In many educational programs today there is a lot of use of “hands-on,” “project based,” or “problem solving” instruction (I refer to these as “physical” instructional practices). In this blog I want to share with you my initial, yet incomplete thoughts on the appropriate use, within a Mason context, of these “physical” instructional methods. Please know this is a beginning discussion whose conversation will need to be finished later, perhaps in the CM Educational Review.
Across educational settings of public, private, and home schools, there is a prevalence of these “physical” practices. In some schools long and extended projects are assigned as a means for students to learn content in a more active and participatory way. Current research indicates that manipulatives in mathematics help children conceptualise hard-to-understand concepts. Handwriting is certainly active learning. There is Dinah Zike’s system of folding a sheet of paper into a graphic organizer called Foldables. This system provides a means for children from elementary through high school to organise content in social studies. It can be applied to most any content area (By content area I mean Music, Science, History, Mathematics, etc.). With such a widespread use of “physical” methods across the content areas, we must ask, “What would fit in a Mason context?”
Mason had these “physical” types of learning in her disciplinary subjects (such as science, math, handwriting) by using nature walks, nature study in science, rulers and weights in math, etc. We see Mason doing “physical” learning with the term “field studies” and we know she treated her disciplinary subjects somewhat differently than the subjects of “letters.”
What about other subjects such as art, handwriting, and dance that require the use of skills? These seemingly need to be taught from a “do it” perspective so that students’ learning is more than theoretical, and gives them the skills and thought processes necessary to perform certain tasks well. We have this sense in us that it is useful to have a more hands-on, project-based “field study” approach to some learning. What can confuse us as Mason educators is knowing when a use of these “physical” instructional methods is appropriate.
Since the use of project-based education has become such a main staple in many educational systems, it is helpful to trace the philosophical idea that led to its use in current day practice. The concept of “inquiry” or project-based or problem-based education goes back to Enlightenment thinking when concepts of the spiritual began to erode and be replaced by science. When the concept of spiritual was lost, then all of education became a matter of understanding the world through the individual’s physical exploration of it.
It seems to me that this wide spread use of “hands-on” instruction in all subject areas has roots that go back at least as far as the Enlightenment, if not further back even to John Locke’s requirement for empirical knowledge. After Darwin’s work in science exploded on the scene with his book, Origin of the Species, in 1859, a group of followers such as Darwin’s fellow Englishman, Herbert Spencer, began to apply the principles of evolution to education and many other areas of thinking. Spencer coined the phrase “survival of the fittest.” One of the greatest educational thinkers impacted by Darwin’s evolutionary teachings was John Dewey. Along with William James they founded the only uniquely American school of philosophy called Pragmatism.
What I want you to understand is that our fundamental thinking about life impacts our views of education. As Mason says every teacher of reading has a philosophy of education whether she realises it or not. The point is that when we use any educational method we are practicing a particular philosophy of education whether we realise it or not. In this case, the Pragmatists had shifted in their thinking from viewing children as “spiritual” beings to “behavioural” beings. This is a major shift in thinking. If we view life as matterial only (remember my use of the word matterial meaning a view of life that all is only matter vs. materialism meaning someone who likes to shop, consume and possess many things) then there is no room for spirituality. Spirituality comes from the fact that we bear the image of God. If we developed only matterialistically then there is no place for the spiritual. With this shift in thinking came a shift in educational views. Ozmon and Craver in their Philosophical Foundations of Education,7th Ed. (2003) say it this way,
According to Alven Neiman, premodern philosophers lived in a relatively stable world where views of the eternal prevailed and where all living things (like Aristotle’s acorn) would become what they inherently were supposed to become. This was a philosophical Garden of Eden where God brought order out of chaos through creation and where true reality existed prior to human action. Modernism brought a fall from this garden because it rejected the view that nature unfolded according to some transcendent design; instead, nature worked only by natural selection, contingency, and brute force. Pragmatic philosophers looked on the new possibilities with cheerful hope, even though they were acutely aware of the chaotic aspects of the modern world. Dewey, for example, argued that because the old stability was gone, humans must now see themselves as the meaning-makers—the ones to bring order and meaning to the world. Humans might be no more than biological organisms, but they are organisms that must understand their own individual and collective experience, cope with the contingencies of life, and solve the problems of society. (pp. 146-7) (Emphasis mine)
This nonspiritual, biological organism then becomes his own problem-solver, his own meaning-maker (This is different from Mason’s idea of the learner growing from within.), and somehow this biological organism must be “the ones to bring order and meaning to the world.” It was Dewey’s belief that to accomplish this task, students had to learn to do their own inquiry, their own problem solving and make their own meaning of life. In fact, because of this belief, Dewey believed that education was life. As Ozmon and Craver say, “Dewey saw growth as the central educational aim because if humanity is left to its own devices, then it should grow to meet the challenge” (p. 147). Hence we have the reason for inquiry from a problem-solving basis. There is no final truth so man must seek truth (growth) through his own inquiry, his own problem solving abilities, and his own discovery of the physical world. He is in it alone. There are no transcendent ideas given by God that are passed from mind to mind as Mason proposed. There is only the physical world and humankind’s ability to make sense of it. Therefore, this matterial view promotes the idea that the more practical, hands-on, project-based educational methods we can develop, the better for the student.
Summary: The reason I have brought this topic to your attention is that in many educational settings today I am seeing a lot of efforts towards projects, manipulatives and other types of “physical” instruction, which are being used in all subject areas as the basis for learning. I think some of this practice has come about because of a matterialistic view of life in which humankind is to discover truth through our own abilities to bring order out of chaos. For those of us interested in Mason, we need to think carefully to avoid a misuse of “physical” instruction in a Mason setting. I would love to hear your thoughts and ideas and I will certainly try to continue this discussion through an article or another blog entry at a later date where I hope to discuss when “field study” or “hands-on” instructional methods are appropriate.