Philosophy Archive

School for Society 10: Share What You Learn

Posted July 16, 2013 By Dave Thomer

Item 10: Reformers must contribute to the base of social knowledge.

One of the advantages of a democratic culture is that the exchange of ideas and knowledge helps every citizen to grow and advance toward his or her goals. Democratic reformers should be particularly aware of this. In the course of their work, they will have to learn things about the population of the communities that they serve and the effectiveness of particular methods of reform. This knowledge should not be retained for purely internal purposes, but shared with a wider audience to extend the reach of the reformers. Activists or researchers in other areas may want to make use of the reformers’ findings so that their own activities will be more effective.

If the super-ambitious parts of the model have been achieved, and a reform movement school is working with its surrounding community to understand and solve problems, then the school will have also made a lot of progress toward implementing this element as well. As students learn about their neighborhoods and communities, and publish what they have learned for an authentic audience, they will be helping to create a record of their communities that other people can access. That is an important contribution to a society that aims to use empirical evidence to make better decisions.

The reform movement school has a chance to achieve this goal in a more conspicuous way by virtue of its unique nature within the field of education. Through its very existence, the reform movement school acts as an experiment or trial for Deweyan/progressive/democratic education. The school should embrace this fact and work to make its work as transparent and accountable as possible. I am not talking about the kind of “data-driven” evidence that is in vogue right now; I am not suggesting that the reform movement school should be broadcasting its standardized test scores as a referendum on its success.

If, instead, we agree that in order to assess an individual student’s success, we must be able to look at a varied body of work that demonstrates the way that a student engages the world and solves problems that are meaningful to him or her, then the reform movement school should make a point of demonstrating its students’ success to the world. As students create portfolios of meaningful work over their school careers, that work should be published and shared. Student-created blogs, wikis, videos, games, programs, and more should be a source of knowledge, inspiration, and evidence for all. If the school has successfully created a real community, then many students should be willing to reflect on their experiences in the years after they graduate and explain how they feel that their education did – and did not – prepare them for a life of meaningful work as democratic citizens. Some of this information can be quantified through surveys and demographic studies, but much of it will be qualitative. That does not make it any less valid as evidence.

Furthermore, the staff of the reform movement school should view their education mission as going beyond their specific school. They will be developing and testing tools and methods every day. They should share this knowledge with other educators. If, in fact, the methods of the reform movement school are successful, other people will want to adopt them. The staff of the school should see it as part of their mission to make this happen. In this way, the reform movement school will adopt some of the “research” mantle that is traditionally assumed by colleges and universities and the academic research process. Today we can see an alternative infrastructure take shape for collaborating, sharing results, and getting feedback. Within schools and districts, some teachers take on responsibility for planning professional development sessions for their colleagues. Twitter, education blogs, and other social media help teachers form personal learning networks that share ideas. Formal and informal conferences like TED, Edcamps, and EduCon offer opportunities for face to face interaction. The reform movement school should be consciously designed to plug into these networks and use them to fulfill the school’s mission.


School for Society 9: We All Want to Be Artists

Posted July 9, 2013 By Dave Thomer

Item 9: Reformers must contribute to the artistic and cultural community.

This item in the model reflected Dewey’s ongoing interest in aesthetic theory and the arts’ role in a thriving democratic culture. In my dissertation I spent a lot of time laying out Dewey’s notion that art is something that humans deliberately create in order to create an opportunity for the audience (including the creator) to have AN experience. AN experience is different from everyday experience, which often floats past us to the point that we don’t really remember it. When we have AN experience, our attention is fully absorbed in the moment; our emotions and intellect are engaged; we see or understand something we did not see or understand before; we perceive new opportunities for action. According to Dewey, art is humanity’s ongoing attempt to harness and increase these opportunities for growth. Artistic expression is a powerful method for exchanging ideas, motivating action, and inspiring reflection. Reformers should absolutely make a conscious effort to harness that power in their efforts to improve society.

