Towards an Educational Philosophy for the Twenty-first Century Classroom

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Towards an Educational Philosophy for the Twenty-first Century Classroom

Kelvin YEW


How would we, as educators, prepare our students for a rapidly changing and increasingly complex world? This essay examines the prospect of applying a new educational philosophy in the twenty-first century classroom that integrates postmodern insights with Dewey's educational philosophy. The desired vision of Dewey is to release the student's fullest potential for growth through dialogue, creativity and freedom. With its focus on learning and innovation, which are of great relevance in this new century, Dewey's educational philosophy is worth revisiting. His ideas are especially applicable in today's postmodern world, which challenges conventions, emphasises diversity, tolerates ambiguity, celebrates change and innovation, and stresses on the constructions of reality.

The Need for a New Educational Philosophy in the Twenty-first Century

With a gradual shift towards innovation-intensive activities in the New Economy, there is a need to rethink existing labour-intensive approaches in order to stay relevant. What is needed is a set of twenty-first century skills, which can be broadly categorised into learning and innovation skills; information, media and technology skills; and life and career skills. These skill sets are defined as follows (Partnership for 21st Century Skills, 2004):

Learning and innovation skills

  • Creativity and innovation skills
  • Critical-thinking and problem-solving skills
  • Communication and collaboration skills

Information, media and technology skills

  • Information literacy
  • Media literacy
  • Literacy in information and communication technology

Life and career skills

  • Flexibility and adaptability
  • Initiative and self-direction
  • Social and cross-cultural skills
  • Productivity and accountability
  • Leadership and responsibility

Among these three skill sets, learning and innovation skills lay the foundation for students to acquire the other sets of skills. The specific characteristics of learning and innovation skills are as follows (ibid.):

Creativity and innovation skills

  • Demonstrating originality and inventiveness in work
  • Developing, implementing and communicating new ideas to others
  • Being open and responsive to new and diverse perspectives
  • Acting on creative ideas to make a tangible and useful contribution to the domain in which the innovation occurs

Critical-thinking and problem-solving skills

  • Exercising sound reasoning in understanding
  • Making complex choices and decisions
  • Understanding the interconnections among systems
  • Identifying and asking significant questions that clarify various points of view and lead to better solutions
  • Framing, analysing and synthesising information in order to solve problems and answer questions

Communication and collaboration skills

  • Articulating thoughts and ideas clearly and effectively through speaking and writing
  • Demonstrating ability to work effectively with diverse teams
  • Exercising flexibility and willingness to be helpful in making necessary compromises to accomplish a common goal
  • Assuming shared responsibility for collaborative work

Against the backdrop of the New Economy, the governments in many countries recognise the urgency to change the way their citizens think, work and play as twenty-first century knowledge workers. An example is the Singapore Ministry of Education's Thinking Schools, Learning Nation initiative, which aims to nurture thinking students and adults who can meet the needs of this century (Ministry of Education, 2004). The Group of Eight nations envision nurturing “global innovation societies” through the greater integration of education, research and innovation in educational institutions such that learners will actively apply knowledge and not just acquire information and facts (G8 Summit, 2006). Indeed, the rapidly evolving knowledge economy coupled with intense globalisation calls for renewed educational approaches, structures and cultures, and the role of teachers is critical to the success of this change (Liew, 2005). Educational change and its progress still largely depend on teachers' response and planning—that is, what the teachers do and think (Fullan, 2001).

To equip students with twenty-first century skills, it is critical for schools to become significant learning environments and not just providers of useless knowledge (Gardner, 1982). There must be connections made between the skills teachers are teaching and the issues students encounter in the real world. Unless our students find joy in learning, learning will always remain as a tool rather than a process of knowledge creation and self-realisation. Schank and Birnbaum (1994) argue that the school has to redesign its pedagogy so that knowledge is not represented as a given set of facts and information that students have to know; rather, students should learn via a collaborative process in a community of inquirers. The key mission for educators in the New Economy is to nurture young men and women who are able to do new things and not merely repeating “tried and tested” approaches of what other generations of learners have done. Students need to be independent learners and critical thinkers to be able to manage the massive array of information available today. As we are getting more involved in contexts of problem solving and decision making in our work, thinking strategies have been recognised as “one of mankind's most effective tools for the economic growth of a nation as well as for the social, emotional and material well-being of its citizens” (Borich & Ong, 2006, p. 11). To equip students for the future workplace, there is a need for teachers to adopt a new mindset and design a dynamic curriculum that caters to students' learning needs. Teachers should also align classroom discussions with real-world challenges rather than dispensing model answers and standard responses to students.

