Conceptualizing Educative Practices

By Michael Scroggins*

I believe that the school, as an institution, should simplify existing social life; should reduce it, as it were, to an embryonic form. – John Dewey, My Pedagogical Creed

In a series of works beginning in the 1970’s, Lawrence Cremin reworked Dewey’s utopian vision of the school as a model cooperative community, by taking it, to borrow a phrase from Joseph Dunne, back to the rough ground of everyday life. Partially in response to Illich’s withering broadsides against schooling, Cremin put forth an ecological theory of education positing that the school was but one of many institutions which educate. Instead of “deschooling society” as Illich argued for, we should turn the problem over, look to the broad range of educative practices occurring in the course of ordinary life, and treat the school as but one of many institutions which inevitably educate.

I would like to suggest here that Cremin’s reconceptualization of Dewey’s educational program from the school as society writ small to an ensemble of institutions that educate also demands an equal shift in the methods we employ to study educative practices: a shift from methods predicated on measuring the product of educative practice to a method of research more in line with Dewey’s theory of inquiry. That is, methods focused on the metacognitive process of figuring out what to figure out, which is both a process and a reflection upon the product of that process. This is necessitated by a shift in educational research from problem solving in a well-characterized domain, the classroom, with its fixed ends and means, to problem seeking in an ill-formed domain, everyday life, where the ends and means of educative practice exist in reciprocal relation.

Though Cremin’s program leans heavily on Dewey, he was also influenced by Margaret Mead, with whom he studied during a transitional period in her thinking on education. Following on the heels of the 1954 Stanford Conference, in 1958 Margaret Mead wrote a short article for the Harvard Business Review contrasting two modes of education: vertical transmission, the traditional transfer of traditional knowledge between successive generations implying a strong moral element, and horizontal transmission, the transfer of knowledge without the power/knowledge implications of the teacher/taught relationship. Mead writes that horizontal transfer has become the dominant mode in technological society and that educational research needs to develop new concepts and from them methods to keep pace.

To illustrate the point, Mead uses the mundane, for 1958, example of a child teaching her grandparents how to use a television. The grandchild can offer technical instruction on television tuning in an instrumental mode by imparting know-how to her grandparents, but the grandchild cannot be said to also impart sentimental guidance about what to and what not to watch on the television. The technical instruction in tuning from the grandchild is just one moment in an ongoing process of figuring out what to watch, which started with the idea that in 1958 a television is necessary and continues as long as there is a television to be watched. The grandchild’s instruction, therefore, doesn’t set the television watching in motion, but rather meets the grandparents in media res.

As Cremin wrote of people’s everyday efforts in Public Education (1976): ”Everyday in every part of the world people set out to teach something to others or to study something themselves. . . They deserve a theory specifically addressed to their problems and purposes, one that will assist them to act intelligently, ever hopeful of the possibilities but fully aware of the limitations and risks that attend their efforts.” Implied in the quote, as in his reworking of Dewey’s program, is a theory of educative practice for “the ordinary business of living;” it’s a theory focused on the public process of instruction and deliberation; not its private products.


*Michael Scroggins is a PhD student in Anthropology and Education at Teachers College, Columbia. Currently he is conducting research in and around Silicon Valley on DIYBio and Citizen Science in hackerspaces and other informal institutions (this means garages and kitchens for the most part).