For a reform movement school, this conscious effort to include an artistic dimension to the school’s work should begin with the curriculum and planning. Many educators talk about the importance of giving students authentic work to do, and one thing that can help drive this is to design the school experience so that students are producing work for a wider audience than their teacher and immediate classmates. Technology has placed some incredible content-creation and publishing tools at our disposal. We can use those to increase the reach of of our students.

This communication can and should go both ways. If the school and its surrounding community are already working to establish close relationships based on other elements of the model, it stands to reason that the school and surrounding community would also want to share their artistic creations. Perhaps established artists could come to the school and do workshops for the students. Perhaps beginning artists could attend sessions in the after school periods. Perhaps connections could be established on social networks, and students, staff, and neighbors could share and comment on each other’s work. In this way, the tools that schools try to teach students to help them understand and appreciate art can be applied to the artistic experiences that students live inside and outside of the school.

The two key elements to remember for this element are: 1) students (and teachers) should be creating and sharing works that have artistic purpose, and 2) the school should have some avenues established for exchanging works and commentary with members of the community outside of the school.


School for Society 8: It’s the Economy, Students

Posted July 8, 2013 By Dave Thomer

Item 8: Reformers must target the economic structure of society.

John Dewey was a major critic of the American economic system. He believed that it had a negative effect on many children’s educations, because schools spent their effort to produce efficient workers for the industrial economy rather than effective citizens for a democratic society. Once those students reached adulthood, they were too busy scrambling to earn enough money to survive to devote the time and energy necessary to be involved participants in civic life. I agree with those criticisms, and so I felt that the model should explicitly address them with this item.

As we look at the way economics affect education today, I think it is apparent that economics get in the way of schools’ fulfilling their mission in a democratic society. Private corporations make fortunes providing services and materials to schools while the tax base that is supposed to support many schools is weakened. Families who can afford to do so send their children to private schools that do not face the same burdens and obstacles that public schools do. Public school districts with strong resources and reputations attract families who can afford to pay the home prices and property taxes that provide those resources. It is not surprising then that, even as education is viewed as a means of escaping poverty or improving one’s economic situation, recent studies suggest that equality of opportunity is decreasing in the United States.

This is something that a reform movement school should take on, but to do is fraught with potential problems. The teachers, administrators, and other staff at the school are not just potential reformers; they are stakeholders whose personal economic well-being is at stake. This can give them incentive to work to improve the system, but it also gives the public a reason to doubt their motives or to view their work as a taxpayers-versus-teachers situation, which is not beneficial for anyone. Sometimes there can not help but be a conflict of interest. A teachers union, for example, might have as one of its central goals the protection of its members, but a school community may feel that a specific teacher has been so ineffective that he or she should leave the school. The staff of a reform movement school must be vigilant in self-enforcing its norms and culture in order to minimize the problems that these conflicts might cause. The union could work with administrators and the public to create a set of strong expectations and a fair procedure for evaluating whether a teacher has met those expectations, and then work to ensure that the teacher charged with being ineffective has a fair hearing.

Challenging the existing economic system will also be one of the bigger conflicts that can be created by the emphasis on highlighting incompatible beliefs in order to challenge the status quo. Supporters of the current economic system would accuse a reform movement school of being overly political or teaching a radical agenda to students. And those opponents would be right that the school is being political and radical; the only difference in opinion is whether that is an acceptable thing for a school to be. As I’ve said before, once you start to teach something, you are teaching a point of view. So there will be conflict, and the reform movement school will have to assess which battles it should fight, which it must avoid, and which situations call for flying under the radar.

An example of the first category would be economic issues that directly and clearly affect schools and the quality of the education that students receive, such as unequal funding of schools, or the degree to which companies are profiting from the increased emphasis on standardized testing. In such cases it is important that the school organize the effort in the right way. If the school creates space for students to take leadership of investigating these issues and calling for solutions, then the obvious personal stakes become more of a virtue and less of a problem. If the reform movement school is able to fulfill the other aspects of its mission, then no one should be able to argue for students taking initiative and acting as engaged citizens to increase their own opportunities. If the students look like they are not engaged or responsible, then the optics would be very different. So an assignment to “Describe and evaluate the current methods for funding education” would work well to address this item. An assignment to “Write your congressman and tell him that he should vote for this particular spending bill” would not.

