I just finished John Dewey's Democracy and Education. Light reading it is not, but I felt that I was definitely overdo in reading it.
There are many things to take away from this seminal education text, but one of the things that is most influencing my thinking at the moment was his focus on education as growth, rather than preparation for some future event. Often, educators tell students that something is essential for them to get a good grade on a test they have to take, or to get into college, or to get a scholarship, or because their future boss will want them to be able to do it. I've given this rationale many times, but Dewey's text has made me rethink this.
Education, says Dewey, should focus on the growth of the individual in the here and now. Education should not be preparation for something:
Children proverbially live in the present; that is not only fact not to be evaded, but it is an excellence. The future just as future lacks urgency and body.
He goes on to explain what follows if educators do emphasize the future and education as preparation for some aspect of the future:
The future having no stimulating and directing power when severed from the possibilities of the present, something must be hitched on to it to make it work. Promises of reward and threats of pain are employed. Healthy work, done for present reasons and as a factor of living, is largely unconscious. The stimulus resides in the situation with which one is actually confronted. But when this situation is ignored, pupils have to be told that if they do not follow the prescribed course penalties will accrue; while if they do, they may expect, some time in the future, rewards for their present sacrifices. Everybody knows how largely systems of punishment have had to be resorted to by educational systems which neglect present possibilities in behalf of preparation for the future.
How many times have you thought (or said), "Why can't these kids think about their futures? Don't they care?" I know I have several times. But, let's think about it. How many adults do you know actually think in depth about their futures? How many would make huge sacrifices now to get some benefits in the future? Not a lot. Probably more than you would find in adolescents, but we've had the experiences to realize that it pays off.
Adolescents, young in age, think about the here and now. Whether that is right or wrong, I don't think that it has ever been that different. Some may be really driven, but that is usually the exception, not the rule. So, given that human nature is what it is, shouldn't we account for that in our curriculum and methods and make their learning relevant for their lives now?
Whenever I give students a choice in reading or writing topics, they always pick something that interests them now. Very few will choose a book because they think it will be useful to them in college or choose a writing form because it will help them in their future careers. In those assignments, I see students put more work into the activity and have a higher turn-out rate when the assignment comes do. I doubt that this is any different in any other classroom.
I know what critics will say: The kids don't know what is coming for them and we do so we have to prepare them. We (adults) know better and we have a responsibility. We are doing what is in their best interests even if they don't understand it right now.
I would answer that learning about the here and now is important and is in their best interests. Dewey says:
If education is growth, it must progressively realize present possibilities, and thus make individuals better fitted to cope with later requirements. Growing is not something which is completed in odd moments; it is a continuous leading into the future. If the environment, in school and out, supplies conditions which utilize adequately the present capacities of the immature, the future which grows out of the present is surely taken care of. The mistake is not in attaching importance to preparation for future need, but in making it the mainspring of present effort.
We should keep an eye on the future, yes. We do have the responsibility. But, this does not mean that we make it our focus. Our focus should be on the concerns of our students in the present. As they grow, so will their concerns and step-by-step they will become prepared for their futures.