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CCE staff and partner reflections on our collaborative work to create schools where learning is engaging and rewarding, and every student is set up for success.

Bridging the Dewey-Freire Divide

How Do We Ensure Education is Rigorous, Student-Centered, and Justice-Oriented?  

In posing this key question, Sarah Fine’s recent Education Week blog (“Why Dewey Needs Freire, and Vice Versa: A Call for Critical Deeper Learning”) struck a deep chord for me. I fundamentally believe combining these practices is the key to equitable and transformative education for all students. 

Deweyfreire

Why Is There a Divide?

In my view, the “Dewey-Freire divide” (as Fine terms it) has arisen due to the following misconceptions: 

  • Misconception #1: Deeper learning is a luxury that can only be offered in affluent, predominantly white environments.  

  • Misconception #2: Students need to memorize basic content knowledge (such as historical facts and dates) before they can focus on transferable skills or deeper learning (such as analyzing primary sources). This misconception has resulted in tracking and basic-skills classes for low-income communities and communities of color—a form of education that fails to engage students or provide the appropriate degree of rigor, contributing to achievement and opportunity gaps.  

  • Misconception #3: Content is neutral when engaging in deeper learning. However, there is a stark difference between a performance task that asks students to write a position paper arguing which was the most effective U.S. president and this Codman Acadmey task (see sidebar) that asks students to write a position paper arguing for which historically-marginalized group should receive a landmark to their accomplishments.  

If we accept these false dichotomies, if we tell ourselves that liberation is incompatible with rigor, then we do students and educators an incredible disservice and miss a key point. Nothing is more challenging than coming to see the injustices we are blind to, and nothing is more important to learn.  

Where Can We Bridge the Divide?

There doesn’t need to be a chasm between deeper learning and critical pedagogy. In fact, there are plenty of opportunities for common ground. 

  • Opportunity #1: Both Dewey and Freire believe the purpose of education is not the industrial model of producing compliant workers, but rather opening up the possibilities that exist within students’ own minds, their own ways of knowing and being.  

  • Opportunity #2: Both a critical pedagogy advocate and a deeper learning champion would object to the fact that many traditional classrooms emphasize the wisdom and authority of the teacher (who is often white) over the curiosity, skills, and active agency of the students in the classroom (increasingly students of color).  

  • Opportunity #3: Both camps agree about the importance of critical thought, although critical pedagogy further emphasizes that this critical thought should be applied to analyzing power structures.  

How Do We Do Both?

On the Quality Performance Assessment team at CCE, we support educators in creating rigorous, student-centered, culturally-responsive performance assessments. We believe that it is possible to create educational opportunities that both Dewey and Freire would approve of, although it can sometimes be hard to find examples in the field. 

To me, Youth Participatory Action Research (YPAR)—particularly as articulated by critical pedagogy scholars and practitioners, Jeff Duncan-Andrade and Ernest Morrell—bridges the Dewey-Freire divide. In a YPAR project, students become the researchers, rather than the objects of research. They conduct research that is relevant to their daily lives and the challenges they face in order to find meaningful solutions and take action. They have the opportunity to learn and deepen core academic and personal skills through applying them to challenging social problems. 

Here are a few examples that illustrate the power of YPAR: 

Project 

Topic 

Methods 

Outcome 

Best Practices Club, San Francisco, CA 

How can teachers improve their practice? 

Surveys for staff and students, interviews with staff, and classroom observations 

 

Students formed a club to observer teachers and provide feedback to strengthen teaching and learning 

YPAR Student Achievement Project, Cambridge, MA 

What makes students feel smart in classrooms?  

Qualitative research through collecting and coding testimonials 

Presentation to the superintendent  

FreshFlava, Bay Area, CA 

 

How to make a just food system a right in the Bayarea? 

Surveyed hundreds of people and conducted focus groups 

Presented research report to key governmental and organizationalrepresentatives who work on food issues locally  

If we can provide opportunities for students to engage in meaningful, rigorous, actionable learning, then we meld together the best of Dewey and Freire and help to ensure there is truly deeper learning for all students. 

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