An example of the second would be engaging with the electoral system in a one-sided way based on a candidate’s economic positions. It’s one thing to investigate the positions of candidates or hold mock debates, but formal endorsements by the school as an organization would be a bad idea. Even social pressure exerted by authority figures is a bad idea. Protest actions against perceived specific individuals, organizations, and corporations should also be avoided as an organized school activity. A reform movement school might favor patent or copyright laws based on the free exchange of ideas and a cultural marketplace that protects the work and well-being of artists. But it is probably a bad idea to organize a School Piracy Day as an act of civil disobedience.

These examples edge toward caricature, but that is because there are relatively few situations in which a reform movement school should not engage at all. There are many ways that a school can work to understand, critique, and improve the economic structure of society without engaging in a public campaign that attracts a lot of negative attention. Here it is worth turning the attention back to the classroom and the activities connected to it. If students learn how the economy works, and begin to identify ways that it can be improved, then that is a contribution that will pay dividends for years and decades to come. I’ve talked before about the class in social justice I took in high school. Just having that knowledge when I was a teenager has helped me understand the news a lot better in the two decades since. If a reform movement school does its work well, it should be able to say the same for hundreds of students.


School for Society 6: Tech Can Bring Us Together

Posted July 6, 2013 By Dave Thomer

Item 6. Reformers must use technology to build community ties.

When I reread this part of the model, I laughed and very nearly said, “OK, let’s just move on the next item.” I developed the model between 2002 and 2006, when blogs were the hot new trend in online communities and online social networks were in their birth and infancy stages. Today I am sending links to these essays to dozens of educators around the country through Twitter. Educators and students are definitely using technology to create communities.

However, while I don’t want to belabor the point, it is worth taking a moment to think about how a hypothetical reform movement school would use technology, including social networks, to build community ties. Part of the mission of the school is to be active in the surrounding community and try to create conditions for a more democratic society. So for this part of the model, it is not enough that students and administrators be connected with each other online. They need to use those technological connections in a constructive way to increase their own knowledge and then share that knowledge with others.

There are plenty of examples of this already in place in schools around the country. Students in Philadelphia have used social networks to plan protests regarding the austerity budget that the district passed earlier this year. Reporters use Twitter to share information about school board meetings and solicit stories from students and educators. Schools can take the idea of a school newspaper and publish it online so that everyone can see it. In the process, the reporters for such an online publication could broaden their scope beyond the school to the community in which the school resides.

As significant as the educational technology community is, not every student or educator takes advantage of these tools. So the reform movement school must look for people who are already somewhat plugged in and others who are willing to and interested in becoming part of these technology-facilitated communities. It will also need to set up some system and guidelines so that the use of technology to observe what is going in the world and share what is going on at the school is a regular part of the school’s identity.

This will have the additional benefit of helping students build their “digital citizenship” skills. Even though many students are using technology to build and maintain social connections, they are not always conscious of how they are doing so, or of how corporations and other forces shape their use of such technologies. If the reform movement school helps its students to understand these forces, the students can then spread that understanding through their own networks.


Item 5: The reform movement itself must be democratic.

This element warns against adopting top-down structures where a reform movement relies on the work and motivation of a large group of activists/participants but decision-making power rests in a central leadership group or charismatic leader. Such centralized structures open any group committed to improving democracy to charges of hypocrisy. They also force those involved with the movement to confront the sort of contradiction that make it difficult for someone to continue on their current course. That can be a good thing when you want people to change, but if you want people to keep working as part of the organization that they have been, that sort of contradiction is counterproductive. Using democratic structures also allows the reformers to model what they advocate and demonstrate its effectiveness.

As such, this is a very important part of the model, but for a school it has to have some qualifications. Implied in a society’s need for schools to prepare its next generation to be citizens is the notion that, without formal schooling, many (if not most) children will not grow up with the knowledge and skills required to be effective citizens. If they could do it on their own, we would not go through the trouble of creating schools, and we could let everyone be self-directed citizens in their own self-selected learning communities. I’m not saying that anyone is actually arguing that we do not need schools, so I do not want to seem like I am ridiculing anyone here. I am just trying to establish as a starting point that students, in their lives as students, are still immature as citizens and need assistance preparing for the responsibilities that come with democratic citizenship.

