Collateral Learning: A Reading from John Dewey with Discussion Questions

From John Dewey, Experience and Education, 1938, pp. 47-51:

The principle of continuity in its educational application means, nevertheless, that the future has to be taken into account at every stage of the educational process.  This idea is easily misunderstood and is badly distorted in traditional education.  Its assumption is, that by acquiring certain skills and by learning certain subjects which would be needed later (perhaps in college or perhaps in adult life) pupils are as a matter of course made ready for the needs and circumstances of the future.  Now “preparation” is a treacherous idea.  In a certain sense every experience should do something to prepare a more expansive quality.  That is the very meaning of growth, continuity, reconstruction of experience.  But it is a mistake to suppose that the mere acquisition of a certain amount of arithmetic, geography, history, etc., which is taught and studied because it may be useful at some time in the future, has this effect, and it is a mistake to suppose that acquisition of skills in reading and figuring will automatically constitute preparation for their right and effective use under conditions very unlike those in which they were acquired.

Almost everyone has had occasion to look back upon his school days and wonder what has become of the knowledge he was supposed to have amassed during his years of schooling, and why it is that the technical skills he acquired have to be learned over again in changed form in order to stand him in good stead.  Indeed, he is lucky who does not find that in order to make progress, in order to go ahead intellectually, he does not have to unlearn much of what he learned in school.  These questions cannot be disposed of by saying that the subjects were not actually learned, for they were learned at least sufficiently to enable a pupil to pass examinations in them.  One trouble is that the subject-matter in question was learned in isolation; it was put, as it were, in a water-tight compartment.  When the question is asked, then, what has become of it, where has it gone to, the right answer is that it is still there in the special compartment in which it was originally stowed away.  If exactly the same conditions recurred as those under which it was acquired, it would also recur and be available.  But it was segregated when it was acquired and hence is so disconnected from the rest of experience that it is not available under the actual conditions of life.  It is contrary to the laws of experience that learning of this kind, no matter how thoroughly engrained at the time, should give genuine preparation.

Nor does failure in preparation end at this point.  Perhaps the greatest of all pedagogical fallacies is the notion that a person learns only the particular thing he is studying at the time.  Collateral learning in the way of formation of enduring attitudes, of likes and dislikes, may be and often is much more important than the spelling lesson or lesson in geography or history that is learned.  For these attitudes are fundamentally what count in the future.  The most important attitude that can be formed is that of desire to go on learning.  If impetus in this direction is weakened instead of being intensified, something much more than mere lack of preparation takes place.  The pupil is actually robbed of native capacities which otherwise would enable him to cope with the circumstances that he meets in the course of his life.  We often see persons who have had little schooling and in whose case the absence of set schooling proves to be a positive asset.  They have at least retained their native common sense and power of judgment, and its exercise in the actual conditions of living has given them the precious gift of the ability to learn from the experiences they have.  What avail is it to win prescribed amounts of information about geography and history, to win the ability to read and write, if in the process the individual loses his own soul; loses his appreciation of things worthwhile, of the values to which these things are relative; if he loses the desire to apply what he has learned and above all, loses the ability to extract meaning from his future experiences as they occur?

What, then, is the true meaning of preparation in the educational scheme?  In the first place, it means that a person, young or old, gets out of his present experience all that there is in it for him at the time in which he has it.  When preparation is made the controlling end, then the potentialities of the present are sacrificed to a suppositious future.  When this happens, the actual preparation for the future is missed or distorted.  The ideal of using the present simply to get ready for the future contradicts itself.  It omits, and even shuts out, the very conditions by which a person can be prepared for his future.  We always live at the time we live and not at some other time, and only by extracting at each present time the full meaning of each present experience are we prepared for doing the same thing in the future.  This is the only preparation which in the long run amounts to anything.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Explain the mistake Dewey claims educators may make in teaching (lines 9-14).  Do you agree or disagree?  Why or why not?
  2. Dewey claims that we often have to unlearn or relearn what we’ve supposedly learned in earlier classes (lines 16-20).  Is this a failure of education?  Why or why not?
  3. Dewey claims that we learn in isolation (lines 22-23).  What does he mean by that?  Can you think of an example (in your own teaching or elsewhere) of this learning-in-isolation?
  4. What is collateral learning?  (lines 34-36)  Can you think of an example (in your own teaching or elsewhere) of collateral learning?
  5. Dewey argues that the most important form of collateral learning is “learning how to learn” (lines 37-38).  Why does he argue that?  Do you agree or disagree with him?  Why or why not?
  6. How would you summarize the difference between “preparing for the present” as opposed to “preparing for the future”?  (lines 56-61)

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