John Dewey Kitchen Institute: Reflections on Tenants

The John Dewey Kitchen Institute offered ten tenants in a particular order that we explored then discussed as they came up in our approaches to teaching in the kitchen throughout the course. Below I have made an attempt to further synthesize how these tenants resonate with me and will affect my approach to teaching – which in some cases meant changing the order, the wording, or omitting or combining some of the tenants. In that way, it would say that these ideas are inspired by John Dewey but are not intended to reflect his exact philosophy. I intend for this to be a working document as I continue to see these influence my teaching.
Education as a Practice of Democracy

John Dewey believes that the activity of education is an embodiment of democracy and that the aim of education is the creation of a thriving democracy. In this way, all members of the community contribute to a discovery.

This was challenging for me as a teacher because a lot of my role is to provide directives and parameters that make the group setting conducive to (and safe for) learning. I believe that parameters must exist on some level, we can discuss them, they can change, but they do exist. There are certainly ways for students to be involved with the development of the parameters but ultimately, the teacher has the experience to say what will create the space where learning can happen.

The division of roles in a kitchen or garden seems like an opportunity for democracy and I’m interested in how it would play out to allow students to choose their own groups and further to divide the roles amongst each other. There is a lot of value in dividing roles not by who is best at each but by who needs to explore each further. I wonder how students would naturally divide themselves without a structure set by a teacher.

All Inquiry is Value-Laden

Science is often viewed as unbiased however John Dewey believes that even determining that a question is worth asking is in and of itself placing a value on it. Our responsibility then is to acknowledge, attend to, and investigate the existence of our values.

Throughout this class, I started to realize how value-laden everything I teach is. And I think that’s okay. We express values by what we choose to grow and cook, how we choose to cook it, what concept of “health” we use as our guiding principal in cooking techniques, what we do with the waste, etc. The kitchen is a place to explore what we value.

Aims and Means Interact in Education

For students, a “true aim” (rather than one imposed by a teacher) is one that will direct activity to a state of being fully attentive and engaged to the end. Part of our work as teachers, then is to work with students to find their own true aims and explore them.

This, again, is in contrast to imposed academic standards – listing content that that students must learn about. Which then creates for the teacher the role of aligning what students have to learn with what they care about learning, or more specifically, creating a context that students care about for what the academic standards they are responsible for learning.

Education is Experience

Education is best understood as

“intelligently directed development of the possibilities inherent in ordinary experience.”

The instructor’s role then is to create a learning context that will foster these educational experiences – ones that will foster more growth and lead to more questions, not necessarily a product or right answer.

In his text “The Child and the Curriculum,” John Dewey states, “Abandon the notion of subject-matter as something fixed and ready-made in itself, out the children’s experience; cease thinking of the children’s experience as also something hard and fast; see it as fluent, embryonic, vital; and we realize that the child and the curriculum are simply two limits which define a single process.”

In the age of academic standards, scope and sequence guides, and standardized tests, this is a hard reality to imagine however students do not learn fixed facts in set pacing on a linear track. They learn by actively participating in a meaningful activity, discovering the end product in their own way. The goal of education should be the exploration, cultivating curiosity, and leading to discoveries. This leaves the teacher’s role as one that promotes activity and curiosity, rather than one that provides the discovery.

Play is Vital in Learning

In “Growth and Activity,” John Dewey defines play as “interested absorption in activity for the sake of the activity itself.” (I actually changed the order of these tenants so that this one follows the one that discusses learning as the activity, before digging in here to the interested engagement in that activity). Particularly as adults, but also as children, play can be challenging – it asks that we disregard what we believe to be true and enter into inquiry with an open mind and all of our senses.

This one seems to be in contrast to the “rigorous, academic” instruction that my school district demands but asks the question of what “rigor” actually means – simply a challenge working within each students zone of proximal development? And if “academic” means towards an understanding of the standard, that can certainly be done within the concept of play as well.

The Role of a Correct Answer or a Product in Learning 

When the goal of education is the experience, I believe pressure is relieved from coming to the “right” answer. In large part, this seems to make the educational experience more accessible given that an activity would presumably be within all students’ grasps and does not rely as heavily on individual students’ past experiences, background knowledge, prior skills, knowledge, or talents. In this way, I believe that this supports the development of the Growth Mindset (Carol Dweck) that every student is capable of growing (even if in different ways and from different starting points), rather than a fixed mindset that places all value on innate ability. This growth mindset along with the value of activity in education affects student perceptions of “failure” as an opportunity for more exploration and growth, rather than the end of learning.

Feeling content without a “right” answer is certain to be unsettling for some students. I believe that we (as a culture) have become less interested in the activity, the process, the experience of discovering, because we’ve realized that all of the “right” answers are simply at our fingertips with the availability of technology. To some degree, technology can be an incredibly useful tool to research what others have found in their explorations before but the mindset that all of the “right” answers already exist and are available is a hindrance to learning.

In contrast to the end goal being a correct answer, in the activity of a performance task (such as cooking a meal), I believe that while the process has immense value, the end product (of a meal to share, in this case) provides a sense of purpose and accomplishment upon completion.

Chance and Change are Features of Reality

The search for a “product” or “right answer” is further complicated by the fact that uncertainty is inevitable as much as we often find comfort in facts – fixed, absolute truths. As teachers, we should prepare our students to think critically and work flexibly in a world of chance and change.

The kitchen is a place of constant change and adjustment. With baking specifically, there are so many factors that are changing and drastically affecting the final product.


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