Born 1859 in Burlington, Vermont, Dewey was a highly influential American philosopher and educator. He graduated from the University of Vermont, in 1879, then later received his Ph. D from Johns Hopkins University in 1884. He also taught at the universities of Minnesota (1888 - 89), Michigan (1884 - 88, 1889 - 94), and Chicago (1894 - 1904) and at Columbia from 1904 until his retirement in 1930. Dewey died in 1952.
Dewey was a prolific writer, authoring many books on philosophy and educational theory. Among the most notable are: are Psychology (1887), The School and Society (1899), Ethics (1908), Democracy and Education (1916), Reconstruction in Philosophy (1920), Human Nature and Conduct (1922), Experience and Nature (1925), The Public and Its Problems (1927), The Quest for Certainty (1929), Philosophy and Civilization (1932), A Common Faith (1934), Art as Experience (1934), Liberalism and Social Action (1935), Experience and Education (1938), Logic: The Theory of Inquiry (1938), Freedom and Culture (1939), and Problems of Men (1946).
Dewey’s Early Philosophical Influences
Dewey’s original philosophy, called Instrumentalism, bears a relationship to the utilitarian and pragmatic schools of thought. Instrumentalism holds that the various modes and forms of human activity are instruments developed by human beings to solve multiple individual and social problems. Since the problems are constantly changing, the instruments for dealing with them must also change. Dewey also helped lead a philosophical movement called Pragmatism This theory was strongly influenced by the then-new science of psychology and by the theory of evolution proposed by the English scientist Charles R. Darwin. With Pragmatism, Dewey came to regard intelligence as a power that people use when they face a conflict or challenge. He believed that people live by custom and habit. Eventually Dewey conceived of democracy as a primary ethical value, and he did much to formulate working principles for a democratic and industrial society, particularly in the field of education, which later became known as the Progressive movement. The sources of Dewey progressive movement are attributed to the pedagogy of Jean Jacques Rousseau, Johann Pestalozzi, and Friedrich Froebel.
In education, his philosophy became a primary factor in the abandonment of authoritarian methods and in the growing emphasis upon learning through experimentation and practice. In rejection against abstract learning, Dewey considered education as a tool that would enable the citizen to integrate culture and vocation effectively and usefully. Dewey actively participated in movements to forward social welfare and woman’s suffrage, protect academic freedom, and affect political reform.
Dewey’s Early Work
John Dewey maintained that schools should reflect the life of our society. He suggested that the schools also take on such responsibilities as the acculturation of immigrants in addition to merely teaching academic skills. Dewey also proposed a number of specific curricular changes that had strong impact on his subsequent reformers. At his Laboratory School in Chicago, for example, Dewey developed a method at the turn of the century which younger student groups worked on a central project related to their own interests. (Early cooperative learning). The division of more advanced work into units organized around some central theme was an attempt to adapt the method to the academic needs of older children. Several other significant progressive movements were spurred by Dewey’s early Chicago School experiments. They included the Gary plan, developed (1908) in Gary, Ind. Devised to utilize the school plant more efficiently, to provide opportunity for more practical work, and to coordinate various levels of schooling, the plan divided the school building into classrooms and space for auditorium, playground, shops, and laboratories. Two schools ran simultaneously in this space so that every facility was in constant use. The school day was eight hours long, and schools were open six days a week. The Gary plan was widely adopted. The Dalton plan (1919), at Dalton, Mass., subdivided the work of the traditional curriculum into contract units, which the student undertook to accomplish in a specified amount of time. The Winnetka plan, established (1919) in Winnetka, Ill., separated the curriculum into the subjects handled by the Dalton technique and used the cooperative method of creative social activities developed by Dewey.
Dewey and Progressive Education
Dewey is known as the father of the Progressive movement in American education. During most of the twentieth century, the term "progressive education" has been used to describe ideas and educational programs that aim to make schools more effective agencies of a democratic society. Although there are numerous differences of style and emphasis among progressive educators, they all basically share the belief that democracy means active participation by all citizens in social, political and economic decisions that will affect their lives. The education of engaged citizens, according to this perspective, involves two essential elements:
Respect for diversity, meaning that each individual should be recognized for his or her own abilities, interests, ideas, needs, and cultural identity.
The development of critical, socially engaged intelligence, which enables individuals to understand and participate effectively in the affairs of their community in a collaborative effort to achieve a common good.