This is not a rationale for the school to adopt or maintain a top-down structure or try to remove all aspects of democratic life just because students are not prepared for the full responsibility. That would be just as absurd as having no structure at all. One of the central ideas of Dewey’s democratic theory of education is that people learn by confronting and solving problems that are relevant to the goals and lives they have built for themselves. A school can not claim that it is preparing students to be citizens in a democracy and then never give them a chance to confront and work through the problems that citizens encounter in a democracy.

So what we have is a need to find a balance point, where students can meaningfully engage in the work of democratic citizenship while still having some guidance and safeguards to help them through obstacles that their relative inexperience create. Students need to be given a real voice in the creation of the school culture and program. At the beginning this may even include the design of the student institutions that will help organize that student voice. Will there be an elected student government? How should it be constructed? What eligibility requirements should there be for someone to serve? How will the representatives ensure that the voices of the students are being heard? Should there be advisory groups of students recruited by teachers and administrators?

Once the institutions for students to give their input have been created, those institutions have to have some kind of legitimate authority within the school community. While it might be appropriate for a staff council or a parents group to have some kind of veto, if that veto is always or often used students will begin to see their institutions of democratic participation as a sham, and refuse to participate. On the other hand, if the students see that their work is respected and helps form the basis of the school’s everyday expectations and norms, they are far more likely to accept and adopt those norms. The limits of the oversight veto power should be established through a combination of the formal rules of the school’s institutions and the informal norms of its culture and everyday practice. The exact nature of that mix will need to be determined by each school community, but it should be a through and detailed enough process that there are rarely surprises when the veto has to be used. Even if they disagree or are disappointed by the particular use of the veto, most students should be able to understand why it was used and whether there are any ways to overcome the problems that led to its use in the first place.

The students’ voice should also be considered in things like the subject matter and methods for its study. There are obviously requirements that need to be considered – whether those are based on state or local standards, or the expectations of higher learning institutions and employers, or the judgment of the knowledgeable educators who form the staff of the school. But within those requirements there should be space for a honest discussion. The problems is that as soon as you have more than two students in a room, you have at least two different visions of the best way to proceed. I have had my students “focus group” the content and methods we are going to use in a class, and facilitating such a discussion can be truly exhausting for a teacher. Indeed, the teacher might end the discussion having no more idea of what “the students” as a collective group want than when the process began. But if these exercises occur frequently, in a series of classes and contexts, the quality of the feedback should improve., and the teacher will get better at facilitating the process. In this way, it is not only the students who are learning to be more effective democratic citizens.

I have focused here on how the students’ voices can be legitimately respected in a democratic school culture, but that commitment should definitely extend throughout the school’s structure. Just as students can work with their teachers to help direct the course of individual classes and the school at large, the teachers and staff should be able to work with their administrators to shape the school’s culture, institutions, and mission. I do not want to imply that this is easy, but if a school is working to help the students develop an authentic voice, it should be possible to develop parallel structures for the staff.

If schools can really demonstrate the power of democratic citizenship, then they really can transform society and help a democracy realize its promise. We are not there yet, but the potential is there. I’m going to close out this post with a footnote I wrote in my thesis about one discussion in Dewey’s Democracy and Education:

Dewey criticizes “the educational practices which train the many for pursuits involving mere skill in production, and the few for a knowledge that is an ornament and a cultural embellishment,” and argues for an “educational transformation” that will prepare citizens for “a truly democratic society, a society in which all share in useful service and all enjoy a worthy leisure.” This transformation has been hinted at already. “The increased political and economic emancipation of the ‘masses’ has shown itself in education’” through the development of a public school system so that learning is no longer a “monopoly of the few.” But education has not yet given citizens the useful, practical education that prepares them for life in a democracy – “the revolution is still incomplete.” But Dewey is quite clear that he believes the revolution has the potential to succeed.


