19/365 Back to Dewey 1.7 – ‘Progressive Organization of Subject Matter’

Failure to give constant attention to development of the intellectual content of experiences and to obtain ever-increasing organization of facts and ideas may in the end merely strengthen the tendency towards a reactionary return to intellectual and moral authoritarianism.

– John Dewey

Experience & Education

This post continues a mini-series examining John Dewey’s Experience & Education chapter-by-chapter.

In conversation today, I was discussing Magdalene Lampert’s Teaching Problems and the Problems of Teaching in an attempt to highlight important texts related to the idea of legitimate peripheral participation and building communities of practice.

Another teacher has expressed frustration in attempting to bring project-based learning into the math classroom. More specifically, he was trying to convince his colleagues that this was a feat that could be accomplished in the elementary math curriculum. Lampert seemed an easy sell at that point.

If I’d only thought of it, I would have sent him to Dewey as well. Specifically, Chapter 7 in which the patron philosopher of education turns his attention toward subject matter and the idea of “thick” vs. “thin” learning.

Having already set up adults as holding mature understandings of the ideas and knowledge they are working to pass on to their students, Dewey here works to encourage those adults to convince those adults to pull as few punches as possible in the teaching and learning ring.

“The next step is the progressive development of what is already experienced into a fuller and richer and also more organized form, a form that gradually approximates that in which subject matter is presented to the skilled, mature person.”

In the words of David Perkins, teachers much work to teach the “whole game.”

The subjects and disciplines of the traditional classroom infrastructure are to be ignored, Dewey suggests, in exchange for a deeper look at how to build on the past experiences of students in full and meaningful ways. Young children learn from life experiences, he points out, our job is not to get in the way.

Even more than this, in deciding content for learning, teachers are to consider earlier experiences, be mindful of the fullness of his lived understanding of the world, and attempt to craft learning experiences that thicken students’ understandings in authentic ways. As he’s done in earlier chapters, Dewey is presenting his readers with ideas that are simple, but hardly ever easy.

What’s more, he outlines a basic process for learning experiences. They must challenge because, “growth depends upon the presence of difficulty to be overcome by the exercise of intelligence.” From there, Dewey embraces the scientific method in a manner so unabashed that it could be described as devout.

Students should observe, hypothesize, organize, and build their knowledge. As Dewey called on teachers to develop a critical and thoughtful theory of education earlier on, here we find him transferring those same requirements to students in their learning.

Only when teaching is carried out thusly, Dewey concludes, will the subject matter be properly defined and organized.

9/365 We Must Blend Theory and Practice


A movement is afoot in some parts of the country to prepare future classroom teachers without regard to those educational thinkers who have come before. In order to build the schools we need, that regard is paramount. Only through the blending of theory and practice can we move toward teachers who are both thoughtfully reflective about their practice as well as adept at developing new practices based on their students’ needs. Graduate education programs that focus primarily on practice and turn a blind eye to the study of pedagogical theory cite the needs of beginning teachers to enter their classrooms with tools to help their students learn. Yes, this is important.

What, though, when the novice teacher has tried each of the 49 techniques offered in Doug Lemov’s Teach Like a Champion and finds himself in need of a fiftieth? It is possible this teacher will begin to look more deeply at the 49 practices in his repertoire and then begin to suss out the underlying theories of learning guiding those practices. This should not be left to chance.

The study of great and deep thinkers like Dewey, Piaget, Papert, Lampert, Sizer, Lawrence-Lightfoot, and Dweck alongside the learning of a collection of beginning practices will prepare beginning novice teachers to enter the classroom feeling prepared as well as prepare them to think critically about their own practice when the tools with which they left their graduate programs are found lacking. These teachers who might otherwise feel they are discovering the practice of teaching and learning in a vacuum would do well to carry with them reminders that wise minds have spent their careers thinking and writing on those very dilemmas facing teachers in modern classroom.

Such a reminder would do well to help with the psychological health of teachers, but a reason stands for such historical understanding that is greater still than letting teachers know they are not going it alone when they enter their classrooms. Understanding the theories of learning, the theorists who developed them, and then working to synthesize that knowledge into a coherent personal philosophy and teaching practice asks teachers to be more thoughtful about their practice, to make choices through critical analysis of evidence, and to back their practice in reasoned arguments. In short, they will engage in the type of thinking we would hope they seek to elicit from their students.

By asking how children learn, how others have suggested children learn, and how teaching might assist in that learning, teachers are driven to train their minds to think critically and putting a premium on the asking of questions and the seeking of answers. This is different than a practice built around the largely unthinking deployment of a set of pre-packaged “tools” delivered absent any question of why they are being deployed.

Teaching is complex; so do not take this to be an argument that teachers well-versed in the study of the history of learning theory and various pedagogies would be able to enter a classroom, develop a curriculum, and implement that curriculum such that all students in the class are enthralled, enlightened, and driven to answer questions. Quite the opposite. This is an argument that teachers should learn the pedagogy of those who have come before concurrently with their learning of those practices thought to be most basic and effective in the hands of beginning teachers.

With such an approach, novice teachers will feel prepared to take on their first days and weeks of teaching and be prepared to meet the critical challenges guaranteed to arise later in their careers. What’s more, it is likely that the critical thinking required to blend pedagogy and practice in whatever context a teacher finds himself will lead to an inquiry-driven practice. While such inquiry within teachers does not assure that those teachers will include such inquiry and critical thought in their classrooms, it does make such an overflow more likely than the plug ‘n’ chug method of practice without theory.