Child-centered classification

I’ve been reading about Metis, a Dewey-free library classification system developed and implemented in 2011 by the librarians at the Ethical Culture School in New York City (Kaplan et al., 2013). The system places the thinking, interests, information needs and information-seeking behavior of children at its center. It was developed as an alternative to the Dewey decimal system, which is currently the most commonly used system in school and children’s sections of public libraries.

Metis is named for the Titan Metis, who was the mother of Athena. The Greek word metis means a quality that combines wisdom and cunning. The system is designed to encourage productive independent browsing and successful catalog searching by children. Its emphasis on situation specificity, flexibility, and user-centered design is closer to John Dewey than to Melvil Dewey. I liked this on the Metis site:

Our decision to create Metis is a result of our progressive approach to education and the library. The system isn’t a cut-down version of adult thinking. Kids feel empowered to navigate the library because it is organized in a way that they understand. Metis increases the success rate of finding books, which fosters self-reliance and produces joyous discovery.

The Metis main categories are based on studies of the practices of young children. They put users and their needs and interests at its center, and curriculum, collection, and library geography second. In contrast to the Dewey system, they are not meant to reflect the state of human knowledge or depict the relationship of one branch of knowledge to another. The categories are ordered using the letters of the alphabet, A-Z. This is the only code that is not whole language.

For example, H. Arts, might include art books, biographies of artists, and fiction featuring artists, whereas in most other systems those would all be in widely separate categories. U. Scary is a category of special interest to children, either as one to seek or one to avoid. G. MakingStuff would include cooking, model building, magic tricks, and crafts of all kinds.

Some obvious concerns about Metis are whether youthful readers can make the transition to other systems. One critic asked “What happens to these children when they arrive at a college or university and need to learn the Library of Congress classification system?” Notwithstanding the fact that very few college-educated adults presently learn LC, I’m inclined to support an experiment aimed at getting children to read more. Moving to another school could present problems, too, but seeing classification as a human construction could be a valuable learning experience in itself.

Almost a century ago, Célestin Freinet developed a classification scheme with a similar motivation, to facilitate the easy finding of documents. It was also for his Bibliothèque de Travail, a collection of student and teacher-made booklets for the classroom. The Freinet classification is also a simple system, similar to the Dewey decimal system, and reliant on the decimal coding.

There are 12 major divisions, such as 1.3 2. Plants1.4 3. Animals, and 1.5 4. Other sciences, with subdivisions and sub-subdivisions. Many educators see it as more logical and natural for school work than the Dewey system, although it is closer to that than is Metis. The Freinet classification is still used in the libraries of some elementary schools.

I’ll be interested to see how well these alternatives work and how much they spread to other libraries.


Personal geography: Walking

Lake Silvaplana

Lake Silvaplana

In Die Götzen-Dämmerung (Twilight of the Idols), Friedrich Nietzsche writes that his best ideas come from walking:

On ne peut penser et ecrire qu’assis [One cannot think and write except when seated] (G. Flaubert). There I have caught you, nihilist! The sedentary life is the very sin against the Holy Spirit. Only thoughts reached by walking have value.

An important example of this for Nietzsche was his concept of the eternal recurrence of the same events. It occurred to him while he was walking in Switzerland in the woods around Lake Silvaplana, when he was inspired by the sight of a large, pyramidal rock. His inner life as writer and philosopher could not be separated from his embodied life as a person who spent hours walking in beautiful spots in Europe.

Why does it require the direct connection reached through walking to embrace an idea like eternal recurrence? Why not just use a map? Reading a book, map, diagram, photo, movie, etc. can be a powerful experience. Why can’t we have the same insights without being there? And what is the relation between reading a text  about a phenomenon and experiencing it more directly?

A philosophy of walkingJohn Dewey addresses this dichotomy in The Child and the Curriculum:

The map is not a substitute for a personal experience. The map does not take the place of an actual journey…But the map, a summary, an arranged and orderly view of previous experiences, serves as a guide to future experience; it gives direction; it facilitates control; it economizes effort, preventing useless wandering, and pointing out the paths which lead most quickly and most certainly to a desired result. Through the map every new traveler may get for his own journey the benefits of the results of others’ explorations without the waste of energy and loss of time involved in their wanderings–wanderings which he himself would be obliged to repeat were it not for just the assistance of the objective and generalized record of their performances.

