Why Dewey Needs Freire Needs Merrill: A Response to the Call for Critical Deeper Learning

Why Dewey Needs Freire Needs Merrill: A Response to the Call for Critical Deeper Learning

About 8 months ago, I made a professional shift for the very personal reason of being home more consistently with my young family and on the road less. While I stayed in the field of education, I made what’s often feeling like a leap from one end of the ed world to another: from the deeper learning network to the world of online and blended.

Why do these realms of education feel worlds apart? At times, it’s as if one doesn’t know the other exists or proceeds onward purposefully avoiding the other. Research on online and blended appears to ignore or overlook the blended efforts of deeper learning network members. We seem to be living parallel lives, and I continue to feel disoriented by this.

I mentioned this oddity to my friend and former colleague (who is an active leader among deeper learning partners), and she shared with me Sarah M. Fine’s November 2016 Ed Week Learning Deeply blog post, “Why Dewey Needs Freire, and Vice Versa: A Call for Critical Deeper Learning.”

Fine does what I find to be a beautiful job of juxtaposing two schools of thought about education that could greatly benefit from the influence of and marriage with the other: the deeper learning people (Dewey) and the critical pedagogy people (Freire). I’d like to add a third school of thought into that mix and see what happens. Where do the instructional design people (Merrill) come in, and what can they learn from the others, and vice versa?

Who are these people?

Deeper Learning Critical Pedagogy Instructional Design
As a School Development Coach who trained and supported many teachers and leaders around Project Based Learning (PBL), some of my driving questions for supporting project ideation were:

  • What do you want and need your students to learn?
  • Who cares about that in the real world / in the field, and how do they use it?
  • How might you create an experience that has your students do what those folks in the field do?
  • What might it look like for your students to work together, in partnership with the folks who do that thing in the field, to solve, do, or create something real?
Fine writes, “..when critical pedagogy folks think about teaching and learning, they ask questions such as:

  • Are the histories and perspectives of historically marginalized groups reflected in the curriculum?
  • Are questions about racism, classism, patriarchy, and other “isms” an explicit part of the content with which students are asked to grapple?
  • Are students learning to see, critique, and resist power dynamics that contribute to the continued oppression of themselves and others?”
As a Professional Learning Coach primarily focused on online professional learning now, I work with instructional designers who are guided by the following when developing content:

  • What will learners know and be able to do by the end of this learning experience?
  • How will you activate what learners already know so that it can serve as a foundation for new knowledge?
  • How will you demonstrate new knowledge to learners?
  • How will a learner make sense of and apply this new knowledge?
  • How will this new knowledge be integrated into the learner’s world?

Fine suggests the deeper learning folks could learn from the critical pedagogy folks by expanding the perspective of authentic projects to include critical questions that require unearthing, analyzing, and resisting patterns of oppression and structural inequities. She suggests the critical pedagogy folks could learn from the deeper learning folks by developing more authentic opportunities for students to apply their powerful learning.

What’s still missing here? This is where the instructional designers come in. Instructional designers understand how people learn and can shape the flow of a learning process to honor that. Instructional design principles can help the most visionary deeper learning advocate take an idea and develop the structures and steps to bring it to life for students in ways that elicit high quality products (something that can often take PBL facilitators years to figure out). Designers bring coherence to the “messy middle.” Instructional design can help the critical pedagogy folks bring their goals to life by extending beyond critical thinking to assuming integration of new critical knowledge into one’s world as the norm. Instructional designers understand that nothing can be left unsaid.

What can instructional designers learn from Dewey and Freire? Deeper learning and critical pedagogy can bring life, humanity, greater purpose, and attentiveness to equity to instructional design – these schools of thought can bring new meaning, for designers, to the question, “To what end?”. In the process of “scripting” a learning process aligned to Merrill’s principles, it can be easy to get complacent – to follow the Activation – Demonstration – Application – Integration steps without thinking about a broader, meaningful purpose, about cultural competency or relevance, or about how to scaffold 21st Century Skills such as written and oral communication or collaboration.  This might be my own learning curve in this new role of mine, but instructional design can become a bit of an echo chamber for a designer and as a result, I have a feeling, for the learner…just like we’re tending to do in the education silos Fine so accurately called out in her piece. Instructional design, or the online learning space in general, could benefit from more realness, relevance and authenticity.

I can’t end this post without naming what Fine also names: that the deeper learning world tends to be pretty white. And pretty male. So far in this new job of mine, the same can be said of the online and blended “space.” We can’t presume to understand critical pedagogy unless we actively learn and engage in it ourselves. We should be actively recruiting people of color into these overly white corners of the ed field while building bridges between them. Such active recruitment will require deeper, critical reflection on our own biases in order to engage intentionally in such an effort.

We need to be one another’s thought partners in this field of education. I genuinely believe that from our little, innovative arenas, we all passionately want to improve the system for every single educator and learner out there. I think we can be all three and more, together. Plus, I don’t want the deeper learning people to forget about me…


An end note: I have a hunch that there are examples of these 3 schools of thought living together in harmony, and I’d love to see them. Please share! And to my researcher friends, show me where the work is that acknowledges the interwoven nature of the blended and deeper learning spaces. I’m sure it’s out there.