by Claire Miller
College of Education Professor Deron Boyles stood before the crowd of faculty and students at Northern Illinois University and asked them to take out a sheet of paper and a writing utensil.
He then instructed them to put their name in the top, right-hand corner of the page and to write the following two sentences, which he recited to them including where to place the punctuation: “I, first name here, am oppressed. If I were not oppressed, I would not be completing this sentence.”
Boyles then asked if anyone had written the period at the end of the second sentence. Almost every person in the room raised their hands.
This exercise, which Boyles also does with his undergraduate students in the Department of Educational Policy Studies at Georgia State University, serves to demonstrate the difference between simply following directions for the sake of following them and truly contemplating what you’re being asked to do in school.
“Why did you put the period at the end of the sentence? Because I told you to,” he explained. “My point in the illustration is that students have been taught too well. They’ve been schooled too well. They’ve been trained to be a particular kind of student, and that student is one who follows directions.”
As such, schooling has become more of a training ground for future workers rather than a place of learning, he argues. This focus on preparing students for their future careers is an important component of education, but Boyles hopes to see more students really reflect on the material they’re learning.
It was this idea about real learning that Boyles spoke about at Northern Illinois University as he accepted the 2010 James and Helen Merritt Award for Distinguished Service to Philosophy of Education, an award given annually by the university to a faculty member whose work has influenced educational thought and practice at local, national and international levels.
His academic work certainly fits that mold – he’s published four books, eight chapters, 30 refereed articles and 85 refereed papers both in the U.S. and abroad that span his areas of expertise: applying philosophical critique to school-business partnerships, commercialism in schools and epistemology, particularly advancing an understanding of pragmatist philosopher John Dewey’s epistemology applied to both schooling and living.
As a philosophy of education professor in the COE, Boyles looks at education through the lens of philosophy and challenges his students to do the same.
“As a philosopher in this college, my job is to put the ‘Ph’ in your Ph.D.,” he said. “And if you’re able to leave this college without having read philosophy of any sort, then you don’t have a doctor of philosophy degree – you have a doctor of whatever degree. I believe my job is to infuse philosophical questioning into what would otherwise be only professional development.”
His dedication to his research and his students has earned him several academic awards since joining the College of Education staff in 1992, including the 2008 COE Outstanding Faculty Teaching Award and the Critics’ Choice Award from the American Educational Studies Association for American Education and Corporations and The Politics of Inquiry: Education Research and the "Culture of Science" in 2000 and 2010, respectively. The Politics of Inquiry also won Boyles the CHOICE Outstanding Academic Title in 2009.
Boyles finds time to get a significant amount of work done before 9 a.m. He coaches the Georgia State University Crew, which practices from 4:30-6:30 a.m. each morning at the Atlanta Rowing Club Boathouse in Roswell and this early schedule allows him to get to his office earlier than most.
While he started off as a faculty advisor for the club sport in the early 1990s, Boyles soon moved through the ranks to assistant coach and then head coach. He’s watched the team grow from a couple of people when it first began in 1989 to nearly 40 members in the 2009-2010 season. Not only that, but he’s seen the students compete against NCAA teams and win – a testament to the students’ commitment to their sport.
“Think of yourself as a college student,” Boyles said. “4:30 in the morning, five days a week – are you going to be willing to do it, and in the cold? The person who will come out at 4:30 in the morning is likely the person who’s going to finish the race strong. I think there’s something to that.”
The novice women and varsity women groups both won gold at the 2010 Charleston Regatta in South Carolina, and GSU has placed as high as sixth in the Head Of The Charles Regatta, the largest two-day regatta in the world.
But what Boyles enjoys more than seeing his team win is the experience he’s had working with such a dedicated group of students.
“There’s something inspiring about the students getting up early repeatedly and beating all these NCAA boats,” he said. “Plus, it’s a very different kind of teaching. Teaching on the water is a very different sort of a thing, and I’ve truly enjoyed it.”