Learning Through Hanging Out

The principles of John Dewey’s “pedagogical vision,” applied to postsecondary education, should not be evaluated according to the techniques of teaching with which they are often identified. Many of these techniques are undeniably positive, and should be evaluated according to the vision of life that lies behind them and the way in which Dewey connects his idea of life to teaching and learning.

He considers life as intensively social in all respects, as ongoing, and as reflexive in the sense of being partly about its own continuation as a course of activity that has value in its own right.

This is how he can say that education is continuous with other life processes. But this means that the “formal” aspects of education are incapable on their own of educating. “Informal” aspects, which are self- and peer-determined, are just as important.

Once we admit that, we have to rethink our concepts of informal and formal since, taken together, they cannot be the same sorts of thing as when they are thought of as distinct. It follows that studying and completing assignments is only part of the educational process, and that criticisms of students for engaging in activities that are not directly subject to classroom discipline and course requirements, are shortsighted and based on false premises. The most important of those false premises is that formal aspects are sufficient to realize educational values, and that the informal aspects, what one might call “democratic aspects,” are irrelevant and should be minimized if not suppressed.

But acknowledging the insufficiency of the formal aspects implies that improvements in education may require emphasizing and validating precisely what many current critics deplore, namely facilities and activities that have no obvious connection to the formal curriculum and course requirements. As features of the learning environment, these may furnish students with opportunities to socialize, explore the experience of diversity, and to reflect on life in ways that are unavoidably continuous with formal aspects of education. In other words, some of what is learned in college is not registered in tests and outputs evaluation.

I think that the extreme emphasis on formal aspects has more to do with the desire to make life itself accountable in as many respects as possible. This may appeal to us because it allows us to set up “hard measures” for ostensibly rational assessments of costs and certain outputs-related benefits. Carried to the extreme, I believe this creates a situation incompatible with a valid idea of education.

My point is that to understand education as continuous with the rest of life requires that we reject the overemphasis on formal aspects and reconsider the significance of the informal aspects. These may include not only partying and spending time on the Internet, but conversations that cannot but be understood as absolutely indifferent to what goes on in the classroom. They also might include what appears as idle behavior, hanging out, and the like.

One of the most interesting student papers I have read was entitled “Hanging Out.” It was based on an assignment to “write about something you are expert in.” I was struck by her awareness of diversity and what it entails, and of apparently insignificant details that turned out to be significant. I was also impressed with her capacity to introspect in ways that enlarged upon ideas that were not at all alien to class—for example, her reflections on the appropriateness or lack thereof of what she was doing as a “participant observer.” My point is that the informal aspects of education are continuous with the formal and not discontinuous. Education did not vanish in the apparently idle activity of “hanging out.”

This is the key idea to understanding why the current wave of criticism of student behavior is not relevant to understanding what is wrong with higher education. Meaningful reform must include contributing to the relationship between formal and informal aspects. This requires rejecting the idea that student behavior should be transformed into strictly accountable activities, and increasing the informality of what is already over-formalized so that it becomes more like life. If this is consistent with a valid idea of education, then it poses no serious dangers of loss of “substance” and “quality. Rather, the likelihood is a gain in both if the integration of formal and informal aspects is done with care and conviction.

This requires an approach to teaching that is, as I put it in an earlier post, dialogical instead of monological, one in which the teacher is able to acknowledge in her teaching that she is also learning, and in which the student is enabled to learn in such a way that she can teach what she has learned, even in the course of learning it.

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