Attempting to become educated (more later on what that word might imply), I’m reading Dewey and Bobbitt.  Far more than all the recent documents for teachers about curriculum reform, exam specifications and accountability, they brought to mind real learning and real people.  Perhaps there are some lessons in that point alone?  Anyway, here are a few thoughts about people, learning and education.

Child, adult, person – lifelong learner?

‘Children’ is an untrendy word in many schools.  We speak instead of learners, pupils, young people, students, – and sometimes, in the staffroom after a particularly bad day, of little tosspots.  It is interesting, therefore, to consider how Dewey and Bobbitt describe children in educational contexts.  According to Dewey, it is an error to compare childhood with “adulthood as a fixed standard”, rather than viewing childhood “intrinsically” (1916, Chapter IV,  p. 1).  He draws attention wonderfully to the limitations of adulthood:  “Few grown-up persons retain all of the flexible and sensitive ability of children to vibrate sympathetically with the attitudes and doings of those about them” (1916, p. 2). It is easy for us to be bored by childrens’ fixations, but perhaps adults should also take more interest in the seemingly small details of their daily lives.  We should certainly treat childrens’ achievements and struggles with great respect:  “If the ends which form the mark seem narrow and selfish to adults, it is only because adults (by means of a similar engrossment in their day) have mastered these ends, which have consequently ceased to interest them” (Dewey, 1916, Chapter IV, p. 2).  This resonated with my experiences in a new environment:  During the last two months I’ve been told that navigating bus routes, locating items in the supermarket, opening a bank account, operating the tumble dryer and using APA referencing are all ‘easy’.  Actually, things are only easy if you’ve done them before and know what to expect (see my earlier posts about making posters https://alisonbutlermusic.wordpress.com/2015/10/17/in-which-butlers-make-posters/ and growing up https://alisonbutlermusic.wordpress.com/2015/08/26/when-i-grow-up/  for more about this).

As we repeat things, they become habitual.  Dewey describes “habit [as] a form of executive skill, of efficiency in doing” and suggests that “Education is not infrequently defined as consisting in the acquisition of those habits that effect an adjustment of an individual and his environment.  The definition expresses an essential phrase of growth” (1916, Chapter IV, p. 3).  Of course, once we broaden our definition of education to include ‘habits’, both good and bad, we must move far away from a belief that education is centred in the classroom.  “Habit” is a word that prompts self-examination, particularly for parents and teachers who pass habits on to children both consciously and unconsciously.  This perception of education also shifts some responsibility away from teachers, which is a relief in the current political climate.

Also in the vein of the African saying that ‘it takes a village to raise a child’, Bobbitt presents education as “the growing of human beings…it sees the entire seventy-year unit of life as the thing of central concern…It therefore sees society and what man does and must do to live his life fully and well within this actual society.  Education must clearly see child and man but not as in a social vacuum.  It does not rightly see either except as it sees them as active participants in an active world” (1924, p. 48). Similarly, Dewey suggests that “education means the enterprise of supplying the conditions which insure growth, or adequacy of life, irrespective of age” (1916, Chapter IV, p. 5).  These descriptions prompted the recollection of two unrelated conversations.  The first took place recently when a friend in her forties said that she was “too old to change”; I wonder now whether this was actually just about her current situation or whether it reflected ingrained habits towards learning and exploring – and the factors that had influenced these habits.  The second memory was of a family-grape-vine-gone-wrong conversation, in which I was informed that “Grandma’s taken up Kung Fu.”  I was surprised by the activity, Grandma being over 80 at the time, but not by the suggestion that she was trying new things and continuing her education.  What factors make certain people more interested in learning and growing?  Do early experiences in school settings impact more than we realise?  Does our individual understanding of ‘education’ affect how we approach life in the broadest sense?  It would be interesting to read about any psychology-based studies in this area.  By the way, it turned out that Grandma had actually been invited to attend a T’ai Chi class!

