published April 11, 2014

On the Radio: William James, John Dewey, and a Robotics Fair in New York

Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism students interviewed NCSCE executive director David Burns for a story they were producing on the role of a New York City robotics competition—now in its 14th year—in stimulating greater student interest in science learning and technology. You can listen to the brief report here.

In his 15-second part of the story, David makes a point almost everybody who has ever been to a SENCER gathering has heard him make before: if you start with a students' interest, you can get to the interest you the teacher hope the student will develop.

Fundamental to the "SENCER Ideals," David's claim is inspired by—indeed paraphrased from—William James in his "Talks to Teachers" from 1899. James, sometimes called the father of psychology in America, had read John Dewey's seminal "Pedagogical Creed" (1897) when he gave "Talks."

In the "Creed," John Dewey wrote:
I believe that this educational process has two sides—one psychological and one sociological; and that neither can be subordinated to the other or neglected without evil results following. Of these two sides, the psychological is the basis. The child's own instincts and powers furnish the material and give the starting point for all education. Save as the efforts of the educator connect with some activity which the child is carrying on of his own initiative independent of the educator, education becomes reduced to a pressure from without. It may, indeed, give certain external results, but cannot truly be called educative.
On the subject of "interest," addressing teachers, William James had this to say:
...there emerges a very simple abstract programme for the teacher to follow in keeping the attention of the child: Begin with the line of his native interests, and offer him objects that have some immediate connection with these... Next, step by step, connect with these first objects and experiences the later objects and ideas you wish to instill. Associate the new with the old in some natural and telling way, so that the interest, being shed along from point to point, finally suffuses the entire system of objects of thought.
Unbeknown to David when he was being interviewed, the reporters, Katie Toth and Lara McCaffrey, had also interviewed Cristina Carnegie, a ninth grader who tells the journalists that her fascination with robots and robotics might just be stimulating her to consider becoming an engineer.

Cristina happens to be a student at the John Dewey High School in Brooklyn. "How fitting is it that the one part of what I talked about that the reporters found so compelling were the seminal insights from Dewey and James. That the student who is benefitting from her teachers' enacting Dewey's ideas actually attends a school named for him is a memorial—and a cause for optimism—that would warm Dewey's heart. It would also, I am sure, please William James, as it does me," David said.