachers’ meetings, has lived on in a few protected scholarly havens. What’s worse, few public media offen- sives have been mounted by state or national teacher organizations or by other organiza- tions of educators to inform the public about this latest curricular assault on the minds of children and teachers. Surely there must be a law somewhere that prohibits wanton- ly limiting the growth of teachers’ and stu- dents’ intelligence by curricula known to be hurtful. But I can hear readers mumbling that the goals of NCLB are above reproach. Even the public, as recent PDK/Gallup polls have shown,approvesofthem.Don’tweallwantto
    • 172 PHI DELTA KAPPAN narrow the achievement gap? And doesn’t NCLB, in requiring the disaggregation of the scores of various population groups, re- quire schools to face facts and do a better job with these groups than ever before? Yes, but what are the facts? The funda- mental social fact of life in the U.S. is that child poverty creates school failure. It is a fact that disadvantaged students — whatev- er their color or ethnic background — con- sistently score low on tests. Students attend- ing schools in wealthy communities scored 571 on a recent international science test; students from high-poverty communities scored 461. The U.S. average was 527; the international average was 473.6 In fact, there is no scientific evidence in the past one hundred years (sticking with the centennial theme) that any public or private school can consistently raise the achievement of 75% or more of poor white or minority students to the level routinely achieved by 90% of upper-middle-class students. Poverty — not public schools — is the cause of school fail- ure. Few want to face the social and polit- ical implications of this truth. There is a built-in conflict in NCLB be- tween purportedly Deweyan ends andThorn- dikean means. And this is a conflict that is so fundamental that no tinkering around the edges will resolve it. While NCLB garnered nearly universal support from federal legislators because the rhetoric surrounding its ends was persua- sive, in the real world, we can’t separate ends from means. And while the global goals of NCLB — reducing the achievement gap, directing improvement efforts where they are most needed — are certainly democratic in their intent, we have only to look at the way success in reaching these goals is speci- fied and at the means employed to enforce them to see the shadow of Thorndike’s ma- chine looming over us. To cite just the most striking example of NCLB’s mechanistic means, the law requires 100% of children to reach “proficiency” by 2014. (Of course, proficiency won’t really be measured by anything other than Thorn- dike’s numerical test scores.) NCLB’s insis- tence on the illusory goal of 100% proficien- cy ignores the reality that minority children living in poverty fail miserably, while chil- dren living in wealthy communities achieve wonderfully. And no simplistic technical fix — be it methodological, managerial, or or- ganizational — will remove the destructive effects of poverty on innocent children. The public schools in middle- and upper- middle-class communities do not need the radical and punitive demands imposed by NCLB. The first schools to falsely “fail” under NCLB’s contrived standards will be schools serving children of the poor. And those schools will also be the first to feel the harsh sanctions the law imposes. For exam- ple, NAEP mathematics scores had been ris- ing for a decade when Gerald Bracey report- ed that Robert Linn projected that to reach 100% proficiency in fourth grade would take until 2056 and in eighth grade, until 2060. In 12th grade, the finish line moves all the way to 2166.7 Linn further suggest- ed that to reach 100% proficiency by 2014 would have required that we ratchet up im- provement in fourth and eighth grades by a factor of four — in 12th grade, by a fac- tor of 12! Given that NCLB is based on such an un- realistic premise, what should we educators of a democratic bent be doing? Certainly, those who make their living criticizing our public schools have not been shy in speak- ing their minds. And we should not be shy now. In place of the eerie professional si- lence of recent years, we need to call force- fully for a two-generation, New Deal kind of effort to bring at least half of poverty- level families into the middle class by 2050. If we sit idly by, the testing machine that is NCLB accountability will lead relentlessly to the “failure” of 100% of our public schools. Yes, in the 20th century, Edward Thorn- dike won, and John Dewey lost. Concerned educators need to make it clear that, in the 21st century, we demand a rematch! 1. Ellen Condliffe Lagemann, “The Plural Worlds of Educational Research,” History of Education Quarterly, Summer 1989, p. 185. 2. Daniel Tanner and Laurel N. Tanner, Curricu- lum Development: Theory into Practice, 3rd ed. (En- glewood Cliffs, N.J.: Merrill/Prentice-Hall, 1995), pp. 66-77. 3. John Dewey, Democracy and Education (1916; reprint, New York: Free Press, 1966), p. 53. See also Richard A. Gibboney, with Clark D. Webb, What Every Great Teacher Knows (Brandon, Vt.: Holistic Education Press, 1998). 4. Quoted in Lawrence Cremin, The Transformation of the School (1961; reprint, New York: Vantage, 1964), p. 114, n. 6. 5. Richard A. Gibboney, The Stone Trumpet: A Story of Practical School Reform, 1960-1990 (Albany: SUNY Press, 1994). 6. David C. Berliner, “Our Impoverished View of Education Reform,” Teachers College Record, August 2005, p. 17. Available online at 7. Gerald W. Bracey, “The 13th Bracey Report on the Condition of Public Education,” Phi Delta Kappan, October 2003, p. 150. K CENTENNIAL REFLECTIONS
    • Copyright Notice Phi Delta Kappa International, Inc., holds copyright to this article, which may be reproduced or otherwise used only in accordance with U.S. law governing fair use. MULTIPLE copies, in print and electronic formats, may not be made or distributed without express permission from Phi Delta Kappa International, Inc. All rights reserved. Note that photographs, artwork, advertising, and other elements to which Phi Delta Kappa does not hold copyright may have been removed from these pages. Please fax permission requests to the attention of KAPPAN Permissions Editor at 812/339-0018 or e-mail permission requests to For further information, contact: Phi Delta Kappa International, Inc. 408 N. Union St. P.O. Box 789 Bloomington, Indiana 47402-0789 812/339-1156 Phone 800/766-1156 Tollfree 812/339-0018 Fax k0610cen.pdf Richard A. Gibboney, CENTENNIAL REFLECTIONS: Intelligence Through Design, Phi Delta Kappan, Vol. 88, No. 02, October 2006, pp. 170-172. File Name and Bibliographic Information