What would John Dewey say?


I keep thinking about this idea as education as a means for achieving social justice and why the exercise of designing, adopting, and implementing new standards does not seem to be the answer for me. I guess I feel as though new standards put a band-aid on the problem. They are reactions to a failing system and can only treat symptoms of a deeper, fundamental problem. Our mile wide, inch deep curriculum in American schools is not the result of too many standards, but of our overall philosophy and approach to education. The goal seems to be to fill up the knowledge deficits in our students by supplying them with the information they require to be “successful” or “competitive.” Reducing the amount of information we teach without addressing the underlying assumptions and values that inform our practices is not going to be a lasting or satisfactory solution. What is missing for me, and maybe for many others too, is a guiding philosophy or set of principles that I can buy into.

So I went looking for some in the best place I could think of, in the works of John Dewey. I read, “My Pedagogic Creed,” one of his earlier essays, and found myself taking notes on almost every sentence (as per usual).

The first theme that struck me in this “creed” is the idea of education as a social process. I read about “social constructivism” as a theory of learning in a previous class, but Dewey is not sharing a theoretical framework for how people learn. He is extremely adamant that the failure to appreciate the social nature of education will result in an educative process that is “haphazard and arbitrary.” A true, social view of education realizes that the process has two sides,”one psychological and one sociological; and neither can be subordinated to the other or neglected without evil results following.”

Currently, it seems we try to deny both elements in the classroom in order to promote the study of abstract knowledge. We do so for the sake of preparing our future students. But Dewey points out, “it is impossible to prepare the child for any precise set conditions. To prepare him for the future life means to give him command of himself; it means so to train him that he will have the full and ready use of all his capacities.” And although one could stop here and argue that Dewey would agree with the new standards as a way to develop these capacities, he goes on to say that studying specific subject matter should not be the focus of school. According to Dewey, the real “progress is not in the succession of studies but in the development of new attitudes towards, and new interests in, experience.”

When progress is defined in these terms, as I believe it should be, how do our current standards and practices measure up?

Just curious…

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  1. Jill Marshall
    May 15, 2011 at 7:59 pm

    I found the following quote from Dewey’s creed quite striking: I believe that education cannot be unified in the study of science, or so-called nature study, because apart from human activity, nature itself is not a unity; nature in itself is a number of diverse objects in space and time, and to attempt to make it the centre of work by itself, is to introduce a principle of radiation rather than one of concentration.

    I article my goal as a researcher (as a person really) as understanding the physical world- although that has expanded to include how other people understand it and come to understand it, so there is a social aspect. Dewey would seem to be saying that the physical world (nature) is not a proper subject of work by itself. Does radiation rather than concentration preclude education?

    • May 15, 2011 at 10:34 pm

      I also found this quote perplexing. I think what he means is that science (nature) cannot be the sole purpose of education, we must relate it back to human activity instead of continually looking outside of the human experience for educational objectives. Education should concentrate on human nature and understanding, science is part of this process, but not the process.

      I could be right or way off base. I would need to speak with a scholar of Dewey’s work to really know.

  2. Jill Marshall
    May 16, 2011 at 6:51 pm

    Another thing that struck me was Dewey’s use of the masculine pronoun: always “he”. I know that this is simply humanist convention, but the fact that every time he writes “he” does not cause him to cringe and wonder (at least not openly) about the half of his potential readers who are female really gives me pause. His thinking is so meticulously in other areas.

    • Patrick Doyle
      June 3, 2011 at 4:57 pm

      Dewey wrote the essay in 1897. The study of science or any subject matter was not an emphasis of its own. Information and direction from the teacher was as facilitator. In his school, for example, students (all students)had to do cooking and sewing. The need to teach reading/arithmetic arose when the student needed it to accomplish a task. Rather the use of it in solving a problem or inquiry. Education would come from the need of the information. Also, in his time the use of “he” was accepted as the norm in writing. He was also known to march for women’s rights before the right to vote.

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