Item 4: Reformers must highlight incompatible social tenets.

The purpose of a reform movement is to change something in a substantial way. This means that reformers will inevitably encounter resistance from people who are comfortable with the current situation or uncomfortable with the idea of change. This item is a strategy for dealing with that resistance. It has its roots in the philosophical pragmatists’ ideas about what forces us to revise our beliefs, and accept that something which we have considered to be true should not be considered as false. William James, for example, argued that we want to revise our beliefs as little as possible, and so we are only likely to do so if we recognizing that holding on to the particular belief in question will force us to discard a larger number of other beliefs. It is only when we become acutely aware of the contradiction between two beliefs that we are inclined to make the effort to revise one in order to keep the other.

I say acutely aware for a reason. It’s not enough to just point out an inconsistency the way you might correct an error in arithmetic or a faulty step in a geometry proof. Human beings are pretty good at glossing over such inconsistencies if they have a vested interest in doing so. The inconsistency has to be brought home in a visceral, emotional, personal way so that the contradiction is too powerful to ignore, and the path of least resistance changes from letting the status quo remain to removing the contradiction. This is what the African American civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s accomplished. Americans who had turned a blind eye to Jim Crow could not do so when the pictures of brutality to protestors started filling newspapers, magazines and TV screens. I do not think that it is a coincidence that as the immediacy of those images fades from the public consciousness, it has become easier for opponents of the safeguards enacted in that period to weaken them today.

There are at least two dimensions on which a school can adopt this element of the reform model, and both are very challenging. The first is to highlight incompatible social tenets for students. This happens to a certain degree in normal circumstances. Anyone who has spent any time around young people knows that many of them are particularly skilled at identifying hypocrisy in authority figures. For it to be effective in the context of a reform movement school, that skill needs to developed consciously. Students need to reflect on and try to articulate the implicit ideals in our culture, our politics, and our social structures.

This can be done in a number of different disciplines. History or civics students can talk about the ideals of the Enlightenment and the American founders. English students can examine the virtues and aspirations presented in literature of the past and present. Science students can discuss the importance of the open exchange of information toward scientific progress. Foreign language students can compare how different languages articulate similar concepts and ideals. The staff and students of the school would have the responsibility to fully develop a plan and make sure it was part of the school’s identity.

Once these ideals and tenets are identified, students would also have to observe the world and find examples of behavior or social structures that seriously compromise those ideals. This is not the only thing that students should spend their time doing, of course. For one thing, confronting all of this cognitive dissonance is a pretty exhausting thing to do, and it needs to be balanced with consideration of the “success stories” of contemporary society. This way, identifying the contradictions can be framed as an exercise in making a good thing better, rather than one that points out how everything is lousy and there is no reason to try to improve or believe in anything. The school should be trying to inculcate a reforming spirit, not a cynical one.

Another reason why this needs to be carefully done is that the larger community may not be happy that the school appears to be introducing a destabilizing force by encouraging students to question authority, existing social norms, and the overall status quo. In a world where we are still arguing over the cultural legacy of Christopher Columbus, there will be people who believe that the reform movement school is radicalizing students against the very society that the education system is supposed to support. Especially if the school is part of a public school system, the school is going to have to have a strong base of support along with the ability to explain how the action of highlighting inconsistency is meant to strengthen society, not destabilize it.

This is particularly important because of the second dimension I alluded to. The students and staff at the reform movement school can not be insular if they want to be effective reformers. They must aim to share their work and their unfolding understanding with the community around them. (This is something that I am going to discuss in more detail in other parts of the model, so I will be brief here.) So the school will not just be trying to make the students and staff acutely aware of inconsistencies. They will be trying to do it for the public at large as well, and this is almost certain to encounter resistance.

We can see elements of this behavior in the students and educators who work through social media, community organizing, and other methods to speak out about the inconsistency of unequal school funding with the notion that education ensures that Americans have equality of opportunity, or in those who point out that emphasis on standardized test scores de-emphasizes the virtues of creativity and independent thought that are integral to America’s claimed entrepreneurial spirit. And we can see the resistance to this challenge presented by those who argue for more tests, more standards, and so on. If an entire school is going to make reform activity like this art of its essential identity, it needs to be prepared for the opposition it will encounter. If there is any aspect of the model that I think needs to followed carefully in a school environment, it is this one. But I am equally sure that it is an element that can not be ignored.


