ERIC Identifier: ED426826
Publication Date: 1999-01-00
Author: Starnes, Bobby Ann
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on
Rural Education and Small Schools Charleston WV.
The Foxfire Approach to Teaching and Learning: John Dewey,
Experiential Learning, and the Core Practices. ERIC Digest.
The student-produced "Foxfire Magazine" and a series of books on Appalachian
life and folkways are popular manifestations of an experiential education
program originally intended to teach basic English skills to high school
freshmen in Appalachian Georgia. The Foxfire Approach to Teaching and Learning
emerged from those classroom experiences. It evolved as a result of efforts to
understand and replicate the project's success in helping learners meet
curricular mandates (Wigginton, 1989).
Over time, hundreds of teachers have helped develop, edit, and revise
Foxfire's 11 core practices to reflect new understandings and lessons learned
through implementation. The core practices remain dynamic, and the work begun
more than 30 years ago continues to expand and evolve.
This Digest describes the Foxfire Approach to Teaching and Learning as
defined by the core practices, the decision-making framework the approach
provides for teachers, and the ways the framework fits with John Dewey's notion
of experiential education.
CORE PRACTICES: AN EDUCATIONAL FRAMEWORK
The core practices
are: (1) The work teachers and learners do together is infused from the
beginning with learner choice, design, and revision. (2) The role of the teacher
is that of facilitator and collaborator. (3) The academic integrity of the work
teachers and learners do together is clear. (4) The work is characterized by
active learning. (5) Peer teaching, small group work, and teamwork are all
consistent features of classroom activities. (6) Connections between the
classroom work, the surrounding communities, and the world beyond the community
are clear. (7) There is an audience beyond the teacher for learner work. (8) New
activities spiral gracefully out of the old, incorporating lessons learned from
past experiences, building on skills and understandings that can now be
amplified. (9) Imagination and creativity are encouraged in the completion of
learning activities. (10) Reflection is an essential activity that takes place
at key points throughout the work. (11) The work teachers and learners do
together includes rigorous, ongoing assessment and evaluation (Starnes, Paris, & Stevens, 1999).
This framework allows teachers to weave fragmented pieces of classroom life
into an integrated whole, providing guidance in implementing mandated activities
that do not fit together easily or well. In this process, a cohesive approach
emerges to help teachers construct rich, meaningful, experience-based
educational environments. When applied as "a way of thinking" rather than "a way
of doing," the core practices make the complexities of teaching decisions
explicit and manageable (Starnes, Paris, & Stevens, 1999).
FINDING DEWEY IN THE FOXFIRE APPROACH
Over half a century
ago, Dewey (1938) expressed the belief that "all genuine education comes through
experience" (p. 25). Since then, many educators have struggled with the complex
implications of that simply stated notion. Recognizing its complexity, Dewey
advised using "those cases in which we find there is a real development of
desirable [experiences] . . . to find out how this development took place" (p.
4) and using this new understanding to guide our efforts at teaching and
In the spirit of Dewey, "desirable" teaching and learning experiences of
hundreds of teachers were used to develop and refine the core practices of the
Foxfire Approach. Let us examine the interrelationship between the core
practices and Dewey's theories related to four aspects of education:
1. the relationships among teachers, learners, the curriculum, and community;
2. the ways learning occurs;
3. preparing for lives as citizens and individuals; and
4. thinking about what is learned and how.
The relationships among teachers, learners, the curriculum, and community.
For this discussion we focus on four core practices: Student choice, teacher as
facilitator, academic integrity, and community connections (numbers 1, 2, 3, and
6). The Foxfire Approach is learner centered and community focused. Implementing
it requires a give-and-take relationship among teachers, learners, the
curriculum, and community. Teachers constantly strive to increase learners'
participation in decisions that affect them, integrate the curriculum into the
community, and ensure that learning objectives are met or surpassed. In this
process, these four core practices become so interwoven they are inseparable
(Starnes & Paris, in press).
Dewey often wrote about these same interwoven relationships (1902, 1933,
1964). He advocated placing the learner at the center of experiences, and
defined the teacher as the learner's "co-partner and guide in a common
enterprise--the child's education as an independent learner and thinker" (1964,
p. 10). He also called for an organic connection between the school and
community (1899, p. 76), assuming it necessary for school experiences to bear
some relationship to a child's experiences at home.
How learning occurs. We focus here on active learning, audience, and
spiraling (core practices 4, 7, and 8). Dewey (1933) saw the human mind as a
meaning-making organ, relentlessly driven to make sense of its world--an idea
that predates today's notions of constructivism and active learning (Teets &
Starnes, 1997). The core practices also define the most powerful learning
experiences as those that engage learners in posing and solving problems, making
meaning, producing products, and building understandings.
