Play-Doh and Philosophy?

Jim Garrison is a philosopher of education that teaches at Virginia Tech. In his book Dewey and Eros, he has a great chapter that describes how he uses Play-Doh to introduce John Dewey’s philosophy. I modified this activity for my Foundations of Education course because it sounded accessible, fun, and out of the ordinary. It’s not every day (or any day) in which sculpting enters into my teaching.

To begin, students have the little jar of Play-Doh and start making something. After a few minutes molding and sharing what they’ve made, the teacher says, SMASH IT! Perhaps you can imagine what a future teacher might do when faced with squashing a heart-felt creation? If they enjoy it too much, I might have to suggest another career path!

There are a few ideas students play with, most of which are obvious to say but difficult to apply to life and teaching in a disciplined fashion. Garrison makes it clear that discipline and responsibility are key to responding to the call to teach.

The first idea is that students could make an infinite number of sculptures with the Play-Doh, but they couldn’t make anything (say, a functioning blender). As any artist knows, the medium you work with limits the product. The limits also come from the artist: skill, motivation, experience.

When considering this in terms of teaching, I ask students in what ways molding the Play-Doh is similar to teaching. Some use the metaphor of themselves as artists molding the students or creating lesson plans. Others note a clear difference: children mold teachers, too.

Dewey‘s philosophy comes in with the idea that there is a transaction between the artist and the medium: artist changes the medium, the medium changes the artist. It is not an interaction: billiard balls interact. With teaching, Garrison points out, teaching itself changes the teacher, and it’s possible for teachers to change teaching (for better and worse!)

In Garrison’s chapter, he wonders how his students will take the lesson. Will they find it useful? Will they struggle to apply the lessons of limits and possibilities to teaching? But the largest concern he expresses is that teachers can be too tied to what is real, practical, and in front of them. They see what is in front of them, but not the possibilities within the present situation. His concern boils down to the idea that teachers should not be technicians. What use is it for them to know the latest in how to teach or how to use technology, Garrison asks, if they can’t imagine the ends toward which they work? “This works,” teachers are often told about a technique, but rarely for what. The often unspoken end is a higher test score.

And that’s where philosophy of education comes in. With a sense of purpose that is tied to the purposes of public schools, rooted in fundamental beliefs about reality and knowledge, teachers have a reason to wake up every morning and become their best, through responsibility and commitment, to inspire students to similar ends.

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