In implementing the teaching of twenty-first century skills in schools, governments face a number of challenges. The education authorities in most nations may not be able to make the paradigm shift towards the creation of new knowledge and solving of new problems in schools (Fadel et al., 2007). Instead, they may make piecemeal changes to their existing education systems, in which knowledge acquisition and learning is a step-by-step process with teacher talk, routine assessment and packaged learning materials that are of no direct relevance to students' immediate environment. For students, the strong emphasis on grades and assessment has also led to fragmentation in learning (Miller, 2007), which makes the inculcation of twenty-first century skills difficult. The obsession with examinations, tests and assignments in the current systems of education around the world has resulted in shallow thinking and ineffective learning in classrooms. Students in general merely memorise notes and textbooks without trying to make sense of the material. Many students regard academic learning as irrelevant since they are not able to connect what they learn in school to their everyday experiences (Garlikov, 2000). For them, schools are offering “systems of learning so completely at odds with the way people function in the outside world” (Shanker, 1988). The school as a social institution is inevitably perceived as boring, meaningless and unrelated to the real world and to survival in the workplace.

How can we, as educators, prepare our students for a rapidly changing and increasingly complex world? Are we essentially removing education from life and teaching students to be “spectators” rather than “active agents” in a dynamic world of events (Martin, 1992)? Or can we create an interactive environment where students are exposed to different thinking dispositions and various points of view so that they can make sense of the complexities of world affairs? Higher-order thinking in classroom discussions is hence essential to elicit nuanced interpretations, judgments, uncertainties and solutions such that students can become “regulators” of their thinking processes (Resnick, 1987). A rigorous and relevant framework is needed in promoting critical inquiry that involves systematic questioning and careful appraisal. The pursuit of an educational philosophy in classroom teaching allows teachers to develop their capacity “for self-expression and reflection, for exchange and debate of ideas and for dealing with problems for which there are no easy answers” (American Philosophical Association, 2001). This educational philosophy will enable teachers to identify issues and matters pertinent to the essential questions in daily teaching as well as to strengthen their educational beliefs.

Revisiting John Dewey's Educational Philosophy

As the father of experiential education and founder of the progressive education movement, John Dewey (1859–1952) gained prominence as an educational reformist in his times with works such as The School and Society (1899), The Child and the Curriculum (1902), How We Think (1910), Democracy and Education (1916) and Experience and Education (1938). Dewey's educational philosophy is a paradigm shift from the traditionalist curriculum-centred and structured approach, in which the school system “has always been a function of the prevailing type of organization of social life” (Dewey, 1896, p. 285). Syllabus-bounded and teacher-centred, students gradually lose the freedom to discover and their interest in learning. If schools desire to become agencies of social reform, there must be a reconstruction of their educational philosophy to customise it to the times.

Dewey views human beings or communities as complex natural organisms that have to passively adapt or actively transform the environment for their survival. Dewey rejects social Darwinism and its famous maxim “survival of the fittest”, as it fails to account for the fact that communities will adjust to their changing environment through critical inquiry on their part. New discussions in the community will reconstruct the existing social order for greater relevance. Dewey prefers an evolutionary account of events to “teleological” explanations (phenomena being explained as something determined by an ultimate purpose or design), as we have to acknowledge the fact that we do not know what the future holds unless we debate and critique on the possibilities of change, development and progress. People, he believes, are social animals “who will learn through active interplay with others and the tangent of learning will increase as these activities become more meaningful” (Sadker & Sadker, 1994, p. 372).