Another intersection of Dewey's theories and the Foxfire Approach is purpose:
For what purpose is the content to be learned? Core practice 7 calls for "an
audience beyond the teacher" that the learners want to serve or engage to affirm
the work is important, needed, and worth doing. When audience is central, course
content takes on new and deeper purpose.
In core practice 8, "spiraling," the Foxfire Approach emphasizes what Dewey
referred to as "the continuous spiral" (1938, p. 39). He forcefully stressed the
need for activities to be linked cumulatively, defining educative experiences as
those that give rise to the learner's need to gather more facts, become more
skilled, and use lessons learned in one experience as the basis for future
Preparing for full lives as citizens and individuals. Core practices 5 and 9
call for inclusion and teamwork, and creativity and innovation. To live rich and
fulfilling lives as citizens and individuals, learners must be prepared for and
have access to choices that affect their futures. But the purpose for learning
does not lie only in the future; skills, knowledge, and experiences must have
meaning in the present, too. Dewey believed skills must be useful "in the here
and now" (1938, p. 18) and "make...an individual more capable of self-support
and self-respecting independence" (1934, p. 11).
Although each core practice contributes to this self-respecting independence,
two seem especially important. Core practice 9, "imagination and creativity,"
applies Dewey's belief that imagination "designates a quality that animates and
pervades all...meaning making and observation," allowing learners to make
connections and see possibilities that may not be evident without "the
adventure...of mind [meeting] universe" (1934/59, pp. 271-272).
Core practice 5 calls for belonging, or building experiences in which every
learner is not only included, but needed, and emphasizes the value of teamwork.
Both inclusion and teamwork are necessary for meeting the social, professional,
and daily living requirements that Dewey referred to as building a "common and
shared life..." (1964, p. 11).
Thinking about what is learned and how. Finally, core practice 10 calls for
"reflection," while core practice 11 calls for "evaluation and assessment."
Teachers using the Foxfire Approach are careful to plan time for learners to
stand apart from their work to reflect consciously on what they have learned and
how they have learned it. Building reflective environments increases the
transfer of knowledge and enables teachers and learners to engage in rigorous,
ongoing assessment and evaluation. Because these activities take place at key
points during a study--rather than just at the completion they evoke insight and
give rise to revisions and refinements critical to improving learning and
Dewey considered reflection central to all learning experiences, enabling "us
to act in a deliberate and intentional fashion...[to] convert action that is
merely...blind and impulsive into intelligent action" (1933, p. 212). In calling
for educational experiences that open possibilities for all, Dewey recognized
the need for building learning experiences upon a firm understanding of what
learners know, what they need to know, and how they come to know.
The Foxfire Approach has deep historical and
philosophical roots. The connections between the Foxfire Approach and Dewey's
vision of experiential education are clear. Today, Foxfire is recognized as one
of the models for the federal Comprehensive School Reform Demonstration program
(Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory, 1998).
While its original emphasis was on teaching high school English through oral
history, today's Foxfire Approach is used in all grade levels and all content
areas. It enlivens the learning process by giving students and teachers rich
experiences. The process bridges the theoretical perspective of Dewey's writings
and the practical work of teaching. Through their interrelated nature, each adds
to the understanding and power of the other, making genuine experience the
driving and connecting force of classroom learning.
Information about "The Active Learner: A Foxfire
Journal for Teachers," the Foxfire Approach, services, and programs may be
obtained by contacting the national office. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org; phone
706-746-5828; Web page: www.foxfire.org
Dewey, J. (1899). "The school and society." Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Dewey, J. (1902). "The child and the curriculum." Chicago: University of
Dewey, J. (1933). "How we think: A restatement of the relation of reflective
thinking to the educative process." Boston: D. C. Heath.
Dewey, J. (1934/1959). "Art as experience." New York: Capricorn Books.
Dewey, J. (1938). "Experience and education." New York: Macmillan.
Dewey, J. (1964). The need for a philosophy of education. In R. D.
Archambault (Ed.), "John Dewey on education: Selected writings." Chicago:
University of Chicago Press.
Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory. (1998). "Catalog of school reform
models: First edition." Portland, OR: Author. Also available:
http://www.ael.org/rel/csr/catalog.htm (1998, December 4).
Starnes, B., & Paris, C. (in press). Choosing to learn: Learning to
choose. "Phi Delta Kappan."
Starnes, B., Paris, C., & Stevens, C. (1999). "The Foxfire core
practices: Discussions and implications." Mountain City, GA: Foxfire.
Teets, S. T., & Starnes, B. A. (1996). "Foxfire: Constructivism for
teachers and learners." Action in Teacher Education, 18, 31-39.
Wigginton, E. (1989). "Foxfire grows up." Harvard Educational Review, 59,