Sunset on the Dardanelles

Sunset on the Dardanelles

I’ve been thinking along these lines while reading, A Philosophy of Walking, by Frédéric Gros. The book is a pleasure to read (though not while walking). It intersperses Gros’s observations with accounts of other great walkers such as Rimbaud and Nietzsche. Gros writes,

By walking, you escape from the very idea of identity, the temptation to be someone, to have a name and a history … The freedom in walking lies in not being anyone; for the walking body has no history, it is just an eddy in the stream of immemorial life.

Curiously, the anomia and ahistory of walking, its “freedom,” is what allows the walker to connect to a greater degree with history, geography, and ideas in general. This has become even more evident to me during our stay in Turkey.

To be continued…


Jane Addams Conference on Social Entrepreneurship

I just learned, too late I’m afraid, about the Jane Addams Conference on Social Entrepreneurship to be held in Uppsala, November 18-19. It’s organized by the department of Sociology at Uppsala University in cooperation with the Nobel Museum, Stockholm.

You may like to look at the conference program, even if you can’t pop over to Sweden for a couple of days. It’s interesting to see the level of interest in Jane Addams (also John Dewey and WIlliam James) here in Sweden. In many other places in Europe, I’ve seen more interest in the more analytical approach represented by Charles Sanders Peirce (e.g., Kaiserlslautern, Germany) or the language focus represented by Richard Rorty (Cluj-Napoca, Romania), among those working in pragmatism.

Turkey’s Village Institutes

One of the goals I had for my recent trip to Turkey was to learn more about the Village Institutes (Köy Enstitüleri) there. I knew that they represented an innovative approach to expanding opportunities for learning, but that they had come to an abrupt end in the late 1940’s.

I’d read several articles about the Institutes (see below), and also knew that they had been influenced by John Dewey’s report on the Turkish educational system, but I wanted to hear firsthand from Turkish people who had been involved with the Institutes, or had studied them from a Turkish perspective.

The Village Institutes were created to meet a serious educational need. In 1928 (the year of the introduction of the Latin script in Turkey), 82.5 per cent of men and 95.2 per cent of women were illiterate. For 13.6 million people, there were only 4,894 elementary schools and most of those were in the towns, not the villages where most of the people lived (Vexliard & Aytac, 1964).

Between 1939 and 1946 twenty-one co-educational boarding schools were built to prepare primary school teachers. Much of the construction work was done by pupils and teachers. Youth of both sexes, aged twelve to sixteen, who had completed a five-year village primary school, qualified for admission. Their education was free following a pledge to teach in an assigned village for twenty years after graduation.

The duties of the new teachers included:

  • primary education
  • adult education in the villages
  • raising the cultural level of the villages through the distribution of books, educational programs, radio, and vocal, dance, & instrumental music education; the photo above (by George Pickow/Three Lions/Getty Images), shows Turkish teenagers in an Institute presenting a mass concert on the saz, the Turkish national instrument
  • promoting progressive agricultural techniques in the fields, the orchards, and kitchen gardens; the raising of  livestock; rural handicrafts such as ironwork, carpentry, leather work, mechanics, and electricity
  • instruction for adults in child-rearing, housekeeping, needlework
  • the creation and development of rural cooperatives

The graduates of the Institutes were to return to their villages as leaders and reformers. Teachers, students, and villagers in general were to learn practical skills, mostly related to their agricultural economy, new tools for life, and general education.

The Institute approach embodied ideas of Ataturk, Dewey, and others such as integrating theory and practice, focusing on the underserved, working across institutions, and a systemic approach to building a stronger society. Classical education was to be combined with practical abilities and applied to local needs.

The Institutes had a major impact, and many people regret that they were shut down. But there was resistance against this secular and mixed education. Some feared that it would educate ‘the communists of tomorrow,’ a damning statement during the Cold War. Traditionalists questioned the coeducational and secular aspects. Powerful landlords did not appreciate the goal of educating children who could ask “Why?” questions. There were also questions about the organization and preparation of the teachers. By 1953 the Village Institutes had been completely shut down.