The central concept in Dewey's philosophy of education is experience and growth. Learners need to constantly and consistently reconstruct their experiences to make sense of future events. Diversity, rather than homogeneity, of opinions, thoughts and perspectives is celebrated. Education is seen as an endless experiment where teachers are actively involved with students to secure the most complete and effective understanding possible at that specific time and in that specific context of learning. The desired vision of Dewey's educational philosophy is to release the student's fullest potential for growth through dialogue, creativity and freedom (Dewey, 1924). It is therefore vital for an educator to adopt “a theory of experience” and tailor discussions to take into account students' prior experiences, opening up opportunities for further learning and thereby expanding students' understanding of their contributions in society (Dewey, 1938).

Dewey regards the school as a primarily social institution and a form of community life where education is a process of living for students (Dewey, 1897). Active participation and the acceptance of pluralistic voices in class will evoke greater social realisation among students (Garrison, 1999). Dewey distinguishes between “individual minds” and “just individuals with minds”, the latter being more passive learners, who conform to the existing social values without engaging in critical inquiry. The former group, on the other hand, allows thinking to become the instrument for solving real-world problems, anchoring this learning or discussion in the community where the individual and his or her society should be considered as a whole. This practical philosophical approach will create a society of free individuals whose capacity to think independently will blossom. Teaching in the classroom is not to do what the student or teacher likes, but it should include critique and evaluation. As Dewey explains, nurturing thinking individuals “does not mean that the teacher is to stand off and look on—the alternative to furnishing ready made subject matter and listening to the accuracy with which it is reproduced is not quiescence, but participation, sharing in an activity” (1924, p. 188). It is the responsibility of the teacher to make use of student responses to guide their activities in school towards valuable results (Mayhew & Edwards, 1966). A Deweyan teacher may be an English language teacher in a primary school who guides his or her students in a group project on environmental protection (Tan, 2006). The teacher could introduce the project topic using videos, newspaper articles and songs on the environment, or even invite representatives from environmental groups to speak to students. Students are encouraged to take the initiative in researching into the topic and presenting the project in creative ways, mediated by the teacher acting as a resource facilitator. Democratic processes are maintained throughout with students working collaboratively in groups, sharing ideas and resolving differences through dialogue and with guidance from the teacher.

With its focus on learning and innovation, which are of great relevance in this new century, Dewey's educational philosophy is worth revisiting. It will provide teachers with some fundamental understanding of how to guide learners through the complexities of issues by solving real-world problems. The critical inquiry process in solving such problems allows students to deal with current issues and contingencies in handling tasks which are required by future employers. Dewey's perspective on education has inspired teachers to focus more on the quality of student interaction and its dynamics, spawning new teaching methods such as problem-based learning, cooperative learning and the use of case studies. Teachers become more aware of their role as facilitators, who stimulate new discussions in class rather than imposing ideas on learners. Critical thinking is promoted, which entails engaging in reflective thought and adopting an open mind. Students are encouraged to raise questions, examine critical issues and ponder solutions in the learning process. The emphasis on learners' critical thinking in teaching will also correct teachers' indiscriminate use of technological tools such as computer presentations, blogs, podcasts, Web sites, forums, tag-boards and wikis as substitutes for classroom teaching. The review of Dewey's educational philosophy with reference to the needs of the New Economy has made us better educators not just in terms of the design of pedagogy but also with regard to the renewed emphasis on intellectual development and higher-order thinking, which have been neglected in our current content-focused curriculum and assessment systems. Ultimately, as educators, we should not be so much interested in how well we have taught and delivered the subject matter but in nurturing individuals with thinking minds in the process of learning.

Implications of Dewey's Educational Philosophy for the Postmodern World

Dewey's perspective on education is especially applicable in today's postmodern world, where the process of inquiry and analysis can be rather non-linear. The postmodernism movement is characterised by its challenge of conventions, emphasis on diversity, tolerance of ambiguity, celebration of change and innovation, and stress on the “constructions” of reality (Beck, 1993). It is not the direct rejection of the modernist concepts of science, ethics, language and reason but the reluctance to believe prescribed answers to issues that distinguishes the postmodern perspective from the rest of the dispositions (Lyotard, 1984). Deconstructionism is also regarded as synonymous with postmodernism (Sarup, 1989). An intellectual trend that is characterised by discursive explanations about phenomena, postmodernism is not just a philosophical movement but can also be found in arts, music, dance and literature (Hutcheon, 1989). The postmodernism movement has helped both students and teachers to appreciate “realities” that are more complex than we have expected.

