Garrison democracy and education

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  • 1. Democracy and Education: Empowering Students to Make Sense of Their WorldThere is a simple yet vital link between democracy and education,Mr. Garrison argues. The best learning happens under a democraticsystem as students assume the freedom and responsibility to makechoices and direct their learning experiences.By William H. GarrisonE VER wonder why democratic so- that is as important for classroom practice as it is for cieties are unrivaled in expanding a democratic society. knowledge and creativity? There In Democracy and Education, Dewey defines educa- is a simple yet vital link between tion as the “reconstruction or reorganization of experi- democracy and education, and it ence which adds to the meaning of experience and which is found in how we learn best. If increases the ability to direct the course of subsequent you have studied educational psy- experience.”1 Education, like democracy, is fundamental- chology or learning theory, you ly empowerment. Both provide the participants withprobably have insight into the causes of this phenom- the means to shape and direct their experiences.enon. If your instructional practices include such The educational process in a democratic society, eventhings as self-directed learning, self-reflection, or ac- in the most autocratic of classrooms and institutions,tion research, you are probably well aware of the prac- is grounded in basic freedoms. These freedoms existtical mechanism underlying this productivity even if beyond the particular classroom and institution, if notyou don’t know it by name. within them. From a learning perspective, the most im- It is a fundamental belief under our system of gov- portant of these freedoms is the freedom to choose, toernance that education is necessary for democracy. Less act on that choice, and to experience the results of thoserecognized is the equally important principle that de- actions. Instructional practices that include self-reflec-mocracy is necessary for education. Looking closely at tion and action research are based on the idea that wethe relationship between democracy and education re- learn by following our thoughts and actions and exam-veals a common foundation in a learning mechanism ining their consequences. By choosing a course of ac-I WILLIAM H. GARRISON is director of assessment and evalua- tion and experiencing the results, our beliefs and under-tion for the Palo Alto Unified School District, Palo Alto, Calif. standings about the world, how it works, and how weImage: Vladimir Bektesh JANUARY 2008 347
  • 2. fit into it are reinforced or modified. sponsible for what he or she learns about learning. Cul- In describing “intelligence,” Jean Piaget echoes this tivating the desire to learn is the single most importantfundamental play between thinking, acting, and learn- objective for any instructional strategy.ing: “The essential functions of intelligence consist in An often-quoted analysis of a major internationalunderstanding and in inventing, in other words in build- study of science and mathematics education criticizeding up structures by structuring reality.”2 We learn by the United States for a curriculum that is “a mile wideconstructing meaning from our experiences. We recon- and an inch deep.”5 Nowhere is this more apparent thanstruct, reorganize, and direct our experiences as we at- in our secondary schools, in which college preparation,tempt to make sense of our world. Our understanding including grades and test scores, is too often the onlyof the world is constructed through what we make of rationale for what and how we teach. In a curriculumour experiences, how we interpret them, and how these that is always focused on what’s next, there is little timeinterpretations are integrated into our knowledge and to connect the subject matter and concepts to studentbeliefs. These learnings provide the mental structures experience. But it is precisely these connections that mo-and dispositions that influence and direct subsequent tivate and engage students and promote the joy of learn-experience. ing that feeds the desire to learn more. We continually make choices in all of our thoughts The interests that teachers inspire often arise fromand actions. Ulric Neisser wrote about the “perceptual their efforts to make the subject matter relevant. School-cycle” of learning: of all the possibilities presented in ing should focus on the connectedness of the subjectour environment, our thought processes or mental struc- matter to the student’s life and world. The curriculum,tures guide our perceptual awareness, which samples as Dewey and others have argued, needs to connect inthe available information. As we choose to focus our a meaningful way to the world in which our studentsattention, what we experience serves to modify or re- live rather than rationalize its pace and content as nec-inforce these structures, which guide further percep- essary for the course and sequence ahead.tual exploration and experience.3 The primary mission of schooling should not be to This fundamental learning mechanism underlies the prepare for the next grade level but to help studentsrich and productive relationship between democracy understand, to make sense of, and to be successful inand education. Learning is the process of constructing their world today and tomorrow. The skills our studentsmeaning or structuring reality. It is necessarily a self- need now and in the future are acquired only throughdirected process contingent on individual choice and learning. It is learning that needs to be cultivated.action. It is really that simple: the best curriculum is struc- The critical connection between democracy and edu- tured around helping students make sense of their world.cation is that democratic social institutions are produced This is a natural drive, a survival instinct that we all share.and sustained by the same progressive mechanism: the This does not require a radical change in today’s curric-freedom to learn from experience, to build on experience, ulum, just a different mindset.and to use this knowledge to direct the course of sub- And the best learning happens under a democraticsequent experience. Learning, individually or as a dem- system, as our ever-maturing students increasingly as-ocratic society, is fundamentally contingent on freedom sume the freedom and responsibility to make choicesand self-governance: the ability to make choices and to and direct their learning experiences. As teachers in atake action, to formulate understandings and to test those democratic society, we should cultivate a learning cur-understandings in actual experience.4 riculum by empowering students to make sense of their Formal education, as a system by which society trans- world.fers its knowledge and customs from generation to gen-eration, generally does a poor job of teaching students 1. John Dewey, Democracy and Education (New York: Macmillan, 1916;how to learn, specifically a poor job of helping stu- reprint, 1944), p. 76. 2. Jean Piaget, Science and the Psychology of the Child (New York: Oriondents to develop as self-directed learners, which is so Press, 1970), p. 27.critical in a rapidly changing world. The motivation we 3. Ulric Neisser, Cognition and Reality (San Francisco: W. H. Freeman,provide in school for learning is mostly external and 1976).driven by the belief that today’s curriculum is essen- 4. William H. Garrison, “Democracy, Experience, and Education: Pro-tially preparation for what comes next in the curricu- moting a Continued Capacity for Growth,” Phi Delta Kappan, March 2003, pp. 525-29.lum. But the curriculum is actually the total learning 5. A phrase employed by William Schmidt, director of the U.S. Nation-environment that we as educators create. For the fu- al Research Center for the Third International Mathematics and Sci-ture of each student’s education, this environment is re- ence Study (TIMSS). K348 PHI DELTA KAPPAN