John Dewey had a long and prosperous career as a philosopher and as an educator. Tanner and Tanner have since called him ” the greatest of American Educational Philosophers (Tanner and Tanner, 1995).” John Dewey’s very influential philosophy has been a guiding force throughout the twentieth century. His philosophy is most evident today through his many writings. Probably most notable among these was his book Democracy and Education. After nearly twenty years of practicing his philosophy in “laboratory schools” he published Experience and Education. This book is a concise refinement of his most popular work. It is here that he expresses a reformulation of the concepts presented in Democracy and Education.
Educational Theory of the Day
In 1859 the English philosopher Herbert Spencer asked a very profound question in his essay “What Knowledge is of Most Worth.” This question proved to be a turning point for what was to come(Tanner and Tanner, 1995) for it influenced many who came to follow. Specifically it influenced a young educator by the name of John Dewey who began his teaching career in 1879 in the small town of Oil City, Pennsylvania. Soon thereafter John Dewey left Pennsylvania for graduate school at Johns Hopkins University. There he received his Ph.D. in 1884 (Levine, 1998). Prior to 1900, education had little to offer in the way of a theoretical framework (Wilburg, 1998). The belief at the time was that schools should require strong discipline and that “children should not talk to one another; all communication should be between the teacher and the class (Tyler, 1975).” A popular curricula of the day centered around McGuffy’s Readers, which taught American ideals and morals (Ornstein and Hunkins, 1998).
John Dewey’s influential books School and Society and Interest and Effort in Education were published in 1902. These works carried the same theme as many of his later works. Namely that student’s interest are an important component in any curriculum.
Soon after Dewey published his book Democracy and Education, one of his former graduate students Heard Kilpatrick, introduced what he called “the project method.” This methodology engages the student in a number of projects. The projects he defined as “a purposeful activity carried to completion in a natural setting (Tyler,1975).” A number of schools adopted curriculum plans such as these and, thus began the controversial Progressive Education movement.
This Progressive Education movement threaten the standards of the day and caused a great deal of controversy. Dewey speaks of it often in his book Experience and Education. He describes people as having a “Either-Or philosophy.” Particularly that they can see no intermediate possibilities between traditional education and that of the progressive movement. He does not propose one is better than the other simply that each has it’s advantages and disadvantages. As one might expect the “New education” he proposes as an alternative is closely linked to the ideals of the progressives.
Dewey’s main concern is that traditional education produces students that are schooled in the basic concepts of a subject matter, yet have no way to deal with real world problems because they have not been taught problem solving techniques. Dewey soon after making a description of the benefits of the “new education” calls attention to the fact that there is a need for a theory of experience. Remember that at the time of Dewey’s writing (1938) there was little in the way of a theory of experience. Cognitive Psychology was still 20 years away in the future. It was at this point Behaviorism was the theory of the day. Ideas of memory and cognition were being downplayed.
The “need for a theory of experience”, the name of Dewey’s second chapter, makes some very valid points. One being Education and Experience can NOT be equated with one another. Some experience as he says can be “miseducative.” Any experience can be “miseducative” if it arrest or distorts growth. His inverse statement then is that “educative” experience is growth. This truth is a theme throughout the book.
Social Control and Education
As in Democracy and Education, Dewey is very concerned that traditional education is an autocratic social dynamic. This “top down” approach is a limitation to personal growth. Dewey makes a very convincing argument that a traditional school room with “it’s fixed rows of desks … and straight jacket chain gang procedures” need to be done away with.
Dewey rather dramatically calls attention to the similarities of a student and a slave by describing Plato’s definition of a slave. It is someone “who executes the purposes of another.” Perhaps it is time to reexamine our handling of students in the classroom. Personally, I felt a great freedom moving from the K-12 environment to a college classroom. Was I mystically transformed in the intervening summer? This is evident in many classrooms today.
He proposes in the place of a traditional classroom a more laboratory type setting where students are free to grow and learn. He describes education as having a social nature. The tradition schoolroom limits this social nature and even prohibits it. The traditional schoolroom even holds silence as a prime virtue.
Dewey’s Enduring Legacy
Many saw an end to the progressive movement with John Dewey’s death in 1953. The movement may have passed even before his death. But his ideas continue to survive in other educational reformers works. Dewey was if anything a driving force for change in America’s schools.
Even though Dewey disdained the “-isms,” the current constructivism has much in common with his progressive movement. It is an active process in which learners construct new ideas or concepts through experience. Dewey’s liberal ideas caused quite a controversy in his day. In many ways they still do. All paradigm shifts, (be they the Copernican universe, evolution through natural selection, or a call for freedom in education) take time to be accepted.
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