Dewey's educational philosophy encourages teachers and students to explore the postmodern perspectives of questioning prescribed answers and considering multiple realities. Under Dewey's interpretation, if knowledge is active and a social product of interaction between our ideas and our experience of the world, then students have to deconstruct the realities hidden within the issues, which may be masked by political, sociocultural and media agendas, traditions and prejudices. The exploration and discovery of new realities will surprise us in ways that will make us change our mind and position (Frye, 1983). As such, knowledge is transient and changes over time, continually bringing new impacts to the communities we live in. Dewey's approach positions the learner as the centre of the learning experience, and the postmodern perspectives prompt the learner to question the authenticity of the realities represented by highlighting important reference points for scrutiny. The constant questioning, observing and theorising of life and its realities creates new knowledge in the learner's very own distinctive situation. It makes us realise that there are perhaps many more probabilities than certainties where knowledge can be ambiguous and “unstable” at the same time. In the postmodern age, students can learn to refute generalised accounts of what realities are, reject singular explanations, and decipher ideological bias and hegemonic influences from their investigation of issues.

Tan (2006) illustrates how a teacher can apply the Deweyan emphasis of student-centred learning in a postmodern classroom. A history teacher could get students to read two primary sources that present contrasting accounts of World War II in Asia—one from the Japanese government and the other from the Chinese government. The teacher could explore with students the different versions of this history and how the identities and experiences of the Chinese people are interpreted differently owing to different historical and social conditions. In particular, the teacher could introduce discourses from oppressed groups, whose voices are not commonly represented in historical accounts, such as the oppressed and poor civilians and the forced “comfort women” during the war. Since a key postmodern perspective is that no single narrative based on a specific source should be presented as the foundation of ideas, beliefs and values, a variety of narratives should be employed for students to see the plurality of voices from those in power and those who are marginalised. Through this approach, students will be able to recognise the different constructions of reason and knowledge in specific historical contexts and learn to reflect on, reinterpret, reformulate and construct their own identities and histories.

Concluding Remarks

A new educational philosophy for the twenty-first century classroom is born when we synergise Dewey's philosophical insights and the postmodern views in classroom teaching and learning. By applying this philosophy, we are acknowledging that many issues require ongoing discussions, being plagued by complexities that can never be fully resolved. Existing issues such as national sovereignty conflicts, terrorism and environmental problems can never be fully eradicated. Teachers and students should realise that there are no perfect solutions and no singular perspective that should dominate these discussions. Such an attitude will help us reject simplistic responses and avoid complacency and entrenched interpretations. Eventually, new dialogues will take place and fresh perspectives can be generated.

Although this new integrated educational philosophy encourages deeper questioning and active discussion in our classrooms, the inquiry must be approached pragmatically (Rorty, 1991). Students are advised not to deconstruct all existing social structures, as the complexity, scope and intensity of issues can be overwhelming, creating unnecessary confusion and distress. Teachers have a significant role to play in systematically mediating these discussions to give students some sense of direction with salient points provided for their consideration. Specific learning materials should also be provided at appropriate moments to support students in their learning.

Schools need to be the innovation centres for students to prepare themselves for the workplace. In the new century, where knowledge is seen as a new form of capital, schools and educators have to rethink the purpose and value of the school experience. The knowledge worker will have to make radical changes and change fast to meet the demands of the knowledge economy (see Drucker, 1994). Schools need to revisit their educational philosophy and promote critical inquiry as part of this philosophy so as to deepen students' understanding of the subject matter and enhance their capacity for independent and purposeful learning. The discussion in this essay, it is hoped, will encourage teachers to adopt Dewey's educational philosophy and the postmodern insights in their daily teaching or their long-term strategic framework in teaching.


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Further Reading

Boisvert, R. D. (1998). John Dewey: Rethinking Our Time. New York: State University of New York Press.

Dewey, J. (1910). How We Think. Boston: D. C. Heath. (Republished 1991, New York: Prometheus Books.)

Dewey, J. (1924). Democracy and Education. New York: Macmillan. (Originally published 1916, New York: Free Press.)

Westbrook, R. B. (1991). John Dewey and American Democracy. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

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