Dewey also observes that “the realization that life is growth protects us from that so-called idealizing of childhood which in effect is nothing but lazy indulgence” (1916, Chapter IV, p. 5), a reminder that I should not be dismissive of the Little Nephew’s reports that he has spent the day “playing”.  Indeed, perhaps we should all try to approach education, both as learners and teachers, in the manner of small children:  “The little child should be so occupied with life, so lost in his living, that he is not aware that he is being educated…In the case of the older child it should be much the same and likewise with the youth and the man.  Let life be full, diversified, and abundant, and pitched on the humanistic levels of twentieth-century civilisation, and education cannot be prevented” (Bobbitt, 1924, p. 47).  Of course, some people find this much easier when there are formal opportunities and structures to participate in:  It is a shame that ongoing budget cuts to organisations such as Sure Start, libraries, further education colleges and the Open University make it increasingly difficult for communities to perceive education as ‘growing’ throughout one’s life.

Personalised learning?

“The most significant feature of the work of practical curriculum-making today is the tendency first to particularise with definiteness and in detail the objectives, and to do this in the light of actual human needs without regard to the nature or content of particular studies or textbooks”  (Bobbitt, 1921, p. 607-8).  Wouldn’t that be amazing?  No mention of  English and Maths SATs, FFTD, GCSE specifications, but of “actual human needs”.  Clearly this gets more complicated when dealing with 30 humans simultaneously and up to 600 humans every week.  But it’s still a luxurious thought.  What would your pupils choose to learn, were there no restrictions or expectations?  What would you most like to teach them?  Of course, it’s never that simple – and, should all the expectations to disappear, we’d probably be terrified.  Take the current situation with life after levels:  Most schools seem to be working with repackaged versions of the same material rather than explore new ways of assessing and reporting data, although this in part due to lack of preparation time prior to the change and perceived pressure from Ofsted to report frequently on progress.

Bobbitt does, however, prompt us to reconsider our own understandings of concepts such as curriculum, aims, objectives.  His example of an “epoch-making course in elementary-school reading” includes reference to “permanent interest”, “fluency”, “ability” and “habit” (Bobbitt, 1921, p. 608).  These seem commendable aims for any course or subject, emphasising the importance of benefiting from and continuing in learning beyond the classroom.  Bobbitt is particularly emphatic about skills:  “The various grade standards are, very wisely it seems, stated in terms of ability to do things rather than in terms of knowledge” (Bobbitt, 1921, p. 611).  Using this lens to read the current National Curriculum for music, it does not seem at odds with Bobbitt’s suggestions (National Curriculum).  Why, then, do music teachers often find it difficult to deliver an engaging and educating curriculum?  Time restraints, the need to prepare for progression to GCSE specifications, and school-wide initiatives all spring to mind, along with the aforementioned complexities of working with large cohorts.  Of course, GCSE Music does have some focus on knowledge, rather than just skills (and in other subjects this is far greater).  My own instinct is that, in an age where we can access information very readily, knowledge is now valuable only if it leads to understanding and further exploration:  It is disheartening that external assessment expectations do not always reward enquiry as equal to knowledge.

What, then, is meant by education?  Lifelong, growing from individual need and interest, pursuing the development of skills…Such definitions sit uncomfortably with much of what occurs in schools at present.  I wonder how those who choose to home-educate their children would respond.  Whether current policy makers have read Bobbitt and Dewey from a twenty-first century angle.  And what Bobbitt and Dewey would make of the current education system.

Finally, here’s pictorial evidence that learning can take place across the lifespan.  And in the pub!



Bobbitt, F. (1921).  A significant tendency in curriculum-making.  The Elementary School Journal.  21:8, pp. 607-615.

Bobbitt, F. (1921).  The new technique of curriculum-making.  The Elementary School Journal.  25:1, pp. 45-54.

Dewey, J. (1916).  Democracy and Education, Chapter IV.  Published online via wikisource.

Dewey, J. (1916).  Democracy and Education, Chapter V.  Published online via wikisource.

National Curriculum (2015, accessed October 27th).  https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/national-curriculum-in-england-music-programmes-of-study/national-curriculum-in-england-music-programmes-of-study


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