School for Society 3: State Your Ideals

Posted July 3, 2013 By Dave Thomer

Item 3: Reformers must clearly articulate their goals and ideals

I originally included this in the model because in order for a movement to be successful, it must grow beyond its original core. During this process, some people may get involved with the movement who do not understand the goals and methods that the movement has chosen. Indeed, they may be opposed to the methods but believe that the movement presents an opportunity to achieve a shared goal. Leaders like Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. attracted supporters who were not necessarily committed to nonviolence in their pursuit of justice. When this happen the movement can begin to suffer from infighting or a muddled image. So I believed that it was important for a movement to state and then constantly reiterate its core beliefs, not just about its goals but about the process that it intended to follow.

I think this is even more important in the case of democratic reform school. For one thing, there is a constant turnover of members of the movement. Each year a new group of students enters the school, and even during the year there can be transfers. There is probably at least some turnover in staff as well. And an entire corps of student leaders, who have had years to shape and adopt the school’s goals, moves on to other activities. A school constantly renews itself, so it must constantly renew its commitment to its purpose.

Furthermore, if democratic education reformers are correct, then a school based on democratic education principles will be successful in the ways that the larger population conceives success for a school. A high school, for example, would develop a reputation for safety, for the engagement of its students, and for the academic and personal successes of those students after they graduate. Many parents and students are going to want to be a part of such a school regardless of their interest in democratic theory or a long term project to reform democratic society. But if people try to join the community solely to benefit from its results without buying into the culture and ideals that make those results possible, that effort could prove self-defeating.

Depending on the structure of the school, there may be some possibility of addressing this situation during the admissions process. If there are more students who want to be part of the school than the school can fit, the school could use an interview process to talk to prospective students and their families about the schools’ overall mission and how they envision themselves being part of that community. This may not always be possible, depending on how the school is structured and what larger admissions requirements might be imposed by local laws or district mandates. And at some point, the school is going to want to reach out to people who are not already committed to its overall methods, because that is the only way to change people’s minds and grow the number of people who support you. So this communication and reinforcement needs to be a constant part of the school’s activity.

Now, many schools today have a mission statement or a declaration of core values or something similar. But to meet this requirement of the model a democratic reform school has to go farther. It needs to make sure that the values are stated in a clear and meaningful way, not as a bland collection of buzzwords or statements that are so vague and abstract that no one would disagree with them because anyone can impose their own meaning on them. It needs to make sure that the school’s daily activities and culture reflect and model those values. It needs to explicitly mention and reinforce the values on a consistent basic. And it needs to build in major events that celebrate and reinforce the values.

So far I have been vague about what those values should be. On one hand this entire series is my effort to articulate a set of values, but I don’t think that they would necessarily work as a school mission statement. And each school community needs to put together its own mission, so I do not want to suggest that I aim to create a handy list ready to be cut and pasted. But here are some of the principles that I think are really important.

The school should be committed to the idea that true understanding requires seeing the possibilities for the future contained in the subject at hand and how to realize them.

The school should strive to help every member of the community understand and engage with the world as it is today through study, reflection, and action.

The school should strive to help every member of the community develop all of his or her interests, not just those of traditional academic subject matter.

The school should strive to help every member of the community become a more informed citizen, which includes understanding the positions and perspectives of other member of the community.

These are lofty goals, and there are going to be times when students do not want to hear about high-minded principles of democratic activism and they just want to know what the teacher wants them to do for the next assignment and how many points is it going to be worth toward the final grade. There are going to be times when teachers don’t want to think about how their lesson plan connects with current problems of wage inequality and just want to figure out how to get the concept of buying stocks on margin across to the students. But that’s where the idea of a school as a community comes into play. The members of the community are going to have to pick each other up when they are down and continually reinforce the principles of the school. Otherwise it will cease to be a force for reform.


