After a year and a half of grad school across two separate institutions, we’re finally moving away from paying lip service to Dewey in discussion of policy and a course is asking us to actually read what he wrote. It’s a return to the roots not only of progress pedagogy, but of the ideas that inform my own practice as well.
Specifically, we’re look at Dewey’s Experience and Education. (Read along if you like, I’ll be examining a chapter each day for the next 8 days.) Most exciting there is the fact that the text came later in Dewey’s career, at a time when he had enough perspective to stand back and look at the attempted enaction of the beliefs he championed. As much as it sets an agenda and outlines goals, Experience and Education serves a reflection on how progressives had lost their way or misunderstood the initial map.
A short text, Dewey fits his ideas into 8 chapters. Rather than a summary of the entire text, I’ll be thinking here about the content of each chapter. Famously dense, Dewey’s writing deserves a closer read than many contemporary education writers.
Traditional vs. Progressive Education
Dewey begins with an analysis of our love of dichotomies and sets up the battle of progressives and traditionalists (today’s reformers).
Given students’ distance from intended subject matter, Dewey asserts traditionalists find that subject matter “must be imposed; even though good teachers will use devices of art to cover up the imposition so as to relieve it of obviously brutal features,” thus limiting much legitimate participation by students.
This matter “is taught as a finished product, with little regard either to the way in which it was originally built up or to changes that will surely occur in the future.”
Dewey then lays out the oppositions to be found in progressive schools:
To imposition from above is opposed expression and cultivation of individuality; to external discipline is opposed free activity; to learning from texts and teachers, learning through experience; to acquisition of isolated skills and techniques by drill, is opposed acquisition of them as means of attaining ends which make direct vital appeal; to preparation for a more or less remote future is opposed
making the most of the opportunities of present life; to static aims and materials is opposed acquaintance with a changing world.
Most interestingly, and where I’ve encountered the most frequent misreadings of Dewey is his understanding of controls. He argues not for an absence of control, but for control rooted in authentic and catalyzing learning experiences. What are the controls inherent to the genuine experiences we hope to provide students? How can the adults who have participated in these experiences help to control students’ experiences in a positive way?
These and other questions are key for Dewey in Ch. 1. He outlines the importance of critical thinking in the development of a new way of thinking about and organizing school experiences. “For any theory that and set of practices is dogmatic which is not based upon critical examination of its own underlying principles.” It is not enough to stand for something; one must also struggle with the questions of what it means and looks like to stand for that thing.
Dewey sets up Ch. 2 with the question of how to bridge the past with students’ present in real ways. He frames it as a question that is new to the story of education: “How shall the young become acquainted with the past in such a way that the acquaintance is a potent agent in appreciation of the living present?”
How, indeed? Stepping into this text raised several concerns for me regarding the current educational practice and policy landscapes. Dewey’s words resonate deeply with me. As I read, I find myself nodding and saying to myself, “Yes, this is what we must do.”
The problem is this is what we have needed to do since long before Dewey put these words to the page. His thoughts have served as a call to arms for generations, and still we falter, making the same mistakes on new and grander scales.
To some extent, I can understand the difficulties. Progressive thinking about education means turning away from or turning a critical eye toward the way we’ve always done things. That, on its own, is scary.
Still, we’ve had time to get over our fears. We’ve had time to ask the questions Dewey poses about our educational practices. Why, then, aren’t we working to develop better answers to those questions and then build schools around those answers?