Monday, April 11, 2011

Dewey Defeats Montessori

As much as I am embracing these new, "outside-the-box", paradigm-shifting, digitally presented and open-ended concepts, I maintain that my fundamental ideas are timeless and go as far back as human cognitive development. This is of course, the theme under whose spell I was when I started this blog. To give some substance to this idea, I take you back a hundred years--almost literally a century.

I've done a lot of reading of late, trying to track down a picture of both John Dewey and Maria Montessori. What would have made this easy would have been if the two were clearly and diametrically--opposed. However, as in most situations looked at honestly, things are rarely so black-and-white. The more I read about these two, their times, their practices, the more muddled the comparisons get. Be that as it may, however, by starting off from the perspective that the so-called "Montessori method" still exists outside the mainstream today, one can go back to the nineteen-teens and find a loosely appropriate showdown beween these two career educators.

One more problem with discussing this so-called "Montessori Method"--as Montessori was never trademarked, there are no accepted defined standards. Thus, through the years, the practice of so-called Montessori Method may differ greatly from one school to the other. Still, I think it can be reasonably agreed upon that the application of self-directed learning is at the heart of the idea.

Accounts of John Dewey are voluminous. Educator, philosopher, psychologist, Dewey was a highly-educated man who certainly left his mark on the world of education in the early part of the 20th Century. There are defenders and critics of Dewey far and wide and, to be truthful, the more I read about the man the more I find myself in the latter camp. In fact, sitting here right now, Dewey strikes me as a self-important time-waster whose ultimate motive was dedicated to his own survival, and whose ideas have ultimately crippled American education at a time when it is most practically necessary. Do I have proof to back this up? No, not yet, at least but, seeing as how this is just a BLOG, I'm just going to throw that out there for now.

Montessori, an Italian physician and educator herself, was a contemporary of Dewey's. And, while many of her ideas have been borrowed over time--today's concept of a "children's museum" is clearly emblematic of the sort of hands-on, self-directed model endorsed by Montessori-- the concept of a school environment that is self-directed for children today appears to exist only for a select group of private, liberal, often upper-class people as opposed to public education as a whole.

While Dewey is clearly the giant in his area and using him allows me to come up with my oh-so clever entry title, the real "bad guy" in this comparison is one of Dewey's lackeys, William Heard Kilpatrick, whose The Montessori System Examined, published around in 1914, was a withering attack on Miss Montessori and her schools. It is fair to say that this method has yet to recover and why it only seems to exist today for the elite.

As I read more about self-directed learning and Problem-Based Learning as it applies to the emerging world of technologically-driven education, I am discovering that it as often useful to look to the past for ideas. Ironic as that sounds, it is helpful to re-examine old concepts in a new light. I think Miss Montessori and her Method may have their day in the sun yet.

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