Too often, when it comes to education, we think of the processes whereby children acquire the skills and dispositions necessary to be successful adults. This is particularly true when it comes to 21C. Take, for example, the concept of “media literacy”: we want kids to learn to evaluate the legitimacy of various forms of information such as websites, master various user-generated platforms like wikis, blogs, and facebook, and be mature/responsible users of technology. If only most adults fit this bill! The AASL (American Association of School Librarians) Standards for the 21st Century Learner is a wonderful example of the massive expectations that are embedded in 21C learning standards. There’s a name for a child who has even a basic mastery of the AASL’s learning outcomes: “adult.”
At the same time I believe we’re fundamentally confused about what constitutes maturity in 21C. Consider the ascendancy of the Digital Native (Prensky, 2001) which brings with it a significant reversal: children are characterized as being more advanced, savvy, and technologically mature, then their teachers and parents (i.e. all the Digital Immigrants). One of the fascinating outcomes of the 21C buzz is that it challenges educators to think anew about the needs, interests, dispositions, habits, and desires of children. The irony is that when many educators think about children they envision the Digital Native who is, at least in theory, more mature than they are.
21C and the “generation gap” have led to a measure of confusion between “adults” and “children.” We want children to behave like adults, and yet we’ve positioned adults as inferior and less mature than children. As 21C educators strive to engage children and help them to become more mature users of technology, there’s a countercurrent which suggests that children are more mature and advanced than their teachers and parents.
I believe that John Dewey offers us a way of resolving much of this confusion. Rather than Digital Natives/ Digital Immigrants or a vision of education that aspires to morph children into skilled adults, we can consider Dewey’s concept of “immaturity” found in Democracy and Education, chapter 4. For Dewey, immaturity is the capacity to grow. Immaturity is not a condition to be overcome, but to be perpetually redefined; as we grow, new avenues of growth become available to us. We learn and grow only to again be immature.
Immaturity is a concept that unites children and adults rather than dividing us: we’re all immature in different ways (meaning: we all have the capacity to grow). It’s an idea that helps education move beyond a paternalistic desire to make children into successful adults. It’s an idea that saves adults from feeling that they need to bow at the feet of the Digital Native. Immaturity forces us all to look at proximal growth opportunities– it forces us to look at “now.” To come full circle, immaturity reminds us that each person has specific learning tasks that we, and only we, can complete.
In Judaism, the most important mitzvah is the next mitzvah. Immaturity is an idea particularly well-suited for Jewish Education which perpetually emphasizes continual growth. Imagine a 21C Jewish educational environment where everyone is learning, where everyone embraces their incompleteness. Such an environment would be truly authentic and inspiring, it would be mutually supportive and collaborative. Much is gained in Jewish education through Dewey’s concept of “immaturity” as learning becomes active, personal, relevant, and normalized. It might even be argued that immaturity is a necessary characteristic for Jewish education to go 21C.