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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

Learning By Doing Is Great — But What Is “Doing?”

In preparing for my Rutgers class I have been rereading Kieran Egan’s The Educated Mind  I like the book because it sets children’s literature within an understanding of the stages of a child’s cognitive development. As Egan explains it, John Dewey thought children needed to begin learning with the practical, the immediate, the world that was not only close at hand, but in which they could act and interact. It made no sense, so the great “progessive” educator thought, to teach them about ancient history — which they could neither see, touch, nor influence — and instead schooling should begin with “everyday experience and local environments.” Egan points out one way that this is wrong, and I’m going to add another.

Egan argues that the “everyday” for kids involves not just their physical world — the postman, the shopkeeper, the kitchen — but also concepts. Kids fundamentally know a world of binary categories — in fact it is that knowledge that runs through the earliest stories. They know safety and danger, freedom and oppression, lies and truth, cause and effect — and these are the themes of, say, Hansel and Gretel, Cinderalla, and Peter Rabbit. Kids don’t know any talking rabbits, rarely if every walk through woods without adults, and few have the most remote access to a royal ball. But they fill in those context blanks around principles that they know and enact at every playdate. Egan says that if we organized history around these narrative themes, the same kids who go to story time to hear Jack and the Beanstalk could just as happily hear about Alexander the Great, or Rosa Parks, or Jane Goodall.

Egan’s book was pubished in 1997, and perhaps that is why he didn’t notice the other way Dewey is wrong. For young children today, the immediate, the tactile, the world of “everyday experience” takes place in some form of media — on TV, on a Wii, on a playstation, at a movie, or in play with the myriad dolls, games, and giveaways generated to be sold with those other media products. Kids are far, far, less likely to know the slightest thing about the person who brings the mail or sells batteries for their toys at a Big Box store than they are about the latest episode of whichever superhero they like. If we really believe that education should begin with the immediate, then we should begin teaching by focusing on the heroes and villains of digital space. I really mean that — our early education is wrong two ways — wrong because, as Egan points out — there is no reason to select talking rabbits over world historical events, and wrong because kids now know caped crusaders far better than they know how to perform any task in the home. In our focus on the local — and, as I’ve written before, the insanity of treating the history of individual states as in any way significant — we are doing the opposite of what we claim. We are out of touch with kid’s actual experience, and thus neither true progressives nor true educators.