School for Society 2: It’s Gonna Take Time

Posted July 2, 2013 By Dave Thomer

Item 2: Reformers must adopt a generational time frame.

If we accept the idea that we need to change our educational system to give more students the skills and perspectives they will require in order to be active citizens in a robust democracy, then we have accepted the premise that many of the schools in that system do not prepare their students for such citizenship. If schools were already doing this, we would not need to change them. Furthermore, if people were developing these skills outside of the educational system, we would not be worried about trying to make sure the educational system can develop them. The inevitable conclusion is that many of the citizens in America today lack either the skills or the mindset to take an active role in creating and maintaining a democratic society. We can argue about the degree and how easy this would be to fix, but we have to acknowledge that the status quo is substantially lacking in significant ways.

So if this is true, how do reformers correct this? I argued that this project must be viewed in terms of generations. To be sure, there are things that we need to fix in the short term. But the process of changing an educational system and the democratic society that it supports is going to require a lot of two-steps-forward-one-step-back compromises, and sometimes one-step-forward-two-steps-back might be the best thing you can achieve in a specific situation. Reformers have to accept that they’re in it for the long haul. Partial victories should be celebrated as foundations for further progress; setbacks should be viewed as learning opportunities and motivations to keep working. Reformers need to be the change that they want to see in the world, but they can’t stop if they don’t see the world changing to meet them right away. Knowing the scale of the project and accepting the length of time that success will take can help keep the project growing. If I plant an acorn today I shouldn’t give up the project when I don’t have an oak tree by October.

In one sense, this is another easy item for a reforming school to adopt. After all, the whole purpose of a school is to teach the next generation. In Democracy and Education, Dewey argues that education (inside and outside of classrooms) is the way that a society decides which parts of itself to pass along to the next generation. A very stark example is segregated education under Jim Crow – this was a major way that the culture and attitude of segregation was passed on to the next generation, until the federal government acted to make sure that it would not be passed along any further. When people argue about what texts to read and which to leave out of the curriculum, they are arguing about what legacy we should leave to the future citizens. Anyone involved in education should recognize and embrace the stakes involved.

But even though educators will not see the full fruits of the work that they do today for years, we are also confronted every day with the immediate consequences of our schools’ successes and failures. There is an urgency to the fight against things like the excessive use of standardized tests and corporate influence over education. It is likely that a reformist school, if started from scratch, would attract staff, students, and families that are on board with the vision of the school, which will help the school community avoid conflicts on the local scale. But ideally, this would allow the school community to engage with the larger struggle about education and democracy. For example, students could study the legislative process in order to understand how the budgeting process works, and then use that insight to devise campaigns to change the school funding system.

Once engaged in the democratic process, the school community needs to be prepared for the highs and lows of that engagement. It will be very important for the staff to keep that in mind, so that students do not form unrealistic expectations of their democratic involvement. If those expectations are not met, disappointment can lead to cynicism and disengagement, which are precisely the things that a democratic reform school should not try to pass on to the next generation.


School for Society 1: Change Attitudes

Posted July 1, 2013 By Dave Thomer

Item 1: Reformers must prioritize reform of attitudes over changing policies.

The main point of this item is that reformers frequently get caught up in particular policy goals, and don’t do enough to change the way that the public thinks about an issue. That makes the policy successes vulnerable if the public officials who enacted them change their minds or are no longer in office to defend them. I’m not dismissing the importance of policy changes and successes. I’m just saying that reformers need to keep one eye on the long game and build up support.

For example, when Ed Rendell was governor of Pennsylvania, he did a lot to increase funding for education. That was an important policy success. But no one really did much to make the Pennsylvania voters share that commitment to education, or to change the attitudes that a lot of voters in central and upstate Pennsylvania have toward Philadelphia. So as soon as Rendell was out of office, his successor undid a lot of those policy moves. If it’s possible, that’s something that reformers should try to avoid.

On one hand it would seem pretty easy for a school to fulfill this element of the framework. After all, schools don’t really spend a lot of time lobbying politicians to pass specific laws. They spend time teaching students, and in teaching students, schools influence their attitudes. But what attitudes are they trying to instill?