(These elements of progressive education have been termed "Child-centered" and "Social Reconstructionist" approaches.)
The Progressive movement was an educational phenomenon, embracing industrial training, agricultural education, and social education as well as the new techniques of instruction advanced by educational theorists. John Dewey believed that democratic freedom was both the cause and the expression of the fullest possible realization of human potentialities. Further, he believed that democracy must be both a way of life and a habit of mind, as well as a moral standard for personal conduct. Key points of the movement were that children learn best in those experiences in which they have a vital interest and that modes of behavior are most easily learned by actual performance. The progressives believe that education must be a continuous reconstruction of living experience based on activity directed by the child. The recognition of individual differences was also considered crucial. Progressive education opposed formalized authoritarian procedure and fostered reorganization of classroom practice and curriculum as well as new attitudes toward individual students.
Dewey’s Proponents and Influenced Movements
Led by Dewey, progressive educators opposed a growing national movement that sought to separate academic education for the few and narrow vocational training for the masses. During the 1920s, when education turned increasingly to "scientific" techniques such as intelligence testing and cost-benefit management, progressive educators insisted on the importance of the emotional, artistic, and creative aspects of humans. After the Depression began, a group of politically progressive educators, led by George Counts, dared schools to "build a new social order" and published a provocative journal called The Social Frontier to advance their "reconstructionist" critique of laissez faire Capitalism. Similar pedagogical methods were also instituted in many of the schools of Europe.
William H. Kilpatrick was a notable proponent of Dewey’s teachings and he diligently taught the principles of progressive education to thousands of teachers and school leaders throughout his career. A major research endeavor, the "eight-year study," demonstrated that students from progressive high schools were capable, adaptable learners and excelled even in the finest universities.
Other educational reform movements that have been influenced by or are similar to progressive education are Open Education, the Summerhill School, and the methods of Maria Montessori. Many ubiquitous teaching concepts now highly integrated in education such as, "Open classrooms, "schools without walls", "cooperative learning", "multiage approaches", "whole language", the "social curriculum", "experiential education", and numerous forms of alternative schools all have important philosophical roots in progressive education.
In addition, "Activities programs" were designed to supply certain aspects of progressive education to those schools in which more radical adjustments were not possible. These activities included clubs, student self-government, and school publications.
Opponents of Progressive Education
Progressive principles have never been the predominant philosophy in American education. From their inception in the 1830s, state systems of public schooling have primarily attempted to achieve cultural uniformity, not diversity, and to educate dutiful, not critical citizens. From its start, the movement received rather sharp criticism from a variety of different sources, particularly for its failure to emphasize systematic study of the academic disciplines. Beginning in the 1950s during a time of cold war anxiety and cultural conservatism, progressive education became widely rejected. Opposition increased greatly in the years following World War II, and many say that by the late 1950s the progressive movement had dissolved. By that time, however, the progressive movement had already effected a permanent change to the teaching climate in American schools, and many progressive schools across the country were already firmly established. Criticism of Progressives is still highly prevalent and continues to oppose Dewey’s Democratic ideals. There are many claims that Progressive education is at fault for the decline in our educational systems in America, blaming it on an "anti-knowledge mind set". Opponents claim that too many "cooperative projects" and touchy-feely" experiences leave little time to teach our students hard-core "real" academic standards of reading, writing, math and science skills. In addition, since Dewey was considered an Evolutionist that derived much of his thinking from the work of Charles Darwin, many religious conservatives oppose his methods. Since strict Christians embrace a creationist view, they largely blame Dewey for the acceptance of Darwin’s Evolution theory into our public schools and even claim that our public schools lack of emphasis on religion has created a moral decline of our schools.
Rediscovering Dewey in the 21st Century
Today, educators (just like us in ED605!), are rediscovering Dewey's work and exploring its relevance to a "postmodern" age, an age of global capitalism, increased immigration and extensive cultural diversity. Dewey’s ideals start to really make sense in an age in which the ecological health of our planet itself is now seriously threatened. Activist educators in inner cities have advocated greater equity, justice, diversity and other democratic values through the publication Rethinking Schools and the National Coalition of Education Activists, which glean much from Dewy’s ideals.
Educators are finding that although Dewey writings are now almost a century old, his insights into democratic culture and meaningful education suggest many hopeful alternatives to the banality of standardization and mechanization that threaten to continue to permeate throughout our schools.