I heard strong statements from people who knew about the Institutes and decried their closing. An artist we met, who had been born during the Institute period, said “They killed the Turkish children! They murdered Turkey’s future!”

Others were more reserved, but still felt that a crucial opportunity had been lost. There are estimates of major losses for Turkey in terms of general literacy and economic development still being felt today because of the closings.

From the little I know, it appears that the Village Institutes demonstrated a successful model for education that could be applied anywhere after suitable adjustment for local needs. I’d like to learn more, and have many questions.

For example, all the photos I’ve seen show only (or mostly) young men, even though the Institutes were coeducational. How did the young men and women get along? How did they each experience the Institutes? The graduates would now be in their 80’s. How do they think about that experience today? What did their training mean for the villages where they went to teach?

How do the Village Institutes compare to other grassroots, community-based education initiatives, such as the school at Weedpatch Camp in California, Foxfire, the Misiones Pedagogicas (village literacy program in Spain, which was shut down by Franco), Paulo Freirean projects in many countries, Paseo Boricua, the Reggio Emilia Approach, or the school set up by the schoolboys of Barbiana?

Perhaps most importantly, could or should the Institutes be revived? Or, are there principles we can derive from them that would be valuable for the more urban populations of today?


Ata, Bahri (2000). The influence of an American educator (John Dewey) on the Turkish educational system. Turkish Yearbook of International Relations (Milletlerarası Münasebetler Türk Yıllığı), 31. Ankara: Ankara Üniversitesi.

Bilgi, Sabiha, & Özsoy, Seckin (2005). John Dewey’s travelings into the project of Turkish modernity. In Thomas S. Popkewitz (ed.), Inventing the modern self and John Dewey: Modernities and the traveling of pragmatism in education (pp. 153-177). New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Dewey, John (1983). Report and recommendations upon Turkish education. In Jo Ann Boydston (ed.), The Middle Works: Essays on Politics and Society, 1923-1924. Vol. 15 of Collected Works. Carbondale: Southern Illinois Press.

Eğrikavuk, Işil (2010, April 9). Anniversary marks unfinished story of Turkish village schools. Hürriyet Daily News.

Stirling, Paul (1965, 1994). Turkish village. Canterbury, UK: Centre for Social Anthropology and Computing, University of Kent at Canterbury.

Stone, Frank A. (1974). Rural revitalization and the Village Institutes in Turkey: Sponsors and critics. Comparative Education Review, 18(3), 419–429.

Uygun, Selçuk (2008, November). The impact of John Dewey on the teacher education system in Turkey. Asia-Pacific Journal of Teacher Education, 36(4), 291–307.

Vexliard, Alexandre, & Aytac, Kemal (1964). The Village Institutes in Turkey. Comparative Education Review. 8(1), 41-47.

Wolf-Gazo, Ernest (1996). John Dewey in Turkey: An educational mission. Journal of American Studies of Turkey, 3, 15-42.

Yılmaz, Omer (1977). Schools for developing countries: The Turkish Village Institutes. Educational Planning, 3(4), 72–80.

The four P’s of pragmatism

In a 2006 book, Healing Psychiatry: Bridging the Science/Humanism Divide, David H. Brendel notes that psychiatry “is torn by opposing sensibilities. Is it primarily a science of brain functioning or primarily an art of understanding the human mind in its social and cultural context?” He sees the divide between science and humanism as a sickness of psychiatry, one that makes it difficult to heal the emotional conflicts and wounds of patients.

