“We are not teaching our children … what they need to know.”

The world is moving at a tremendous rate; no one knows where. We must prepare our children not for the world of the past, not for our world, but for their world. The world of the future.    –  John Dewey

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I met Grant Lichtman when he was on his education journey – a road trip with an itinerary that took him to dozens of schools across the country.

You can read all about those visits on his blog The Learning Pond.

At my invitation, he graciously included Poughkeepsie Day School on his tour and spent an afternoon with us. One of the questions he asked was whether there was anything we and other forward-looking schools were doing that was not presaged by John Dewey. And of course the answer to that had to be: “No”.

I was delighted to hear him say in his presentation at the NAIS Annual Conference in Philadelphia (Twitter hashtag #naisac13 ) that he could distil the key findings of his school visits to one word: Dewey. That very short clip above is from a video that provides a glimpse of America’s twentieth century education journey. See the whole video at the end of the post.

Seems to me that we – or some of us at least – are now entering a new progressive era of Tinker, Tailor, Solder, Sew and  LBD (Learning by Doing). In some respects, and for some children, we are now in another golden age for learning. There’s a growing movement toward tinkering, maker-spaces, fab labs, problem/ project-based learning, STEM to STEAM and design thinking. There’s a renewed recognition of the importance of student engagement, creative contribution, authenticity, relevance and diverse intellectual activity. Maybe there will even be a new Eight Year Study to provide the evidence of efficacy.  (One can dream!)

These practices allow learners to construct and build their knowledge and their future by honoring their creativity, curiosity, capacity,  intentions and dreams.

Dewey would be very happy at this counter to the current deadening but all too prevalent pre-progressive era practices of NCLB-driven standards, testing and competitive races to nowhere.

In Philadelphia, Grant presented a summary of his key findings from his EdJourney and his conclusions about what holds us back from the courage to follow ideas and dreams and to do what is right for students and our schools.  We’ve constructed, he says, anchors, dams and silos that have allowed us to forget what Dewey taught us about children, education, school communities and democracy.
We have tied ourselves to the sea bed with subjects, schedule and space; we have blocked the avenues to change and flat-lined progress especially with, for example, high school testing and AP’s; and walled ourselves off into isolated departments and divisions. And I would add, schools.
Among the key findings that I heard: Innovative schools do the following:
  • Reward courage. They do what is right and not what is easy.
  • Align resources with vision
  • Develop people
  • Align time with learning outcomes
  • Hire people with a growth mind-set (Dweck)
  • Give people the tools/ skills to do the job
  • Build systems and structures that fan change and incubate innovation
  • Focus on value
  • Find and build bridges of common interest among all constituents
  • Are organizationally comfortable with constant change and self evolution

And my favorite line: “Innovation means doing what John Dewey told us to do.”

Back in Poughkeepsie I dug up my dog-eared Dewey and started to re-read. In the end I found a free Kindle version and used the highlight feature to make notes.

From an earlier reading I had made the following summary:

Key ideas: from Democracy and Education – John Dewey 1916

  • Need to be be problem finders and solvers
  • Learn by being active and actively engaged in their education as agents and  participants not spectators
  • Need to be engaged and interested in order to learn


  • The mission and purpose of schools is to enrich, enlarge and enhance  students’ lives
  • School is the real world and should be like the real world and not merely a preparation for the real world
  • The curriculum should be relevant and have meaning in students lives not just as a preparation for vocation, work and career but also leisure and a full life
  • Subjects should be connected and seamless (interdisciplinary) as they are in life not taught in isolation
  • Need to acknowledge individual differences and that children are individual learners on a unique learning journey
  • Need to pay attention to the individual differences in prior knowledge that each child brings to the task
  • Need to respect and go with students natural energy and curiosity and not try to fight or control it


  • Occurs best through doing, not by drills but through activity – active participation and engagement
  • Passive learning is not authentic learning until the learner has made the inert knowledge personal through activity and doing/ making/ creating
  • Knowledge is obtained by reflecting on the consequences of activity
  • Should build upon prior knowledge and connect with it via active thinking and doing
  • New material should relate to – and build upon – prior knowledge

It all sounds very foundational and basic to me. Any objections to any of that? Perhaps my re-reading will lead to an update.

Grant had some rather amusing and acerbic remarks about the excuses we make for not doing the work. We claim that it’s hard when it is actually just uncomfortable. Removing the Nazis from Europe was hard, crossing the Delaware in winter was hard. Doing what is right for our students is not so much!

There was more to his presentation but I’ll save that for another time.

This presentation was a preview of the book Grant is writing about his journey and his findings. I can’t wait!

Here is a short section from the introduction to his earlier book. The Falconer:

We are not teaching our children, our students, and our co-workers what they really need to know. The lessons aren’t out there on some shelf or Web site. They won’t be found with more money and more programs to push more stuff in more different ways at our kids and our employees. It’s not about computer-to-student ratios, distance learning, high-speed links to the Library of Congress, or lecture podcasts. It’s not a pricey selfhelp guru claiming that his “new thing” is new, seven cookbook steps to success, or ten simple mileposts to make a million for your company.
       Those tools help, but they are the dressing, like ornaments on a Christmas tree. We need to pay attention to the tree itself. Look at the people who invented computers, who designed the Internet, who overcame the Depression, who envisioned the best sellers, who challenged racism, who explored the ocean depths, who built the Panama Canal, who created the management-consulting firms that you hire to tell you how to run your business more efficiently. I want my children and my employees and my co-workers and my friends to exhibit qualities like invention, courage, creativity, insight, design, and vision a lot more than I want them to know the capitals of South America or the sequence of presidents and kings, fractions, computer science, art history, running a cash register, or throwing a football.
       In short, I want us to spend more time teaching how to generate and recognize elegant solutions to the many problems facing our world.Why in our great system of child rearing and primary, secondary, college, graduate, and postgraduate education is there no course of study titled something like Strategies for Becoming Who I Want to Be?
From the introduction to The Falconer by Grant Lichtman
Thanks for all the work, inspiration and leadership Grant.

1 Comment

  1. Jane Taylor:

    Innovation! Such a buzz word. Yet it’s what we should always be doing all the time. It’s what children need as always enter the new world leave us to ours. Our job is to help them do that: Understand our past and move to their future. It’s not always easy!

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