Education and the Meaning of “Growth”

Is education primarily about growth?  What exactly is “growth,” and does it always equal “education”?

The philosopher John Dewey defined education as an accumulation of experiences that stimulate both growth and the capacity for further growth. In Experience and Education, Dewey tells us, “…the educative experience can be identified with growth,” and further clarifies that we must understand “growth…in terms of the active participle, growing.” However, he specifies that not all experience is educative: “Any experience is mis-educative that has the effect of arresting or distorting the growth of further experience.”  He goes on to say, “…when and only when development in a particular line conduces to continuing growth does it answer to the criterion of education as growing.”

According to Dewey, growth is a process of change or evolution, but it is not, in and of itself, a positive thing.  We can grow in negative ways, and such growth can limit our ability to grow in the future.  Such growth is not educative.

As a student, for example, I can have experiences that lead me to be dependent on others for my learning.  If my early teachers teach me that “learning” involves parroting material I learn in textbooks, then I will grow in that direction, and when I leave formal schooling behind, I may have difficulty learning in other contexts; I will have a limited capacity to think independently and to learn creatively from non-textbook-generated experiences.

When our students arrive in our CEGEP classrooms, they have each had a unique set of experiences.  Some have had many experiences that have been conducive to growth.  Even if they are not yet cognitively ready to be thoroughly “independent” thinkers (and Baxter Magolda would say that most of them are not), some have nevertheless been well prepared to become such independent thinkers, because they have been asked to grapple with challenging, open-ended tasks in the past, and have received some sort of satisfaction or reward for their efforts.  They may also have models – parents, older siblings, teachers, coaches – who have demonstrated for them how to be learners, who have modeled curiosity, hard work, creativity, and excitement about new knowledge.  These students arrive already knowing how to learn.

Some of our students, however, have been stunted in their growth; they have grown in directions that have cut them off from further evolution.  They are easily frustrated and angered by difficult questions and tasks.  They want to be told what to think, or else they are infuriated when their ideas are challenged.  Some shut down, and stop coming to class, or to school altogether.  Perhaps this is because “growth” is a frightening prospect for some of them – growth inevitably involves leaving old ways and knowledge behind, and for some students this may seem daunting or impossible.  Or is it, in some cases, because their previous experiences have not equipped them for the kinds of analysis and critical thinking we ask of them, and we are not providing them with new experiences that will help bridge that gap?

Let’s imagine, for example, that I return a student’s first paper, and that student has failed.  Let’s imagine that the student becomes frustrated and angry, and accuses me of “grading too hard.”  I’m likely to become irritable and defensive in such a situation, but if I step back, I may be able to surmise that this student has never learned how to deal productively with failure – his past growth in this area has led him to an impasse.

It is my job, as his teacher, to teach him how to learn from failure – to provide him with an experience of failure that leads to learning.  What can I say to him that will turn this experience from a negative to a positive one?  That is, how can I transform this experience from a blow to his self-esteem into an opportunity for growth?

How can failure help us grow?  For one thing, it can give us the impetus to ask important questions.  If I understand this, I can communicate this to the student.  I can ask him, “Why do you think this paper should pass?  Why do you think it failed?  What comments have I made that you don’t understand?  Look over the first page of the paper, and then ask me three questions.”  It’s possible that this student has never been given the opportunity to ask sincere questions about his failures, nor has he received sincere answers.  Students who learn from failure almost always have this skill, and it’s a skill that is fairly easy to demonstrate, if not always easy to absorb.

Other qualities – the willingness to take risks, an openness to new ideas, an ability to identify what one doesn’t know, a talent for organization – may seem like innate characteristics, but it would be interesting to analyze the degree to which these qualities are in fact skills that are learned through appropriate experience, and to consider ways that students might be able to learn such skills even if they arrive in CEGEP without them.

If we see an effective education as a series of experiences that induce growth and that lead to further growth, then our role as educators, along with every moment we spend in the classroom, becomes transformed.  We are not just teaching students a pile of material; we are teaching them how to learn, and how to continue to be learners.

Image by Kym McLeod

This post was adapted from a reflection I originally wrote  for a Philosophy of Education course.


2 thoughts on “Education and the Meaning of “Growth”

  1. I found this very interesting, but also refreshing as here, I think we are having a quite different debate. It certainly doesn’t seem to be about the links between education and growth, but about how useful education can be. I wrote about this recently as I find it somewhat sad and worrying.


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