Natural Impulses of the Child

This is an initial draft… as time allows, I will continue to develop this post.

John Dewey identified four natural impulses of children:

  • to inquiry
  • to communicate
  • to construct
  • to express

For experiences to be educative, he reasoned, they must allow students to follow these impulses. If we hold these to be true, and there is reason to do so, we must challenge much that we observe in classrooms, and the hyper-focus on standards and measuring outcomes that marks the current education landscape.

First, is there reason to accept Dewey’s impulses? Barbara Rogoff is well-know for describing guided participation which characterizes much of the mentor/ mentee relationships that exist in informal learning settings. In these, which are documented in many non-school settings in diverse cultures, we see the four impulses. Mizuko Ito and her colleagues document trends similar to Dewey’s natural impulses in the digital generations as well. These lead me to conclude that Dewey’s impulses do accurately capture the human impulse to learn.

Second, is the Standard Model of Education consistent with Dewey’s impulses? While we cannot conclude that every experience that happens within a traditional teacher-centered classroom is inconsistent with these impulses. Further, we can recognize that teachers and classrooms are flexible and variable, changing as the curriculum, the needs, and the students do.

In my observations of classrooms (including my own over 30 years in education), it is clear that experiences  aligned with Dewey comprise the minority of school experiences for students. Students are far more likely to consume information mediated by the teacher than to define interesting question to guide inquiry and knowledge construction. They are far more likely to be assessed on their  ability to recall the information they consumed than to be assessed on their ability to express knowledge they have constructed.

It appears the time is here for education to rediscover learners’ natural impulses and return these to the dominant role in organizing schooling.