In The Public and Its Problems, Dewey argues that the “essential problem is that of transforming the action of [individual] hands so that it will be animated by regard for social ends” (PP 286, emphasis added). This does not mean that the individual sacrifices himself or herself for the group. It means that the individual’s actions always take place in a social context, and individuals should consider how their choices will affect that context. If I were to spend all of my time on this blog insulting everybody who isn’t exactly like me, then sure, I would be promoting my individuality. In the process I would destroy the audience which is the point of posting to a blog and not just ranting at my wall. So we definitely want to encourage students to look beyond themselves, and the staff at a democratic reform school should be doing the same thing. As a teacher, I should be asking myself if the way I teach a class makes it harder or easier for my colleagues to achieve their goals. I should be asking if the policies and structures of the school promote the building of a community that supports its members. And I should be doing that in a public way that lets my students see that this is an example of citizenship.

There’s another important element of a robust democracy. If we are all going to be inquiring citizens, we need a common framework to share our claims, proposals, and evidence. This is why Dewey and other pragmatist philosophers put so much emphasis on empiricism over faith or rationalism. (By rationalism I mean the philosophical idea that I can figure out important truths just by using logic and reason without testing those conclusions by investigating the sensible world.) A democratic school should be promoting this empiricist attitude.

Again, I am not saying here that schools should force one particular attitude or point of view on all of their students. We all come to the world with a unique perspective that is the result of our own lived experience. Indeed, one of the virtues of democracy is pluralism – the idea that there can be more than one valid way to look at a situation, and that we can benefit from sharing these different perspectives. But it should be possible to broaden one’s perspective through the checks and balances of a community of inquirers, inquirers who can speak in a common language with one another because they can appeal to a collection of empirical investigations that are shared throughout the community. Rather than use a priori reasoning or religious tradition to discover an ideal structure and then try to graft it onto the actual world, we should turn to the actual sensible world to discover what structure it will best accommodate.

There are people who are going to have a problem with that idea. Frankly, there are a lot of Americans who do not embrace empiricism or pluralism. If a school explicitly and consistently promotes and exhibits these traits, there are going to be people who accuse the school of indoctrinating students or violating parents’ rights to instruct their children. Now, I don’t think that you can communicate anything without taking a stance on the world, and I don’t think a community can exist without norms to guide it. If a student or a student’s family have beliefs that somehow conflict with the values of democracy, then a democratic reform school is not going to be able to accommodate them. So the staff of such a school needs to be prepared to defend this approach and speak to the larger community to build support. Already it should be obvious that being part of a democratic reform school is going to require a commitment beyond the commitments educators make during and after school hours. The benefit is that in the process, everyone involved is building a more robust kind of citizenship that has its own rewards.


For my doctoral dissertation, I constructed a ten-point model framework for a democratic reform movement. My goal was to take John Dewey’s vision of a robust democratic culture and try to come up with some specific principles that people should follow if they wanted to make that vision more of a reality. I deliberately tried to be general in my discussion of what form such a movement could take, but in my conclusion I did throw out the idea that a school could be good locus for such a movement. Now that I’ve been teaching in high schools for four years, I want to focus on that idea more. So over the next few weeks, I’m going to go through the ten points of my model and talk about how a school might be able to fulfill them. It should help me clarify and reflect on my own goals and practices in teaching, and hopefully it will also be a resource for those who want to discuss exactly what education should accomplish in a democratic society.

I’ll use this post as a table of contents; as I discuss each point, I’ll link to that post here.

  1. Reform of attitudes must be priority over reform of policies.
  2. Reformers must adopt a generational time frame.
  3. Reformers must clearly articulate their goals and ideals.
  4. Reformers must highlight incompatible social tenets.
  5. The reform movement itself must be democratic.
  6. Reformers must use new technologies to build community ties.
  7. Reformers must operate at local level.
  8. Reformers must target economic structure.
  9. Reformers must understand and contribute to the artistic and cultural community.
  10. Reformers must contribute to the base of social knowledge.