Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Thinking and Doing ala John Dewey.

Many years ago in his wonderful book How We Think John Dewey gave an example of inductive reasoning that involved one of the Lake Champlain ferries; this one, in fact, that is still running today. He stood on the car deck just in front of the wheel house and looked looked up. Above him was a pole sticking out from the wheel house some 15 feet long with a wooden ball on the end. (You can actually see it in the photo).

He started to wonder what it could be used for since there were no cables or ropes attached to it. He looked around and gathered information, reflecting on the relationship between all these pieces of information and what he already knew about things of a nautical nature. He noticed there was no pointed bow, just a ramp where cars boarded and left. He noticed how the wooden ball was just below the level of the pilot's window on the bridge and he noticed that the pole was right in the center of the boat. He then stood looking across the square "bow" of the ferry and noticed that it didn't seem to be aiming at anything like a pointed bow would. He then realized that the pilot used the pole with the ball on the end to aim the boat towards the ferry dock on the shore in the distance.

This dual aspect of Dewey's pragmatism is alive still in the St. Mike's undergraduate and graduate teacher education programs. Dewey believed that all teachers should have an "Inspired Vision", a belief about what comprises good teaching, and an "Executive Means", the ability to put that set of beliefs into practice. Neither is really any good without the other. Teachers have to be thinkers as well as doers; they need to base their practices on the best that is thought and said. This is why there are classes on campus for students where "Inspired Visions" take root and lots if practical experiences in schools where "Executive Means" are developed.

A long time resident of Burlington and professor at UVM John Dewey lies buried on the UVM campus near the Ethan Allen chapel.

One of the other things Dewey thought about on that summer day was why sparrows kept jumping up and disappearing into the front of the engine area just behind the front bumper of cars parked at the ferry dock. Can you work out why they were doing this?

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