By Jeannette Lee-Parikh

You must have heard about the debacle with the AP African American History class. Rest assured, I am not going to rehash it. Instead, this wholly predictable episode (given the fraught intersection of race and the current political landscape) reveals part of what is wrong with the current industrial model of education: the emphasis on testing knowledge acquisition. The real question is: How is it that the billion-dollar business model of a private company, which exists to make money ranking and sorting our students, is not inspiring more outrage in the 21st century when AI can reproduce the answers since the approach is about the breadth of coverage? Just to be clear, I am not rejecting the AP African American History class; instead, my question is: Why is the race to cover information still so much the focus of education?

Knowledge acquisition, even if the face of the potential disruption ChatGPT raises, is still largely accomplished through content regurgitation. Why do we need students to reproduce content that can be found using Google search, Wikipedia, YouTube, even TikTok, and now ChatGPT? If the answer can be found using any of these tools, then it was a question not worth being asked in a formal learning environment because essentially it is a query not designed to incite curiosity, foster critical thinking, and inspire the imagination. An apt analogy also from the world of education would be to return to weekly vocabulary and grammar tests when ubiquitous spelling and grammar checks are commonly accepted AI tools. Instead, forward-thinking English departments remind students to use the built-in spell checks and focus on helping students make intentional rhetorical choices by using writing and literature models. Which approach incites curiosity, fosters critical thinking, and inspires the imagination of students? Which approach aligns with progressive education?

If we take progressive education seriously, which includes experiential learning, problem-solving, collaborative learning, active participation in a democratic society, integrated curriculum, and lifelong learning, then information acquisition, of which the AP African American History class is an example, wouldn’t dominate. In “The Meaning of African American Studies,” Robin D. G. Kelley, a professor of history at U.C.L.A. and one of the authors whose work was removed from the revised course, explains that African American studies/Africana studies/Black studies at the university level is the study of Black lives: “the structures that produce premature death, that make us [Black people] vulnerable; the ideologies that both invent Blackness and render Black people less than human; and, perhaps most important, the struggle to secure a different future.” Whereas, according to Kelley, the College Board defined AP African American History as “an interdisciplinary approach, with the rigors of scholarly inquiry, to analyze the history, culture, and contributions of people of African descent in the U.S., and throughout the African diaspora.” The College Board’s approach, Kelley further argues, is about making Black people feel better about Black accomplishments and isn’t about trying to “understand how Black people came into being in the modern world—how that process through kidnapping, enslavement, the extraction of labor, the extraction of ideas, was foundational to the modern world.” It is my contention that this fundamental difference between the AP’s approach and the goal of African American studies is the difference between content acquisition and meaningful learning that is transformative because of how it incorporates real-world experience. The latter is the goal of progressive education.

Instead of offering a limited greatest hits of global Black history, we might raise a clearly articulated wicked problem such as: How is James Baldwin’s writing and thinking about race, the African American experience, and justice in the United States still relevant today, 35 years after his death? This inquiry has no right answer and forces students to deeply engage with Baldwin’s ideas to understand his position as a gay African American man in the early to mid-20th century and make connections to the current historical moment. It also exposes students to the value of the humanities, which is to return to the past to consider its lessons, explore and examine ideas, make us curious about ourselves and others, discover our shared humanity, develop our imaginations, and help us make sense of our world. This is the intent of progressive education.

Nevertheless, it needs to be stated: progressive education is not merely relevant today, it is the best way forward in our hyper-connected digital world premised on “[m]achine learning algorithms [that] are able to data-mine large sets of information to make decisions about the text, image, or response being created.” AI is no longer limited to transforming automation, it is now expanding into areas we’ve traditionally understood as requiring humanity’s innate cognition and creativity. Ironically, ChatGPT and DALL-E raise the same questions that John Dewey was addressing over a century ago: How to harness the playfulness, curiosity, and creativity of children in meaningful learning experiences that isn’t just preparation for life but more expansively a part of life itself?

Knowledge acquisition, even if the face of the potential disruption ChatGPT raises, is still largely accomplished through content regurgitation. Why do we need students to reproduce content that can be found using Google search, Wikipedia, YouTube, even TikTok, and now ChatGPT?

For Dewey, education is “the process of forming fundamental dispositions, intellectual and emotional towards nature and [others].” Learning, according to Dewey, is a “cumulative, progressive process where learners move from the dissatisfying phase of doubt toward another marked by the satisfying resolution of a problem.” Essentially, what we aim to cultivate in progressive education is the learner as a problem solver and creative thinker, which can lead to innovation. However, as George Land, Ph.D., who studied creativity, explains, our current education system is designed to leach creativity out of students. He provides a startling statistic: 98% of 4/5-year-olds possess genius levels of creativity but only 2% of 31-year-olds possess similar levels of imagination. Rather than treat the learner as a blank slate to write information on, we should take the progressive approach that a student is an active participant in their learning. In fact, Dewey explains in How We Think that “the native and unspoiled attitude of childhood, marked by ardent curiosity, fertile imagination, and love of experimental inquiry, is near, very near, to the attitude of the scientific mind,” which by the way is the insight of The Scientist in the Crib: What Early Learning Tells Us About the Mind that babies and young children instinctively use the same methods as scientists to learn about the world.

Dewey was writing in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Now over a century later, the American education system, whether independent or public, still seems to be largely stuck in a model of learning that hasn’t used Dewey’s transformative insights, which late 20th and early 21st-century scientists are confirming are key to how we learn as a species.

Instead of fighting over whether African American History should be taught and assessed in a way that reproduces and extends the very same inequities that don’t allow BIPOC students to participate as full democratic citizens, we need a course that fosters their curiosity, imagination, and agency. We should pivot to using technological advancements to support our students as drivers in their learning. And progressive education provides just such a framework. For instance, instead of rejecting Wikipedia as a verifiable source as has been a common practice in schools, have students contribute to a Wikipedia article as collaborators in a cooperative learning project. To do so would have your class engage in a research project that meets ISTE’s Standards for Students, and basically, our students will be creating the source that others read. This project transcends disciplines because students can either contribute to or create the article on a subtopic of interest generated from what they are learning in a particular class. Furthermore, how cool is it for your students to create work that will have an authentic audience? Instead of banning ChatGPT, have students use it as an example machine where the students verify the responses that ChatGPT offers as part of a larger project or essay. Or like Nettrice R. Gaskins, Ph.D., the assistant director of the Lesley STEAM Learning Lab at Lesley University, have your students make art using algorithms and machine learning.

In 1929, Dewey wrote in the Quest for Certainty that “Every great advance in science has issued from a new audacity of imagination.” Our imaginations, through science and the arts, have brought us this constantly changing, ever more technological digital world. The least we can do is ensure that we educate our students to thrive in this uncertain digital age by continuing to incite their curiosity, foster their critical thinking, and inspire their imagination while rejecting the reign of information acquisition. In other words, pivot to progressive education.

About the author
Jeannette M E Lee Parikh, PhD, is the assistant editor for Intrepid Ed News as well as the chair of the English department and head of community reading at The Cambridge School of Weston (CSW). Before CSW, where she has been since the fall of 2010, she taught at the college level for six years. She is an ISTE Certified Teacher and OER advocate. She is an experienced practitioner of integrating department-wide academic technology that serves pedagogical and curriculum goals. Her teaching philosophy exists at the intersection of the science of learning and cultivating creative thinking, joy, curiosity, playfulness, and self-awareness in all learners. She has presented at conferences on the importance of deep reading, critical listening, authentic discussion, and strategic writing in the 21st-century classroom.

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