To address the divide, he turns to the pragmatism of Charles Sanders Peirce, William James, and John Dewey. He presents pragmatism in a simple formula (the four P’s) that could apply to most other domains (e.g., Shields, 2008):

  1. the practical dimensions of all scientific inquiry;
  2. the pluralistic nature of the phenomena studied by science and the tools that are used to study those phenomena;
  3. the participatory role of many individuals with different perspectives in the necessarily interpersonal process of scientific inquiry;
  4. and the provisional and flexible character of scientific explanation. (Brendel, 2006, p. 29)

Any such formula has its limitations, but this one seems remarkably effective at capturing salient aspects of pragmatism. The first p, practical, emphasizes pragmatism’s insistence on considering the consequences of any concept, to steer away from abstractions and idealizations that have no conceivable effects in our ordinary experience. The second p, pluralistic, reflects the fact that pragmatism is not so much one method or theory, but rather, an approach that considers any tools that may increase understanding, thereby achieving better practical consequences. It also reflects the assumption that interesting phenomena are unlikely to be captured within a simple category or single way of viewing. The third p, participatory, follows from the second in that multiple perspectives, Peirce’s community of inquiry, are needed to accommodate a pluralistic understanding. And the fourth p, provisional (cf. fallibilism), acknowledges that in a complex and ever-changing world, any understanding is subject to change as we learn more or as events occur.


  • Brendel, David H. (2006). Healing psychiatry: Bridging the science/humanism divide. Cambridge, Ma: MIT Press.
  • Shields, Patricia M. (2008, March/April). Rediscovering the taproot: Is classical pragmatism the route to renew public administration? Public Administration Review, 68, (2), 205-221. Washington, DC. (PAR Interview)

Navigating the corridor of inquiry

It’s not often that I have an Aha! moment reading an academic article. Many have significant flaws and many of the best repeat what’s been said many times before. But I had a very different reaction to Patricia M. Shields’sPragmatism as a Philosophy of Science: A Tool for Public Administration.”

The paper shows how pragmatism as a philosophy of science is used in a research methods class. The course includes guides to writing an empirical capstone project, such as steps to follow, the notebook method, and the classification of conceptual frameworks.  But what makes it special is the explication of these in terms of their roots in the ideas of Peirce, Dewey, and James.

She quotes from William James (1904), who writes about the relation of pragmatism to theories:

Theories thus become instruments, not answers to enigmas, in which we can rest. We don’t lie back upon them, we move forward, and, on occasion, make nature over again by their aid. Pragmatism unstiffens all our theories, limbers them up and sets each one at work…

All these [theories], you see, are anti-intellectualist tendencies… [pragmatism] stands for no particular results. It has no dogmas, and no doctrines save its method. As the young Italian pragmatist Papini has well said, it lies in the midst of our theories, like a corridor in a hotel. Innumerable chambers open out of it. In one you may find a man writing an atheistic volume; in the next some one on his knees praying for faith and strength; in a third a chemist investigating a body’s properties. In a fourth a system of idealistic metaphysics is being excogitated; in a fifth the impossibility of metaphysics is being shown. But they all own the corridor, and all must pass through it if they want a practicable way of getting into or out of their respective rooms.

The paper accomplishes four major feats. First, it serves as an excellent introduction to pragmatism, articulating it in terms of actual experience and concrete action in the world, as pragmatists would have it. Second, it offers a way of thinking about research, which can help anyone who struggles with the relation between theory and practice, or gets stuck in dichotomies such as quantitative/qualitative. It show how theories can come alive, be unstiffened, so that they can help us make sense of experience without overconstraining. Third, the paper describes a creative use of an institutional repository, which helps students enter into a community of inquiry. See, for example, the excellent paper by Robert Brom (2000), Workplace diversity training: A pragmatic look at an administrative practice. Finally, it does a fine job of doing what it sets out to do, to describe the process of designing an excellent approach to a research methods or capstone course.


Brom, Robert A. (2000). Workplace diversity training: A pragmatic look at an administrative practice. Applied Research Projects. Paper 91.

James, William (1904, December). What is Pragmatism. From series of eight lectures dedicated to the memory of John Stuart Mill, A new name for some old ways of thinking, from William James, Writings 1902-1920. The Library of America

Shields, Patricia M. (1998). Pragmatism as a philosophy of science: A tool for public administration. Faculty Publications-Political Science. Paper 33.

Inquiry Based Learning interview

Michael Hallissy recently interviewed me from Dublin, Ireland for a podcast on Inquiry Based Learning. I can’t bear to listen to my recorded self, so I’m not sure why you would, but in case you’re a masochist, the link above should be just what you need. Extra credit if you can spot the two factual mistakes we made, one by Michael and one by me.